US and Russia clash over Assad role
US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin clashed yesterday over their competing visions for Syria, with Mr Obama urging a political transition to replace the Syrian president but Mr Putin warning it would be a mistake to abandon the current government.
Mr Obama and Mr Putin's duelling speeches at a United Nations General Assembly summit served as a public preview of their private meeting late yesterday. The sit-down marks their first face-to-face encounter in nearly a year and comes amid escalating Russian military engagement in Syria.
President Obama said he was open to working with Russia, as well as Iran, to bring Syria's civil war to an end. He called for a "managed transition" that would result in the ousting of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces have clashed with rebels for more than four years, creating a vacuum for Isil and other extremist groups.
"We must recognise that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo," Obama said.
Mr Putin, however, urged the world to stick with Mr Assad, arguing that his military is the only viable option for defeating Isil. "We believe it's a huge mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian authorities, with the government forces, those who are bravely fighting terror face-to-face," Mr Putin said.
Despite Mr Obama's staunch opposition to Mr Assad remaining in power, the US has struggled to energise a political process to push him from power. Russia has long been a major obstacle, shielding Mr Assad from UN sanctions and continuing to provide the Syrian government with weapons.
In fact, Russia has appeared to deepen its support for Assad in recent weeks, sending additional military equipment and troops with the justification that it is helping the government fight Isil.
While Mr Putin didn't call out the US by name, he criticised efforts to arm "moderate" rebels in Syria, saying Western-backed fighters have later come to join Isil. America has little to show for its efforts to build a moderate Syrian ground force that can effectively fight the extremists. A $500m Pentagon programme was supposed to train and equip more than 5,000 fighters, but has instead successfully produced only a handful.
Obama and Putin each framed his case for Syria's future in the context of a broader approach to the world, launching veiled criticisms at each other. The US president criticised nations that believe "might makes right," and he sought instead to highlight the benefits of diplomacy.