UNITED NATIONS – The United States said on Monday it was willing to work with Russia, as well as Iran, to try to end the Syrian civil war but the two big powers clashed over whether or not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should be included.
Speaking at the annual United Nations General Assembly, U.S. President Barack Obama described Assad as a tyrant and as the chief culprit behind the four-year civil war in which at least 200,000 people have died and millions driven from their homes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in contrast, told the gathering of world leaders that there was no alternative to cooperating with Assad’s military in an effort to defeat the Islamic State militant group, which has seized swathes of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
The disagreement raised questions about how Obama and Putin might find common ground when they meet later on Monday on the sidelines of the General Assembly.
“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” said Obama, who spoke before Putin. “But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo.”
OBAMA: NO ROLE FOR TYRANTS
Obama did not explicitly call for Assad’s ouster and he suggested there could be a “managed transition” away from his rule, the latest sign that despite U.S. animus toward the Syrian leader it was willing to see him stay for some period of time.
He dismissed the argument that authoritarianism was the only way to combat groups such as Islamic State, saying: “In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children, because the alternative is surely worse.”
Putin, in contrast, suggested there was no other option.
“We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face,” Putin said during his speech before the U.N. General Assembly.
“We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and (Kurdish) militia are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria,” he said.
French President Francois Hollande and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu both rejected the possibility of allowing Assad to stay.
In voicing a willingness to deal with Iran and Russia, both staunch backers of Assad, Obama was openly acknowledging their influence in Syria and swallowing a somewhat bitter pill for the United States.
Tehran has armed the Syrian government and, through its backing of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, has helped Assad combat rebels seeking to end his family’s four-decade rule. Russia has started a military build-up in Syria, where it has a naval base that serves as its foothold in the Middle East.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in his speech to the U.N., blamed terrorism on U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and Washington’s support for Israel “against the oppressed nation of Palestine.” Rouhani said Iran was ready to help bring democracy to Syria and Yemen, another war zone in the region.
The United States has deep disagreements with Russia, notably over its March 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and military support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The United States and European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Russia in response.
“We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated,” Obama said. “That’s the basis of the sanctions … it’s not a desire to return to a cold war.”
For his part, Putin said, “unilateral sanctions are contrary to the principles of the United Nations.”
U.S. officials say they believe Putin’s build-up of Russian forces, including tanks and warplanes, in Syria mainly reflects Moscow’s fear that Assad’s grip might be weakening and a desire to shore him up to retain Russian influence in the region.
They also see it as a way for Putin to try to project Russian influence more widely, a goal he appeared to achieve on Sunday with Iraq’s announcement that Russia, Iran, Syria and the Iraqi government were sharing intelligence on Syria.