26 October 2016
US President Barack Obama (right) shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday. Photo: Reuters
US President Barack Obama (right) shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday. Photo: Reuters

Obama, Putin clash over Syria at UN

The United States said it is willing to cooperate with Russia, as well as Iran, to try to end the Syrian civil war, but the two big powers clashed over whether to work with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Reuters reported.

Speaking at the annual United Nations General Assembly on Monday, US 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 have been 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 parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Putin called for the creation of a broader international antiterrorist coalition with majority-Muslim countries as members, an appeal that may compete with the group that the US has assembled to fight Islamic State.

“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” Obama, who spoke before Putin, told the General Assembly.

“But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.”

The disagreement over Assad raised questions about how Obama and Putin might find common ground during their meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly. The two leaders began meeting shortly after 5 p.m.

Putin walked in first with Obama close behind. Stopping in front of US and Russian flags set up for a photo opportunity, Obama put out his hand and Putin took it for a handshake. With tight-lipped smiles, they did not speak to each other or answer shouted questions from journalists.

Later, at a lunch hosted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the two men shook hands and clinked glasses. As they did so, Putin smiled but Obama, with a piercing look, did not.

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 US 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 differed, suggesting there was no option but to work with Assad against Islamic State fighters.

“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 UN 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.

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