Some reporting of the Obama/Putin UN speeches say the two men ‘clashed’ over Syria. However, whatever happened afterwards during their one on one meeting, there was no clash in the speeches.
Any disagreement was only about timing – the timing of President Assad’s ‘resignation’.
Vladimir Putin told the UN general assembly “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,” He has spent the last few months putting together a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis which appears to include Assad staying on for an unspecified period of time before standing aside for a new coalition government representing various Syrian factions. To ensure everyone realised that he meant business he then flew in a small Russian army thus making it unlikely that Assad will lose of all Syria. He may not be able to win, but if Putin guarantees he won’t lose, the logical step is to find a way to end the fighting.
This was the Russian President’s first appearance at the general assembly for 10 years, and he positioned himself well to try and appear as the reasonable peacemaker with solutions. One idea was that of a “contact group”, comprised of Russia, Iran, the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. Notably absent from the group are Britain and France – UN Security Council members hostile to Assad. The Iranian President meanwhile told the UN that although Iran still supports Assad “This doesn’t mean the Syrian government is not in need of reform,” This may have been code for ‘We can also see a deal in which Assad eventually stands down’.
In his speech Obama agreed there could be a “managed transition” to remove Assad from power and this could be done in conjunction with Russia. This was expected after his Secretary of State John Kerry said early last week that he didn’t have a ‘specific time-frame’ for Assad’s departure. The French and Germans took their cue from that, as have now the British.
The Americans, who for years insisted Assad must go immediately, appeared to swallow another bitter pill. They will now consider Iran joining the ‘peace process’ whereas before Washington insisted Iran be frozen out.
The Russian proposals are designed to bring Moscow into the centre of everything and to then use that to help lift the sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine. However they are showing pragmatism and savvy in who they want involved in the Syrian talks. Iran and Turkey are both more important players in this than are the UK and France. Egypt recently restored diplomatic relations with Syria and has a direct line to Damascus.
Mr Putin’s other newsworthy statement was that the Russian troops in Syria are not there to conduct combat operations, but he left open that possibility for the future. He’s one step ahead. At least.