US, Russian leaders clash over support for Syria’s Assad

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US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin took aim Monday during the UN General Assembly at each other’s involvement in Syria, with Putin saying it would be a mistake not to support the Syrian regime while Obama warned against it.

Obama warned that 70 years after the UN charter, some argue that the institution is no longer valid and that nations should instead return to old ways of operating.

“On this basis, we see some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law,” he said. “In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs on innocent children, because alternative is surely worse.”

Obama and Putin held direct talks for 90 minutes later Monday.

The White House described the talks as “business-like” and productive, but noted that the leaders fundamentally disagree on the role for al-Assad in Syria.

A US official told reporters that the US does not view Russian military involvement in Syria as necessarily destructive if it focuses solely on Islamic State, but would view the role negatively if it strengthens the regime’s actions against the Syrian people.

“There was a shared desire to figure out a way in which we can address the situation in Syria,” the official said of the talks.

After the meeting, Putin said that there would not be Russian troops on the ground in Syria, the Russian TASS news agency reported.

“Any involvement of Russian troops in ground operations in Syria is out of the question,” Putin said.

The leaders last spoke in person briefly at summits last year, but had not held full bilateral talks since 2013.

The US is willing to work with any country, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the Syrian conflict, but only if they recognize that there must be a political transition in Damascus, Obama said at the General Assembly: “We must recognize that there cannot be – after so much carnage, so much bloodshed – a return to the prewar status quo.”

Putin retorted that al-Assad’s regime is the only one “truly fighting” Islamic State forces.

“We think it is an enormous mistake not to cooperate with the Syrian government and its forces, who are confronting terrorism face to face,” he said.

He denounced those who say Russia’s growing military involvement in Syria is about Moscow’s global ambitions, saying that Russia “can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs in the world.”

On Ukraine, Obama told the General Assembly that the world cannot stand by as Russia violates Ukraine’s sovereignty. He denounced Russian aggression, but stressed that the US is not seeking a “return to a cold war” and urged Russia to resolve the crisis diplomatically.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told domestic state media Monday that a group of representatives from Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt could meet next month to work on resolving the Syrian crisis with help from the United Nations.

Moscow has hosted numerous Middle Eastern leaders in recent weeks as it builds its role a mediator in the Syrian conflict, while simultaneously providing military support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia has justified its backing for al-Assad, a longtime ally, because he is the elected leader of the country and is a main fighting force against Islamic State.

“There is only one regular army there. That is the army of Syrian President al-Assad. And he is confronted with what some of our international partners interpret as an opposition. In reality, al-Assad’s army is fighting against terrorist organizations,” Putin told US broadcaster CBS in an interview aired Sunday.

Meanwhile, Syrian opposition leaders called for the UN General Assembly to take over responsibility for resolving the conflict, saying that the Security Council had “repeatedly failed to fulfil its obligations.”

In an open letter, opposition figures rejected what they said were attempts by the international community to “rehabilitate” al-Assad, saying his regime used “sectarianism and methods of terror.”

“Human rights violations committed by ISIS and other terrorist organizations do not, and should not, exempt Assad from accountability for similar crimes,” said the text, signed by veteran opposition leaders Michel Kilo and Riyad Seif, defected former prime minister Riyad Jijab and other prominent figures.

The United States is leading a coalition against the Islamic State group that is facing domestic scrutiny for being ineffective.

Washington initially planned to train 5,000 local fighters to fight Islamic State forces. But this month a US general told the Senate that only “four or five” Syrian fighters trained by the US are actively battling the terrorist group.

Putin cited this in the interview, saying “the rest of them have deserted with the American weapons to join ISIS.”

In late 2013, Russia negotiated a deal to dispose of the Syrian military’s chemical weapons. Months later Russia’s annexation of Crimea damaged Putin’s reputation on the world stage.

The United Nations estimates that 250,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict. More than half the country’s prewar population of 22.4 million has been internally displaced or fled abroad.

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