Obama Sees No Quick Resolution With Putin on Syria Strategy

Obama: Bataclan Powerful Reminder of Awful Human Toll
  • Russian losses, military stalemate may push change, Obama says
  • Vienna talks on political resolution showing some progress

After the Russian jetliner bombing, after the Paris attacks, after two face-to-face meetings and shuttle diplomacy by a trusted ally, President Barack Obama doesn’t see any quick help coming from Vladimir Putin in Syria.

Obama on Tuesday held out the prospect that mounting Russian casualties and the stalemate between Bashar al-Assad’s forces and opposition groups will push the Russian president into the coalition battling Islamic State in Syria.

But, he conceded, that won’t happen soon.

“I’m confident that we are on the winning side of this and that ultimately, Russia’s going to recognize the threat” posed by Islamic State, Obama said at a news conference in Paris. “I don’t expect that you’re going to see a 180 turn on their strategy over the next several weeks.”

The Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris by extremists with links to Islamic State have given fresh urgency to the fight against the group. The series of bombings and shootings that killed 130 people spurred European governments to increase commitments to the campaign and prompted French President Francois Hollande to travel to Washington and Moscow in an attempt to unify a coalition to confront Islamic State in territory it holds in Syria and Iraq.

Little Change

Yet after Obama and Putin met Monday in Paris for the second time in two weeks, the two sides came out with their public positions little changed from Sept. 30, when Russia entered the conflict in Syria.

Putin painted a rosy picture of his 30-minute meeting with Obama, saying it resulted in “an understanding of where we should move” with regards to a political resolution in Syria and a common list of terrorist targets. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, countered by saying the U.S. stands firm in its position that al-Assad, a Russian ally, can’t stay in power and that Russian airstrikes continue to target legitimate opposition groups that the U.S. and its allies want battling Islamic State on the ground.

“Hollande did the right thing to to go on his tour and try to drum up support for a coalition, but in the end he didn’t get much,” said Philippe Moreau-Defarges, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. “Each country has its own preoccupations, so everyone’s goal in the alliance is ambiguous.”

Russian Losses

Obama on Tuesday said Russian forces have accomplished little in Syria while suffering both military and civilian casualties. He cited the Russian passenger plane that was brought down in Egypt shortly after Putin’s Syrian intervention, in an attack claimed by Islamic State, and a Russian military jet that was shot down by Turkish forces last week.

“I think Mr. Putin understands that with Afghanistan fresh in the memory, for him to simply get bogged down in an inconclusive and paralyzing civil conflict is not the outcome that he’s looking for,” Obama said. “It is possible, over the next several months, that we both see a shift in calculation in the Russians and a recognition that it’s time to bring the civil war in Syria to a close.”

Vienna Talks

Obama is relying on international talks in Vienna for a political resolution for the Syrian conflict. Those negotiations, to set terms for a cease-fire between Assad’s forces and rebel groups and draw up a plan for elections, are “moving forward steadily,” Obama said.

Kremlin officials downplayed the odds of a truly united front for the forces aligned against Islamic State. “It’s too early to say that yesterday somehow brought us closer to forming a single coalition,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Tuesday on a conference call.

Attempts to bring Russia into the group of nations focused on Islamic State were complicated by the downing of the Russian warplane by Turkey, a NATO member, which says the jet crossed into Turkish airspace on the Syrian border. Putin gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the cold shoulder on Monday following Russia’s decision to impose sanctions on Turkey over the incident.

With the U.S. and Russia at least paying lip service to the need to work together, Putin was unequivocal about the potential for collaboration with Turkey. “This bomber was shot down by Turkey’s military -- what kind of broad coalition can we talk about?’’ Putin said in Paris, where Erdogan had asked the Kremlin for a one-on-one meeting.

Obama, who met with Erdogan on Tuesday before his news conference, said that Turkey is a NATO ally and the U.S. supports the country’s right to defend itself. He urged both Turkey and Russia to step back and refocus on the common goal of combating terrorism and reaching a political resolution in Syria.

Erdogan, speaking after his meeting with Obama, said that a return to “diplomatic language” would be “sufficient” to resolve tensions with Russia.
“We want peace to prevail at all costs,” Erdogan said.

Obama also is pressuring Erdogan to fully close the border between Turkey and Syria to foreign fighters seeking to join Islamic State and to achieve tighter control over the flow of refugees.

“We have to choke off how they make money,” Obama said. “We’ve got to choke off their ability to bring in new fighters.”

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