Will they see eye-to-eye?

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Obama and Putin Move Toward Compromise on Syria

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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In conflict resolution, the best path is usually the one that makes more sense, not the most emotionally attractive one. By that standard, Russian President Vladimir Putin got the better of U.S. President Barack Obama at the United Nations General Assembly yesterday. It also suggests there will probably be a compromise in Syria.

Obama and Putin made speeches to the Assembly on Monday, setting out their positions before sitting down for their first formal meeting in two years. Obama's 42-minute speech was heavy on emotion and rhetoric. Putin's 23-minute one was bleak and to the point.

Each heaped blame on the other, mostly without mentioning any names. Obama almost certainly meant Putin's obsession with Western non-governmental organizations as agents of regime change when he said that "it is not a conspiracy of U.S.-backed NGOs that expose corruption and raise the expectations of people around the globe; it’s technology, social media, and the irreducible desire of people everywhere to make their own choices about how they are governed." And he was talking to Putin when he stressed that "internal repression and foreign aggression are both symptoms" of failure to provide the kind of governance that frees up people's creative energy.

Putin, for his part, was talking to Obama when he described the violence and dire humanitarian consequences that followed the Arab Spring. "It begs the question for those who created this situation: 'Do you even understand what you have perpetrated?' " he said. And he meant the U.S. and its efforts to negotiate new trade treaties with Europe and Pacific Rim countries outside the framework of the World Trade Organization when he mentioned "closed exclusive economic partnerships" being negotiated in secret.

Both leaders obviously needed to vent before they went face to face.  On substance, though, Obama showed the weaker hand. He stressed his reluctance to submit to the logic according to which some unsavory regimes -- "tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children" -- should be supported to beat back terrorism. He argued Assad couldn't "simply pacify the broad majority of a population who have been brutalized by chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing." Yet he held out a compromise: The U.S., he said, was willing to work with Russia and Iran -- Assad's allies -- on condition of "a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos."

That doesn't amount to much of a plan. Even if he tried, Obama couldn't now name the persons or forces to whom power in Syria might transition from Assad. The U.S.-backed "constructive opposition" has proved too weak to hold its own against Assad or Islamic State, and empowering it now would hardly end the conflict for long. So, Obama said, "this work will take time. There are no easy answers in Syria." That's hardly something Syrian refugees packed into camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, sailing the Mediterranean in leaky boats or being tear-gassed by Hungarian police want to hear. It's a similarly useless message for the governments of countries forced to deal with wave upon wave of Syrian asylum-seekers. The U.S., which hasn't played a meaningful part in that effort, doesn't look good saying it may take a long time yet.

Putin's advantage was in offering a clear plan. "It is finally time to admit," he said, giving himself ample license with the truth, "that apart from the government forces of President Assad and the Kurdish militia, no one is really fighting Islamic State and other terrorist organizations." So, Putin said, the rest of the world should back those two forces by setting up a broad coalition like the one that fought Hitler in the 1940s. This makes perfect sense: Stalin's Soviet Union was a tyrannical regime that killed millions of its citizens, and yet Western leaders entered into an alliance with it to defend against a greater evil. Putin's recipe is simple: Back Assad and prop up the current government in Iraq to defeat Islamic State. 

Apart from its simplicity, the other good thing about this proposal is that it doesn't directly contradict Obama's call for a "managed transition." Once Islamic State is beaten -- not an impossible task for Assad, the Iraqis and the Kurds if they have broad international backing -- the allies would be in a position to negotiate a handover of power from Assad that would guarantee safety and representation to Syria's Alawite and Christian minorities which Assad now protects as best he can. Even if the transition takes some time, it won't have to be traumatic. Despite having committed atrocities in the past, Assad is unlikely to get another chance if he has to deal with a UN-mandated coalition that would include Russia and Iran as well as the U.S. and its allies.

Because Putin's approach makes such common sense, Western leaders are calling for an increased Russian role in resolving the Syrian crisis, as Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi did in an interview with Bloomberg on Monday, or for abandoning Obama's hard line on Assad, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop did last week. Had Obama been unwilling to entertain this, his meeting with Putin wouldn't have lasted a full 90 minutes. Though Obama made sure to start it off by talking about Russia's aggression in Ukraine, most of it must have been devoted to Syria, and while no breakthrough was announced -- the presidents only agreed their militaries would remain in contact to prevent accidental clashes on Syrian territory -- the dialog has restarted. The U.S. won't do anything to actively oppose Russian help for the Assad regime. All Obama and Putin really need to negotiate is the shape of the eventual Syrian political transition that would satisfy everyone.

Though there may never be a de jure coalition, the sides are moving fast toward the tacit de facto recognition that in Syria, they're in the same business and that both will be involved in working out the eventual settlement. Obama will face pressure from his European allies, swamped with asylum- seekers, to play ball. 

This probably means a similar creeping settlement in Ukraine. Obama will keep paying lip service to the need to respect Kiev's sovereignty, but the West is quietly going along with a plan to pacify eastern Ukraine by pushing President Petro Poroshenko's government to legitimize local elections held by pro-Russian separatists, in line with a plan developed by veteran French diplomat Pierre Morel with inputs from French, German, Russian and U.S. officials. Poroshenko's own brief UN speech, a complaint about the Russian aggression, is out of step with the times, even if the West isn't making an overt deal with Putin.

Values-based leadership only inspires those who are receptive to values. Large parts of the world are run by people who are more interested in personal power and enrichment or recklessly fanatical. Even when there is the will to fight them on the battlefield, sometimes practical overlaps must be found with some of them: Putin was right to mention the anti-Hitler coalition. The search for such compromises appears to be starting now, and it is a welcome change for those in danger of dying or displaced in the years when compromise was off the table.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net