Obama's Test for Putin in Syria

It's just a handshake, fellas.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Mutual distrust, conflicting goals and a lack of personal chemistry may not be the best foundation for a productive relationship, but for Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, they'll have to do. Any end to the violence in Syria depends on cooperation -- not to be confused with agreement -- between the U.S. and Russian presidents.

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

So it is a small but encouraging sign that their meeting on Monday was "genuinely constructive," according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who also said Obama and Putin agreed that Syria should remain a single, secular state. Kerry is scheduled to meet Wednesday with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

What might U.S.-Russian cooperation look like? Both sides want to defeat Islamic State. But Putin sees it as a fight to defend of the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Obama sees Assad as a brutal dictator who needs to go. For the U.S., the enemy of its enemy is still its enemy.

It's worth noting that Obama has the better of this argument. 

Although Islamic State is responsible for horrific acts of violence, so is Assad, whose brutality has made him Islamic State's best recruiter. Forced to abandon chemical weapons, Assad now favors barrels filled with explosives and shrapnel or oil, dropped from helicopters. In Aleppo governorate alone, these indiscriminate weapons killed 3,000 people last year -- despite a United Nations Security Council resolution banning them. Not once in his UN speech Monday did Putin mention barrel bombs.

Therein lies a slight opening for progress. The U.S. and the world should not agree to Putin's demand for an alliance with Assad against Islamic State unless Putin can get Assad to stop barrel-bombing his own people. Putin claims, with the chutzpah he demonstrated in Ukraine, that "people are running away not from the regime of Bashar Assad, but from Islamic State." Millions of Syrian refugees would beg to disagree. Barrel bombs are weapons of terror, designed to drive out the civilian population, and they are used only by the Assad regime.

Assad's ultimate fate needn't be decided now, and the U.S. shouldn't agree to any plan that keeps him in power after the fighting has stopped. By the same token, the U.S. and Europe needn't take Putin at his word -- in fact, judging from his speech to the UN, Putin's views on Syria (and the world) remain dangerously defective. Nor should any agreement on Syria affect the West's stance on Russia's actions in Ukraine.

Putin should be judged not on what he says, but on what he's willing to do. Obama and his colleagues in Europe can start by demanding that he use his influence to temper Assad's brutality.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.