The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the US president, Barack Obama, clashed on Monday over their competing visions for Syria, with Obama urging a political transition to replace the Syrian president but Putin warning it would be a mistake to abandon the current government.
Addressing the UN general assembly, Putin said it was a huge mistake not to engage the Syrian army in the fight against Islamic State. He said the Syrian military was the only force truly fighting Isis militants in the country.
“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,” Putin said.
“We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and [Kurdish] militia are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organisations in Syria,” he said.
The Russian president, making his first appearance at the general assembly for 10 years, also criticised the west for arming “moderate” rebels in Syria, saying they later come to join Isis. Without naming the United States, he said a “single centre of dominance has emerged after the end of cold war,” and attempts have been made to revise the UN role.
Putin’s speech at the UN came hours before a high-stakes meeting with Obama, during which Bashar al-Assad’s future was expected to be top of the agenda.
Obama, in his speech to the general assembly, said the US was willing to work with Russia, as well as Iran, to achieve a “managed transition” to remove Assad from power. Syria cannot “return to the prewar status quo”, Obama declared.
The president’s remarks underscored the tensions between the US and Russia, Assad’s strongest ally.
Earler it emerged that efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria may be taken up by an international “contact group”, including Russia, Iran, the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian deputy foreign minster, said the group could meet by October, the RIA news agency reported from Moscow. The group conspicuously excludes Britain and France – both permanent veto-wielding members of the UN security council who are hostile to Assad – as well as China.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are respectively the most active Middle Eastern supporters and opponents of the Assad regime. Putin had earlier strengthened his support for the Syrian president, dismissing evidence of widespread atrocities as enemy “propaganda”.
European diplomats were understood to be exploring the idea of reviving the P5+1 format – the five permanent members of the security council plus Germany – which achieved July’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran. A contact group is an informal grouping of influential countries that have a significant interest in policy developments.
The idea of a Syria contact group has been discussed by the UN and in diplomatic circles for the past few weeks, but this was thought to be the first time it has been mentioned in public by any big power. It appeared to fit a pattern of Russia taking the initiative on the Syria crisis at a time when western policy is in disarray.
Iran’s involvement will be controversial in the US and opposed by Syrian rebels, but the inclusion of Saudi Arabia could help persuade opponents. Turkey is also a key supporter of Islamist rebels. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is fiercely anti-Islamist and recently restored diplomatic relations with Syria.
In a wide-ranging interview with the CBS programme 60 Minutes, aired on Sunday, Putin praised America for its “creativity and open-mindedness” and shrugged off descriptions of him as a gangster.
But it was his remarks on Syria that carried the most significance: he will be meeting Obama at the UN general assembly later on Monday for talks about the international response to the Syrian war and the global humanitarian crisis it has triggered. His remarks come weeks after he deployed warplanes and an estimated 1,700 troops to western Syria to help prop up the Assad regime in the name of fighting Isis and other terrorist groups.
The White House has said it would welcome a Russian role in the fight against Isis but insists that Assad’s departure from power has to be part of the solution. His regime’s atrocities against civilians, through daily barrel bombing of residential areas and other means, mean that his continued presence serves as a recruitment tool for extremists, it says.
In the interview, however, Putin flatly rejected the evidence of war crimes by the Assad regime. The former KGB officer said: “Speaking in a professional language of intelligence services, I can tell you that this kind of assessment is an ‘active measure’ by enemies of Assad. It is anti-Syrian propaganda.
“We support the legitimate government of Syria,” Putin said. “And there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering their help in fighting terrorism, but at the same time urging them to engage in positive dialogue with the rational opposition and conduct reform.”
He said that the Russian troops currently in Syria were not there to conduct combat operations, but he did not rule out that happening in the future.
“Russia will not participate in any troop operations in the territory of Syria or in any other states. Well, at least we don’t plan on it right now,” Putin said. “But we are considering intensifying our work with both President Assad and with our partners in other countries.”
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said on Sunday evening that his country’s outlook was close to the Russians’. Tehran was willing to work with other countries in Syria but only if their priority was to fight terrorism, not change the regime in Damascus, he said.
“This doesn’t mean the Syrian government is not in need of reform,” Rouhani said. “But if a government says it simultaneously wants to fight terrorism and change the government in Damascus, it will be a futile effort.”
Russian actions in Syria have exacerbated the dilemma in Washington and allied capitals over what to do about the Syrian conflict. Despite the US’s denunciation of the regime’s atrocities, it has not been prepared to confront Assad with military force. Costly efforts to support moderate rebel groups have resulted in only four or five US-backed armed guerrillas on Syrian territory. A former top aide to Obama on the Middle East argued on Sunday that in the absence of realistic means to oust Assad, it was better to enter negotiations without demanding Assad’s departure as a precondition.
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