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24th Feb 2024

US to work with Putin on Syria, defends Ukraine sanctions

  • The Kremlin, but not the White House, published the handshake image (Photo: kremlin.ru)

The US president, Barack Obama, in his UN speech on Monday (28 September) said he's "ready to work with any country, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the [Syria] conflict".

The Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, called for "a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism", which he compared to the "anti-Hitler coalition" of WWII.

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  • Obama and Putin spoke for 90 minutes in the margins of the UN assembly (Photo: kremlin.ru)

The two men, who hadn't spoken face-to-face since Putin invaded east Ukraine last year, were photographed clinking wine glasses at a UN lunch.

They also held a 90-minute bilateral meeting, with the Kremlin, but not the White House, publishing photos of them shaking hands.

The tone was different to last year's UN event, when Obama said that, after ebola, Russia was the gravest threat to international security, followed, in third place, by Islamic State (IS).

But Obama also used his UN speech to defend EU and US sanctions on Russia over Ukraine.

"We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated. If that happens without consequence in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today", he said.

"That's the basis of the sanctions that the United States and our partners impose on Russia … Not because we want to isolate Russia - we don't".

Putin told press after the bilateral meeting that ties between the two countries "are at a fairly low level".

But he said he’s ready to "restore full-scale relations" and that, even on Ukraine, "we have many coinciding points and opinions".

Narratives

The leaders differed on the future of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Obama said the Syria conflict must end with a “transition from Assad to a new leader”. Putin said the new coalition must “restore [Syrian] statehood”.

They gave different narratives of events in the Middle East and Ukraine.

Obama said IS arose because Assad “slaughtered tens of thousands of his own people”.

He noted that: “Catastrophies, like what we are seeing in Syria, do not take place in countries where there is genuine democracy”.

He also said “Ukrainian people are more interested than ever in aligning with Europe instead of Russia” because Europe is a more attractive model.

Putin blamed events on Western attempts to “export revolutions” in the Middle East and eastern Europe.

He criticised the West for creating “closed and exclusive economic associations” without consulting “other states whose interests may be affected”, referring to the EU-Ukraine free trade pact.

Assad must go

The Chinese, Dutch, French, Iranian, and Polish leaders also spoke on Monday.

French president Francois Hollande endorsed a “wide coalition” on Syria.

But he said refugees are fleeing Assad’s brutality as much as IS and that Assad “cannot be part of the solution”.

Polish president Andrzej Duda urged help for Christians in the Middle East.

He spoke of Ukraine by way of allusion on use of “tanks” to violate international law, but didn’t name Russia.

The Dutch king pledged to “work tirelessly” to bring justice to the victims of MH17 - the civilian plane shot down over Ukraine last year.

The Iranian president, like Putin, blamed the West for destabilising the Middle East by its interventions in Iraq and Libya and by its support for the “Zionist regime [Israel]”.

China

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, like Poland's Duda, didn't name Russia.

But he said “big and rich [states] should not bully the small, weak, and poor”.

He added: “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries are inviolable and their internal affairs should not be subject to interference”.

“No matter how strong China will become, it will not pursue hegemony or expansion”.

Ukraine, Nato rebuke Putin on Syria

The Ukrainian leader, and a top Nato general, have accused Russia of trying to hoodwink the international community on Syria.

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