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Putin, Obama Meet On Syria, But Sharp Disagreements Remain

President Obama and Vladimir Putin met for 90 minutes after the Russian president's Monday speech at the United Nations.
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama and Vladimir Putin met for 90 minutes after the Russian president's Monday speech at the United Nations.

Russia's military buildup in Syria has raised alarms in the West, but many Russians see it as a necessary step to counter Islamist extremism.

President Vladimir Putin's speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Monday resonated sharply in Russia, where Muslims make up about 11 percent of the country's 143 million people.

After the speech, Presidents Obama and Putin spent nearly half of their 90-minute meeting focusing on Syria. Putin expressed his continued support for Syrian leader Bashar Assad, who has been losing ground to rebel groups, including the extremist Islamic State.

While they agreed that the United States and Russia can coordinate some of their operations in Syria, Obama and Putin disagree sharply on whether Assad can have any role in Syria's future.

In his speech, Putin called it "an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government," saying, "We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad's armed forces and Kurdish militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria."

Putin was clearly dismissing the efforts of the United States and its allies, who have been conducting airstrikes against Islamic State targets.

The Western allies think that Assad is the root of the trouble in Syria, which started with his heavy-handed attempts to crush the opposition.

Analyst Fyodor Lukyanov says it may be politically hard for President Obama to acknowledge that Assad might be part of the solution. "It's very difficult to accept that, at least for now, the priority should be not regime change, not the exit of Assad, but to build a viable force to resist Islamic State."

Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, says some in Russia acknowledge that it may not be possible to regain territory that Assad has already lost. But it would be in Assad's — and Russia's — interest to keep control of the region he still holds around Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, where Russia has a naval base and a newly constructed air base.

Vladimir Sotnikov, a strategic analyst in Moscow, says it's important to remember that Russia feels a direct threat from Islamist extremism because of its significant Muslim population. The Kremlin says about 2,000 Russians are among the extremists fighting for ISIS.

"Russia is sincerely suggesting to the United States [that there should be] cooperation in the cause of fighting against the Islamic State," he says, "because this is a universal danger — not only for Russia, which is much closer to this region where the ISIS is operating than the United States."

Sotnikov rejects the suggestion made by some Western analysts that Putin is hoping to leverage his cooperation with the West in Syria to reduce tensions over Ukraine. Some U.S. analysts say Putin is hoping that renewed engagement will lead to the lifting of Western economic sanctions, but Sotnikov says he believes that Syria is not part of Putin's Ukraine strategy.

Lukyanov says Putin is willing to take the tremendous risk of getting caught in a military quagmire in Syria. If Russian service members were to be captured and subjected to the kind of tortures and killing for which the Islamic State is notorious, he says, Russia could "not just condemn brutal killing of its countrymen. Russia should do something, should act, should retaliate."

And that, Lukyanov says, is a way that Russia could be dragged into what he calls "a long-lasting and pretty hopeless conflict in the Middle East."

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Corey Flintoff is a correspondent with the Foreign Desk. His career has taken him to more than 45 countries.Since 2005, Flintoff has been part of the NPR team covering the Iraq War. He has embedded with U.S. military units fighting insurgents and hunting roadside bombs. His stories from Iraq have dealt with sectarian killings, government corruption, the Christian refugee crisis, and the destruction of Iraq's southern marshes.