Obama and Putin clash over Syria and IS at UN General Assembly

Two leaders present starkly different views on the rolling crisis in beleaguered Syria

US President Barack Obama tells the UN General Assembly that Washington is ready to work with Russia and Iran to end the Syria conflict. Video: Reuters


US president Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin clashed publicly at the United Nations on how to respond to the war in Syria that has created the worst refugee crisis in Europe in generations.

While Mr Obama in his speech to the UN General Assembly hinted at compromise, saying that the US was “prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran” – Syria’s main allies – “to resolve the conflict,” he insisted Syrian president Bashar al-Assad must go.

“We must recognise that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo,” he said.

The US president recalled that the conflict started with Mr Assad’s suppression of peaceful protests and escalated to repression and killing.

“When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not just a matter of one nation’s internal affairs,” he said.

Mr Obama described the situation in Syria as “an assault on all humanity”.

Putin praise

About an hour later, Mr Putin in his speech praised the Syrian leader, saying that he represented stability in the region and that he should be supported in fighting Islamic State extremists.

“We think it’s a huge mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face-to- face,” the Russian leader said.

“No one but the Syrian forces and the Kurdish militia is seriously fighting against Islamic State.”

Mr Putin, in what appeared to be an attempt to side-step the US fight against IS, suggested the creation of “a genuinely broad international coalition” to challenge the radical group and a resolution by the UN Security Council to “co-ordinate” military action.

The Russian leader cast the idea in a historical context, saying that the international grouping could be similar to the “anti-Hitler coalition” that defeated the Nazis in the second World War.

The stark differences between the two leaders, long divided on their respective approaches to Syria, were aired publicly before the two men were scheduled to meet on the fringes of the UN general assembly.

Increased support

French president Francois Hollande supported the US demand for an Assad-free Syria, telling reporters that “nobody can imagine” a political solution for the country with the leader staying in power.

The four-year conflict in Syria has claimed more than 250,000 lives, displaced 11 million and forced four million to flee abroad, creating the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.

The crisis has brought fresh urgency to international efforts to attempt to resolve the conflict at this 70th UN general assembly.

Forceful addresses In forceful addresses, the American and Russian leaders sparred on their approaches to international conflict and unrest.

Mr Obama challenged Mr Putin’s breach of international law in Russia’s takeover of Crimea and support of separatists in eastern Ukraine, while Mr Putin accused the US of fostering violence in the Middle East by exporting “so-called democratic” revolutions.

The US president said that “some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law” and erode democracy and humans rights to beat back disorder and “stamp out terrorism.”

“In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children because the alternative is surely worse,” said Mr Obama.

Later, over a lunch of smoked trout and caramelised beef, the American and Russian leaders shook hands and clinked glasses after a toast by host, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon. A photograph of the moment showed Mr Putin smiling; Mr Obama was not. – Additional reporting: Guardian