Putin not likely to target Islamic State soon, says Obama

US president hopes for shift in Russians and recognition it’s time to end Syrian civil war

US president Barack Obama told a press conference in Paris that he does not expect his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to begin targeting Islamic State (ISIS) soon. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

US president Barack Obama told a press conference in Paris that he does not expect his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to begin targeting Islamic State (ISIS) soon. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

 

US president Barack Obama told a press conference in Paris that he does not expect his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to begin targeting Islamic State (ISIS) soon, but hopes the Vienna negotiations led by secretary of state John Kerry and the Russian foreign minister Serguei Lavrov will transform the war in Syria.

Russia joined in the Syrian war in September. Since then, “The situation hasn’t changed significantly,’ Mr Obama said. “In the interim, Russia has lost a commercial passenger jet. You’ve seen another jet shot down. There have been losses in terms of Russian personnel. And I think Mr Putin understands that, with Afghanistan fresh in the memory, for him to simply get bogged down in a inconclusive and paralysing civil conflict is not the outcome that he’s looking for.”

Bashar al-Assad

Mr Obama said he and Mr Putin disagree on the fate of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. He believes Mr Assad is “illegitimate” because he had killed hundreds of thousands of his own people. “But regardless of the moral equation, as a practical matter, it is impossible for Mr Assad to bring that country together and to bring all the parties into an inclusive government. It is possible, however, to preserve the Syrian state,” he said.

Mr Obama hopes for ”a shift in calculation in the Russians and a recognition that it’s time to bring the civil war in Syria to a close.”

However, he warned, “Too much blood has been shed, too much infrastructure has been destroyed, too many people have been displaced, for us to anticipate that it will be a smooth transition.”

Referring to Islamic State as ISIL, Mr Obama said the group “is going to continue to be a deadly organisation -- because of its social media, the resources that it has and the networks of experienced fighters that it possesses… for some time to come.”

Russia has “invested for years now in keeping Assad in power. Their presence (in Syria) is predicated on propping him up,” Mr Obama said. “I don’t think we should be under any illusions that somehow Russia starts hitting only ISIL targets. That’s not happening now. It was never happening. It’s not going to be happening in the next several weeks.”

Mr Obama hopes the Vienna negotiations will lead to “pockets of ceasefires in and around Syria” where opposition groups “no longer find themselves subject to either Syrian or Russian bombing,” enabling them to concentrate on a political transition.

Syrian-Turkish border

Mr Obama discussed the Syrian-Turkish border with the Turkish president Recip Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday morning. There is a 98km stretch which Islamic State still uses for the transit of foreign fighters and for exporting oil, he said.

The US and Turkish militaries were working together to try to secure the border, but the humanitarian need to allow refugees across complicated the task.

The continuing flow of jihadists into Syria posed a danger for Europe and the US. “If you’ve got foreign fighters coming in that are getting not only ideologically hardened but battle-hardened, and then they’re returning to their home countries, they’re likely candidates for engaging in the kind of terrorist attacks that we saw here in Paris,” Mr Obama warned.

Colorado attack

Asked to comment on the attack that killed three people in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs on November 27th, Mr Obama said, “This just doesn’t happen in other countries.” The US was willing to devote huge resources to fighting terrorism, he noted. “And yet, in the United States, we have the power to do more to prevent what is just a regular process of gun homicides that is unequalled by multiples of 5, 6, 10.”