AFP , Tuesday 29 Sep 2015
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the United Nations General Assembly in New York September 28, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)
Russian President Vladimir Putin has stolen the spotlight at the United Nations with a swaggering push on the Syria crisis as he tried to shake off Western isolation over Ukraine.
In his first speech to the UN General Assembly in a decade, Putin on Monday called for a broad UN-backed coalition to fight Islamic State (IS) jihadists before sitting down to talks he called "constructive, business-like and surprisingly open" with his US rival Barack Obama.
The 90-minute meeting between the two leaders was their first official face-off after almost two years of the United States freezing out Moscow. It came with Obama's admission that he was willing to deal with the Kremlin strongman in a bid to resolve the bloodshed in Syria.
Russia thrust itself back into play by dispatching troops and fighter jets to Syria, sparking fears in the West that Moscow might join in the fighting alongside its old ally President Bashar al-Assad.
The Kremlin has batted away demands by the West and regional players such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia for Assad to go immediately and insists members of the US-led coalition need to join forces with him to defeat what they say is the greater evil of IS.
After the meeting Putin appeared pleased that Obama had agreed to Russia having a role in the debate and said that in his opinion "there is a basis to work on shared problems."
A senior White House official said, however, that while both leaders agreed on the need for a political transition in Syria they "fundamentally disagreed" on the role of Assad.
"I think the Russians certainly understand the importance of there being a political resolution in Syria and there being a process that pursues political resolution," the official said.
In a sign of the stakes, UN chief Ban Ki- moon said that if Washington and Moscow could make headway over the four-and-a-half-year-old conflict then progress might be possible.
Later he oversaw an uncomfortable toast in which the two presidents clinked glasses. According to Putin, Obama made his to the success of the United Nations.
While Putin's pivot over the Middle East focused attention on Syria, the Americans were keen to show that Obama was not letting the Russian leader off the hook over his seizure of the Crimea region from Ukraine and his alleged backing of a separatist conflict in the country.
The senior White House official said the first half of the Obama-Putin meeting had centered on Ukraine and the US president made a point in his speech of upbraiding Moscow over its meddling in its neighbor.
But Putin's appearance -- heavily trailed by the slavishly loyal state television back in Russia -- still gave him a chance to push the fallout over Ukraine into the background.
He shrugged off an apparent walk-out by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ahead of his speech to the General Assembly and said that the West would never be able to cut Russia out of world affairs.
"In terms of a country like Russia, that is simply impossible," Putin said after his meeting with Obama.
"You just need to look at her size on a map."
Obama, Putin face off at UN meeting over Syria crisis
Mariam Mecky , Monday 28 Sep 2015
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama speak during the luncheon at the United Nations General Assembly in New York September 28, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)
The Syrian crisis has become the focal point of the UN General Assemblyís 70th session, particularly in the showdown among major powers such as the United States and Russia.
In his speech, US President Barack Obama stressed that diplomacy in Syria is necessary to find a way forward without Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad, referring to him as a tyrant.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the international community should provide comprehensive assistance to the legitimate government of Al-Assad.
Syria has been witnessing an atrocious civil war for more than four years now, which has claimed the lives of more than 240,000 people and forced more than four million to flee the country while leaving some 7.6 million displaced internally.
The war began in 2011 when opponents of Al-Assadís regime started protesting against the government before the regime cracked down on dissent.
Obama slammed Russia's support for the Syrian regime yet expressed the USís willingness to sit with Russia and Iran to resolve the crisis.
Russia and Iran are widely known for their influence in Syria and for being supporters of Al-Assadís regime.
Addressing world leaders, Obama said that the situation requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader and an inclusive government, emphasising that there is no way to go back to the "pre-war status quo."
On the other side, Putin said in his speech, which came shortly after Obama's, that "it is a huge mistake not to cooperate with the Syrian government to address terrorist issues."
Putin said that Russia will be proposing a resolution in the United Nations Security Council for a broad anti-terrorist coalition to coordinate all forces that counter the Islamic State group threat.
"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," Putin said.
Building on that, Putin said that the international community should help the countries fighting the Islamic State, namely the Syrian regime, by restoring statehood, strengthening government institutions, and providing any needed assistance.
Putin started off saying that the countries that criticise Russia use the "pretext of growing ambition as if those who say it have no ambition at all."
The American and Russian counterparts are supposed to come together late Monday in their first official face-to-face meeting in over two years in a time of high tension, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last Thursday.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday Tehran was ready to help bring democracy to the Syrian crisis, calling for a solution. However, unexpectedly, he did not mention whether the way forward will include Assad or not.
The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called for the Syrian crisis to be referred to the International Criminal Court for the first time, while French President Francois Hollande said there is no room for Assad in the country's solution.
Putin calls Saudi king to discuss Syria conflict
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Saudi Arabia's King Salman about finding a solution to the Syria crisis on Saturday, just two days before he is due to address the UN on the issue, the Kremlin said.
In a telephone conversation at Russia's behest, the two men "exchanged views on regional security matters, first and foremost, in the context of finding ways to settle the conflict in Syria", a statement posted to the Kremlin's website said.
They also discussed "building more effective international cooperation in the fight against the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups", it said.
A decades-long backer of the Damascus regime, Moscow has steadfastly supported President Bashar al-Assad throughout four-and-a-half years of war which have killed more than 240,000 people.
Saudi Arabia is part of a US-led coalition that began an air campaign against IS in Syria last September, and insists it will never cooperate with the Assad regime.
On Monday, Putin will address the General Assembly in New York to outline his plan for Syria, notably the idea of expanding a coalition, which would include Assad's army, to fight Islamic State.
He will also meet US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the gathering, their first formal talk in two years.
Russia has lately boosted its military presence in Syria, deploying more troops and warplanes to an air base along with new arms deliveries to Assad's forces. Last week, the Syrian army used Russian drones against the jihadists for the first time.
On Saturday, a Syrian military source told AFP that at least 15 Russian cargo planes transporting "equipment and personnel" had landed at the Hmeimim military base in western Syria in the past two weeks.
Moscow's military build-up comes with Washington's own policy for fighting IS in Syria in increasing disarray.
The US has a $500-million programme to train and equip vetted moderates recruited from among the rebels fighting Assad, but it has faced repeated setbacks.
Washington and its allies have up until now insisted that Assad has no future in Syria, but there have been recent signs of a change, perhaps allowing him an interim role until a new government is formed.
On Friday, a Russian diplomat raised the possibility of Moscow joining the Washington-led coalition against IS provided the UN Security Council gave a legal framework for its action.
"It is in theory possible that all those involved join the coalition if it receives the approval of the UN Security Council," Ilya Rogatchev, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Department for New Challenges and Threats, told AFP.