Obama, Putin trade barbs over support for Assad regime

2015-09-28 21:45
US President Barack Obama addresses the UN General Assembly in New York. (Seth Wenig, AP)

US President Barack Obama addresses the UN General Assembly in New York. (Seth Wenig, AP)

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New York - US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin took aim at each other's involvement in Syria at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, with Obama warning against supporting the Syrian regime and Putin saying it would be a mistake not to do so.

Obama warned that 70 years after the UN charter, some argued that the institution was no longer valid and that nations should instead return to old ways of operating.

"On this basis, we see some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law," he said.

"In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar Assad, who drops barrel bombs on innocent children, because alternative is surely worse."

Obama was to hold bilateral talks with Putin later on Monday and was expected to press the Russian leader on his country's recent military build-up in Syria to support the Assad regime, as well as involvement in Ukraine.

The US was willing to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the Syrian conflict, but only if they recognised that there must be a political transition in Damascus.

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

'Return to a Cold War'

Putin retorted that Assad's regime was the only one "truly fighting" ISIS. 

"We think it is an enormous mistake not to co-operate with the Syrian government and its forces who are confronting terrorism face to face," he said.

He denounced those who said that Russia's growing military involvement in Syria was about Moscow's global ambitions, saying that Russia "can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs in the world".

On Ukraine, Obama told the General Assembly that the world could not stand by as Russia violated Ukraine's sovereignty and denounced Russian aggression. He stressed, however, the US did not "desire to return to a Cold War", but instead wanted Russia to resolve the crisis diplomatically.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told domestic state media on Monday, ahead of Putin's meeting with Obama, that a group of representatives from Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt could meet next month to work on resolving the Syrian crisis with help from the United Nations.

Moscow has hosted numerous Middle Eastern leaders in recent weeks as it builds its role a mediator in the Syrian conflict, while simultaneously providing military support for the Assad government. 

Russia has justified its backing for Assad, a long time ally, because he is the elected leader of the country and is a main fighting force against Islamic State.

"There is only one regular army there. That is the army of Syrian President Assad. And he is confronted with what some of our international partners interpret as an opposition. In reality, Assad's army is fighting against terrorist organisations," Putin told US broadcaster CBS in an interview aired on Sunday.

Open letter

Meanwhile, Syrian opposition leaders called for the UN General Assembly to take over responsibility for resolving the conflict, saying that the Security Council had "repeatedly failed to fulfil its obligations".

In an open letter to the Assembly, the opposition figures rejected what they said were attempts by the international community to "rehabilitate" Assad, saying his regime used "sectarianism and methods of terror".

"Human rights violations committed by ISIS and other terrorist organisations do not, and should not, exempt Assad from accountability for similar crimes," the letter signed by veteran opposition leaders Michel Kilo and Riyad Seif, defected former prime minister Riyad Jijab, and other prominent figures said.

The United States is leading a coalition against Islamic State that is facing domestic scrutiny for being ineffective.

Washington initially planned to train 5 000 local fighters to fight the Islamic State. But this month a US general told the Senate that only "four or five" Syrian fighters trained by the US are actively battling the terrorist group.

Putin cited this in the interview, saying "the rest of them have deserted with the American weapons to join ISIS".

Putin's popularity rose internationally in late 2013 when Russia negotiated a deal to dispose of the Syrian military's chemical weapons, but months later Russia's annexation of Crimea critically damaged Putin's reputation on the world stage.

The United Nations estimates that 250 000 people have died in the Syrian conflict. More than half the country's prewar population of 22.4 million has been internally displaced or fled abroad.

Read more on:    un  |  barack obama  |  vladimir putin  |  us  |  russia  |  syria

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