Putin Raises the Stakes Following Rocky UN Summit

While the United Nations General Assembly convened on Monday, September 28, President Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin sparred over the issue of Syria. Both leaders acknowledged the need to collaborate to solve the conflict, but they presented incompatible plans for a way forward and have only moved further away from the possibility of collaboration in the summit’s wake.

For the past several years, the Russian government has accused the U.S. of excessive intervention in foreign conflicts, and Putin’s speech at the UN continued that stance. In a speech condemning American foreign policy regarding both Syria and the Ukraine, Putin blamed the United States’ support of Syrian rebels for the extent of the current, bloody conflict. To resolve the conflict, he suggested supporting the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as a “legitimate government.”

The U.S., however, has condemned the Assad regime for numerous human-rights violations and showed no signs of changing that position in President Obama’s address. The president reiterated the U.S.’s position that Bashar al-Assad is a despot who cannot be allowed to remain at the head of Syria’s government. Instead of concentrating his entire speech on Russia, Obama confronted wider issues that have dogged the end of his presidency.

Focusing on the refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict, Obama called for wider tolerance for both religious and ethnic factions across the globe. He obliquely criticized both world leaders who have closed their borders and Republican presidential nominees who encouraged the same in America. Though Obama did not present a specific diplomatic or military solution to Syria’s violence, he promoted a change in world attitudes toward the victims of the conflict.

Russia’s focus on the Syrian conflict is especially pressing. Russian airstrikes have killed fighters within Syria; however, the identity of the dead is doubtful. Putin’s government maintained that they killed ISIS militants, but both the U.S. government and U.S.-backed rebels argue that only rebels were killed. This conflict highlights the deep split in U.S.-Russia international policy and the inability of both countries to find a common goal in the region.

Ultimately, while both leaders spoke of compromise and collaboration, neither hinted at any possible concessions or partnership to solve the Syrian crisis. President Putin’s speech openly condemned the United States, while President Obama’s rhetoric of tolerance seemed to be spoken with an eye toward legacy rather than immediate action.

The UN summit between Presidents Obama and Putin ended with almost no ground gained in improving U.S.-Russia relations. Though Putin opened his speech with the desire to work together with the United States to solve the crises in the Middle East, he buried this sentiment in anti-American bombast. Obama, who struck a more peaceful and cooperative note, did not present a concrete strategy to partner with Russia to solve either the Ukrainian or Syrian struggles.

Putin’s decisions after the UN summit, however, have been entirely unilateral and almost completely eliminated the possibility of U.S.-Russia collaboration in Syria. By supporting the Assad government with military force and international promises, he changed the Syrian conflict from a proxy war to one openly involving international powers. This is extremely detrimental to future negotiations between the U.S. and Russia not only in Syria but in other areas of international crisis.

President Obama has decided not to engage Russia on the ground in Syria, and White House officials believe that Russia will expend troops and money on the conflict with few tangible results. The U.S. government seems to have taken a “wait-and-see” position regarding Russia’s action in Syria and is not attempting to escalate direct conflict with Russia at present.

Until both sides are willing to set aside decades of cultural and international conflict, Russia and the U.S. cannot accomplish anything meaningful in Syria, much less aid the rest of the world in peacemaking. Putin’s actions to support a dictator whose crimes against humanity have been detailed by many international organizations is a disaster for possible collaboration, and the Syrian war is clearly far from over.

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