US President Barack Obama took a swipe at Russia and Iran on Monday for backing “tyrants” such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad but declared in his address to the United Nations that he was ready to work with them to end the conflict that has left the country in tatters.
Obama took the podium at the UN General Assembly ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani, with the spotlight firmly on ending the carnage in Syria.
“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” the US president said.
Obama argued it would be wrong to support a “tyrant” such as Assad, “who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children” and challenged the view that the alternative would be “surely worse”.
Washington has insisted that Assad must leave power as a pre-requisite for any settlement to the conflict, while European powers have softened their stance, signalling he could stay on in an interim role.
In his address, Obama did not specifically address Assad’s fate, a key bone of contention in efforts to re-launch a bid to end a war that has left more than 240,000 dead since 2011.
But he declared that there could be no return to the pre-war status quo, when Assad held sway.
The world’s largest diplomatic gathering was shaping up as a showdown between Obama and Putin over fighting the terror group Islamic State in Syria and pushing for regime change in Damascus.
Moscow has put Washington on the back foot by dispatching troops and aircraft to the war-torn country and pushing reluctant world leaders to admit that Assad could cling to power.
The Kremlin strongman called in an interview ahead of the UN summit for “a common platform for collective action” against Islamic State jihadists that would supersede a US-led coalition and involve Assad’s forces.
On the ground, Russia seems to have already started putting the pieces together by agreeing with Iraq, Syria and Iran that their officers will work together in Baghdad to share intelligence on IS.
Assad or IS?
Western powers say Assad’s military is responsible for the vast majority of deaths in the war and maintain his brutal rule has allowed the Islamic State’s extremist views to flourish.
“When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not just a matter of one nation’s internal affairs. It breeds human suffering on an order of magnitude that affects us all,” Obama said Monday.
But with their response to IS in disarray, Western powers have let the Syrian president’s backers present him as the only option and pushed calls for the priority to shift to fighting the jihadists.
“If we are to succeed in fighting terrorism, the government in Damascus cannot be weakened. It must be able to carry on the fight,” Rouhani told a gathering of academics and journalists on Sunday.
“If the Syrian government is taken out of the equation, the terrorists will enter Damascus” and “the whole country will become controlled territory, a safe haven for terrorists,” he said.
Obama was set to hold his first meeting with Putin in over two years at around 5:00pm (2100 GMT).
While the duel between Putin and Obama looks set to hog the limelight, there are a string of other eye-catching subplots on what will be a frantic day of diplomacy in New York.
Rouhani will take to the podium for the first time since Tehran edged in from the cold with the signing of a key deal with world powers over its nuclear program in July that will see sanctions eased.
France’s Francois Hollande will also address world leaders a day after his fighter jets carried out their first strikes against IS jihadists in Syria.
China’s Xi Jinping made his first UN address after a tour of the US that saw Washington and Beijing struggle to shake off mutual suspicions by trying to curb fears of cyber spying.
And UN member states will for the first time hear Cuban President Raul Castro and Nigerian leader Muhammadu Buhari, who won elections in March with a vow to defeat Boko Haram Islamists.