Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama want to talk on Monday, during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, but neither one wants to admit that it was his idea. The White House is saying that Moscow “desperately” asked for a meeting, while the Kremlin claims that the opposite is true.
The silliness of this dispute stands in grotesque contrast to the gravity of the situation, and dampens the already slim hope that Russians and Americans will find the strength to launch a new initiative to resolve the conflict in Syria.
Mr. Putin sees Mr. Obama as a weakling, while Mr. Obama considers Mr. Putin to be a criminal. All they have in common is their contempt for each other – not exactly a strong basis for rapprochement.
Nevertheless, the nuclear deal with Iran has shown that Americans and Russians can work together, despite the rift over Ukraine and the rhetorical relapse into the Cold War. It is high time to build on this willingness to cooperate. The Syrian inferno has been smoldering for almost five years. Some 250,000 people are now dead and four million have been displaced. Syria has set the Middle East on fire and the flames are now licking at Europe.
A new diplomatic initiative requires an end to self-deception. The Americans need to acknowledge that their policy has failed. They want too much and do too little. They want to see the Islamic State destroyed and tyrant Bashar al-Assad removed from power, two maximum goals that cannot be achieved with minimally invasive warfare. Limited air strikes and a half-hearted training program for opposition forces will not decide the war.
Russia, on the other hand, wants only one thing, but at almost any price: to preserve the Assad regime. This is why Moscow is supplying heavy weapons to Syrian government troops, stationing warplanes at Syrian air bases and moving a guided missile cruiser to the Mediterranean. But Mr. Putin has also miscalculated. As the conflict drags on, it is becoming increasingly clear that Mr. Assad cannot win the war of attrition. The Russian redeployment of troops is less a sign of decisiveness than of concern.
Peace will not come to Syria under American or Russian terms. There are only losers in this war. The sooner Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama recognize this, the sooner peace will become a realistic option. Despite their differences, the Russians and Americans share a common interest in stabilizing the Middle East. This realization must take hold when the two presidents meet on Monday, and they cannot allow their vanity to get in the way.
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