A Helping Hand from Moscow

Putin CBS Reuters
Vladimir outlines his Syria thinking on CBS' "60 Minutes."
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany does not want Mr. Putin to think he can trade engagement in Syria for an easing of sanctions.

  • Facts


    • Presidents Putin and Obama are meeting in New York on Monday, their first formal meeting since before Russia annexed Crimea.
    • Russia has significantly increased its military presence in Syria.
    • European sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine run out at the end of the year.
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Russia’s military maneuvers in Syria are already having political consequences.

Up to now, the West described Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad as part of the problem, and both Berlin and Washington sought his ouster in order to resolve the country’s Syria crisis.

Now a change in attitudes is looming. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has indicated that talks with the Damascus dictator are essential, adopting a similar line to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Many actors must be involved, said Ms. Merkel last week at an E.U. summit, and “that includes Mr. Assad, but others as well” such as Iran or Saudi Arabia.

It is a shift that could pave the way for ending Russia’s international isolation over Ukraine, due to its close ties with the Assad regime.

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama is meeting with Mr. Putin in New York, where both are attending the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly. It will be the first time the two men have met in two years.

Russia has been shunned by the West since annexing Crimea last year and due to its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Yet it could now play a key role in ending the Syrian conflict, which began in 2011 and has seen more than 200,000 Syrian killed.

Mr. Assad, who has been accused of indiscriminately killing civilians when bombing rebel-held areas, now only controls a fraction of the country. Much of the rest is under the control of the terrorist group, Islamic State. Around four million Syrians have fled abroad, most are in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, although increasing numbers are making their way to Europe.

That refugee crisis has increased the resolve in the West to do push for an end to the war there.

And Moscow could play a key role.

On Sunday, the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, met with his counterpart, Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. The two men had a “very thorough exchange of views on both the military and the political implications of Russia’s increased engagement in Syria,” a senior U.S. official told reporters after the meeting.

Mr.  Putin is expected to use his address to the U.N. General Assembly today to try to restore Russia’s status as a major global power.

“He will cast Russia as a force with whom world leaders would be advised to cooperate rather than oppose, implicitly and probably explicitly criticizing the U.S. approach to his regime,” wrote Otilia Dhand, of Teneo Intelligence in London, in a note on Monday.

On Sunday night, Mr. Putin criticized the U.S. efforts so far to end the Syrian conflict.

He said Moscow, which this month sent tanks and warplanes to a Russian military base in Syria, was itself trying to create a “coordinated framework” to resolve the conflict.

“We would welcome a common platform for collective action against the terrorists,” Mr. Putin said in an interview with American broadcaster CBS.

The Russian president described the U.S. support for rebel forces in Syria as illegal and ineffective and said Mr. Assad should be included in any international efforts to fight Islamic State.

“We support the legitimate government of Syria,” he said. “And there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism.”

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