Vladimir Putin snubbed US leader Barack Obama yesterday and revived Russia’s historic role in the Middle East by calling for a new “broad coalition” to fight Isil based on co-operation with the Assad regime.
In his long-awaited speech at the United Nations, the Russian president fiercely attacked American policy in Syria and around the world and criticised the West for “exporting social experiments” in the form of democratic revolutions, which he blamed for the Middle East crisis.
He said he had called for a new Syrian peace conference to be attended by a “contact group” of outside powers including Russia and the United States, as well as regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran.
Despite the fact that Russia is not among the countries led by the US currently conducting operations against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, he followed up reports that it was co-ordinating intelligence sharing between Iran, Iraq and Syria by putting Moscow at the centre of the world’s “war on terror”.
He went so far as to compare his plans to the alliance that fought Hitler in the Second World War. “We must address the problems that we are all facing and create a broad anti-terror coalition,” he said.
Mr Putin, who was later due to hold face-to-face talks on Syria and Ukraine with Mr Obama, was capitalising on growing unease in western capitals that their strategies were not succeeding in defeating Isil, overthrowing the Assad regime or bringing peace to the region.
His gambit – which had been much briefed in advance – sets up Russia as a competitor with the United States for leadership in the Syrian crisis and in the Middle East in general. It also makes clear that Mr Putin is going to stand by his ally President Bashar al-Assad.
Earlier, President Obama had conceded that the United States’ earlier insistence that Iran, Syria’s principal regional backer, should have no part in peace talks was a mistake.
“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” he said.
He also indicated that despite the chaos in Syria, he remained unwilling to try to restore order using America’s military might – citing his own army’s failures in Iraq.
He said that it was not in keeping with the principles of the UN that “in a time of rapid change, order must be imposed by force”.
“In Iraq, the United States learned the hard lesson that even hundreds of thousands of brave, effective troops, trillions of dollars from our Treasury, cannot by itself impose stability on a foreign land,” he said.
Mr Putin, by contrast, has now poured hundreds of men, 28 fighters jets and dozens of tanks into Syria in a bid to shore up Mr Assad’s regime.
“We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face,” he said.
Mr Putin’s speech was his first to the United Nations in New York for a decade – a sign of the importance which he attaches to Russia’s new assertive military role in both Ukraine – where it is semi-concealed – and Syria, where it is now open.
It was a carefully scripted appearance, with loyal media in Russia billing it in one case under the headline “Vladimir Putin preparing a speech that will change the world”.
Cartoons showed him outwitting, physically overpowering, and morally upstaging various Western leaders.
Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, who is facing a Russian-backed insurgency in the east of the country, was seen being ushered in through routes designed to avoid him crossing paths with his Russian adversary.
The West still says that eventually Mr Assad will have to step down from office, though it is increasingly unclear about how that is to be achieved if both Russia and Iran are committed to defending him at all costs.
Leaders like David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, and Angela Merkel of Germany have accepted he will stay in office during a “transition” period.
“Realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out Isil,” Mr Obama said. “But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government.” Mr Obama also conceded another key allegation of Mr Putin – that the intervention in Libya in 2011 had been mishandled.
“Our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind,” he said.
Russian’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, said the “contact group” on Syria would include countries like Egypt, which has no troops fighting with the coalition in either Syria or Iraq, but pointedly not Britain or France, prime movers in the original “Friends of Syria” grouping that backed the Syrian opposition.
He called those invited the “most influential outside players”, a stress which given the lack of Syrian representatives seems designed to foster the Assad regime’s argument that the revolution is a proxy war created by hostile Gulf states rather than a local uprising.
Mr Bogdanov said he wanted talks to happen “as quickly as possible” – ideally next month. Four “working groups” on Syria would be summoned at the United Nations in Geneva, to work with the UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura.
Mr Cameron meanwhile met the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who had earlier also insisted that Mr Assad’s regime “cannot be weakened”. British officials said the talks were “good, considered, thoughtful and in a constructive spirit”.
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