Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin met, along with top aides, for more than 90 minutes on Monday, following their speeches before the United Nations General Assembly. While the meeting did not break any new ground in terms of specifics about the Syria crisis, the United States accepted, in principle, that Russia has a critical role to play if there is to be a solution to the four-and-a-half year Syrian conflict. In return, President Putin acknowledged that there must be a role for the Syrian Sunni majority in any durable solution.
Both the US and Russia have agreed that there will be further coordination, collaboration and communication going forward, with Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter handling the ongoing work with their Russian counterparts.
According to what has been leaked about the session, Putin did the majority of the talking, proposing a new United Nations Security Council resolution on the war against the Islamic State, and suggesting that Russia would join the existing US-led coalition if it were under a United Nations mandate.
In the bilateral discussions, Putin also made specific reference to the role of Kurdish militias, as well as the Syrian Army, in effectively fighting against ISIL. Previously, including during his speech earlier Monday before the General Assembly, Putin singularly focused on the Syrian Army as the backbone of the anti-ISIL fight.
At the close of the discussion, both sides recognized that they had more areas of common interest than disagreement, and that the Russian presence, under the right circumstances, could be productive.
Washington military planners remain worried that the Russian military presence can be disruptive and can actually strengthen the hand of the Islamic State. They are concerned about Russian military operations in US-led coalition theaters of operation, and worry that the Assad armed forces continue to focus on non-Islamic State rebel forces.
Despite this, Washington information explained that the bilateral meeting “transcended expectations.” After the meeting, Russian President Putin told Lavrov that he was satisfied that the United States was now willing to work with Russia on the Syria crisis.
Both the State Department and Defense Department will immediately increase talks with Russia on both the deconfliction and diplomatic agendas.
One of the areas of agreement between Putin and Obama was on the need for Syria to remain a unified, non-extremists state. This poses serious diplomatic challenges for Washington. Washington’s key regional allies in Syria, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey, are all committed to a post-Assad Sunni-dominated state. Washington and Moscow now share the view that the extremist factor must be suppressed, but the pathway forward is not yet at all clear.
A viable solution to the Syria conflict must, at its core, achieve three objectives. First, there must be a leadership change at the top, with Assad removed from power. The timing and mode of transition can be developed, but Assad’s removal is a precondition for success, given the views of the majority of Syrian people. Washington and Moscow are looking at a possibility of a “Syrian strongman” who could remove Assad and prepare the transition to elections.
Second, the flow of financial and logistical support to foreign jihadists must be greatly reduced. Recent Russian estimates are that as many as 2,700 Chechens are now fighting for ISIS (US Intelligence Community estimates are actually much higher). Some are already returning to the Caucasus region of Russia and pose a growing security threat.
Third, the Islamic State must be defeated.
So far, the US and Russia clearly agree on the third requirement. A great deal of work will have to be done by American and Russian diplomats and military planners to bridge the gaps between the two nations on the other two priorities.
Prior to the convening of the Obama-Putin meeting, Russia established a joint information center in Baghdad, to share intelligence between Syria, Iraq, Iran and Russia. The center will be fully operational in a matter of weeks. Lavrov made clear that the United States has been invited to participate.
A similar general staff-level separate bilateral information sharing agreement has also been worked out between Russia and Israel. And in a meeting of foreign ministers in Beijing recently, Russia, China and India agreed to co-sponsor a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT), which will be presented at the United Nations Security Council.
These measures may be all trumped by the US-Russia process that was set up on Monday in New York.