Russia diplomatic maneuver in Syria puts US on back foot at UN

Friday 25/09/2015
Time of high drama

NEW YORK - Russia's President Vladimir Putin launched a new coalition to battle the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria on Sunday, as he prepared to confront US rival Barack Obama at the United Nations.

The dramatic diplomatic gambit underlined the speed with which Russia has seized the initiative on Syria, even as US Secretary of State John Kerry was to meet his counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

Putin and Obama are to make duelling speeches on Monday before the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and will come face-to-face in a private meeting at a time of high drama.

But even as the diplomatic playing pieces are coming into place, the facts on the ground are shifting, with Iraq confirming that it is to share intelligence with Russia, Iran and Syria.

The United States has built its own coalition of mainly Sunni Arab and Western countries to fight the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, but Russia is taking another course.

Washington has demanded that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad step down, but Putin's rival alliance with Shiite-led states will instead shore up the beleaguered government in Damascus.

Western powers say Assad's military is responsible for the vast majority of the 240,000 deaths in the four-year war, but Putin said there is only "one legitimate conventional army" in Syria.

"We have proposed to cooperate with the countries in the region. We are trying to establish some kind of coordinated framework," Putin said in an interview with CBS News "60 Minutes."

"We would welcome a common platform for collective action against the terrorists," he said, in excerpts released Sunday.

Stressing the need to work with Assad to defeat the jihadist threat, Putin mocked the United States' $500-million effort to train Syrian anti-ISIS fighters.

"As few as 4 or 5 people actually carry weapons, the rest of them have deserted with the American weapons to join ISIS," he said.

The Pentagon has confirmed that some US-trained rebels surrendered some of their equipment to an Al-Qaeda linked militia, apparently in return for safe passage.

Washington and its allies counter that Assad triggered the civil war that has given jihadist factions room to grow, and continues to make a political settlement impossible.

US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told ABC News on Sunday that Assad gases and bombs his own people and "we haven't seen a dictator like him in a very long time.

"Put that all to one side. The other challenge is he hasn't been at all effective fighting ISIL. In fact, the presence of Assad has attracted foreign terrorist fighters," she argued.

"We are targeting them. We are having good success, particularly in the northern part of the country. Actually blunting ISIL's progress and rolling them back."

Washington and its allies refuse to put boots on the ground in Syria, despite the extraordinary chaos after four years of intense bloodshed, but Russia is ramping up its presence.

Moscow already has a powerful military detachment on a Syrian airbase in government-held territory, equipped with warplanes and tanks, and will now work more closely with neighboring Iraq.

Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's office, said that officers from Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq would work together in Baghdad.

"It's a committee coordinating between the four countries, with representatives of each country, in the field of military intelligence," he said.

Iraq will continue to work with the US-led anti-IS coalition, but the new Russian presence in the capital captured by US forces in 2003 and occupied for a decade sends a powerful signal.

Obama and Kerry are hoping to use the week of the UN General Assembly to strengthen the resolve of their own coalition and build momentum for the fight against jihadist violence.

The US president will address the crisis in his own address and hold a parallel summit on violent extremism, while Kerry and US allies rally support for the anti-ISIS battle.

But all eyes will now be on Obama's face-off with Putin, who suggested that Washington's support for "moderate" Sunni rebels in Syria was illegal and a source of much of the violence.

"We have been providing assistance to legitimate government entities only," Putin said, adding that he had personally briefed his Turkish, Saudi and Jordanian counterparts on the plan.

"We informed the United States too," he said. "We would welcome a common platform for collective action against the terrorists."