Terrorist threat pushes Russia to reconsider priorities in Syria
MOSCOW - In a striking shift, President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are embarking on a tentative path toward closer ties and possible military cooperation, as the bitter rift over Ukraine gives way to common cause against the Islamic State (ISIS) group.
After weeks of accusing Moscow of trying to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad by bombing US-backed rebels, Obama changed his tune on Wednesday, praising Putin as a "constructive partner" in a nascent diplomatic effort to resolve Syria's civil war.
Putin, too, has issued conciliatory signals, softening his tone about the US and calling for the US and Russia to "stand together" against the extremist threat.
Speaking on the sidelines of a summit in the Philippines, Obama even raised the prospect of military coordination with Russia — a possibility that has seemed remote ever since the US cut off military ties last year over Moscow's actions in Ukraine.
Obama said Russia had been a "constructive partner in Vienna in trying to create a political transition," referring to international talks in Austria.
But, he said, there were still differences over the fate of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, and Moscow's current military focus on defending him.
"There is obviously a catch, which is Moscow is still interested in keeping Assad in power," Obama said.
But he added: "Those differences have not prevented us at looking at how could we set up a ceasefire."
Obama also expressed hope that Russia may shift the military focus from defending Assad to attacking the Islamic State group.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the October 31 crash that killed 224, and Putin has vowed to hunt down those responsible and punish them.
"In their initial military incursion into Syria, they have been more focused on propping up President Assad," Obama said.
"If, in fact, he shifts his focus and the focus of his military, to what is the principle threat, which is ISIL, then that is what we want to see," Obama said using another acronym for the group.
"We are going to wait and see whether Russia does end up paying more attention to ISIL targets. If it does so, that's something we welcome."
For Putin, the terror attacks in Paris marked a watershed moment in relations with the West.
At a summit this week in Turkey, Putin huddled amicably with Obama and other Western leaders, whose changing attitudes reflected the political reality that the US and its allies need Russia's help to confront an extremist threat now striking at the heart of Europe.
In a sign of an emerging Russia-West axis, French President Francois Hollande announced he would travel to Washington next week and Moscow two days later to discuss stepping up cooperation against ISIS with Obama and Putin.
Forging an alliance with the West to fight ISIS would offer Putin a chance to raise Russia's global clout and prestige and to repair relations that were shattered by the Ukraine crisis.
"The West may find it hard to discuss a degree of Russia's responsibility for what happened in Ukraine, or the legitimacy of its presence in Syria, at a moment when the ISIS has reached all the way to the Eiffel Tower," Gleb Pavlovsky, a political strategist who used to work for the Kremlin, said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
Yet, while the Kremlin is clearly hopeful that cooperation against ISIS will push Ukraine to the sidelines, both the US and Russia have rejected any link between Syria and Ukraine.
A White House official said no matter what happens in Syria, the US won't lift crippling economic sanctions against Russia until it fulfills its obligations under a Ukraine peace deal reached in February.
Because Obama has suspended formal US-Russia military ties, coordination in the fight can only go so far — even if Moscow sharpens its focus on ISIS.
In recent days the US has seen Russia begin focusing some of its strikes on ISIS, but the vast majority have targeted moderate rebels fighting Assad, said an official who wasn't authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.
Putin's high-intensity air campaign makes him a major player in the Syrian conflict, and Russia's influence over its ally, Assad, gives it a key role in diplomatic efforts to negotiate a political solution.
Obama said that for weeks now, Russia has played a helpful role in talks in Vienna that US Secretary of State John Kerry says could produce a ceasefire within weeks.
Though distrustful of Russia's government after years of skirmishes, Obama has sought to compartmentalize the various conflicts in which the former Cold War foes inevitably cross paths.
Despite its quarrels over Syria and Ukraine, the US worked with Russia to secure the nuclear deal with Iran, after which Obama thanked Putin for his "important role" in that formulating the accord.
Obama's interactions with Putin at the Group of 20 summit this week were notably devoid of the grim-faced exchanges they've had in the past. Instead, the two were spotted leaning in close at a coffee table and, in another run-in, grinning broadly as they casually chatted.
And Putin, who has rarely missed a chance to mock the US, avoided outright gloating as he spoke to reporters at the meeting in Turkey. Instead, he deployed even-mannered restraint when asked to assess the efficiency of the US-led coalition's air war against ISIS, which has thus far fallen woefully short of Obama's goal of defeating the extremist group.
"It's not the right moment to judge who is better and who is worse," Putin said. "Now it's necessary to look forward and pool efforts to fight the common threat."
Whether the US and Russia can make good on hopes of cooperating in Syria will likely hinge on their ability to reconcile their disagreement about Assad's future. That effort will likely be daunting.
While Russia has sought to buttress Assad, the US and its allies insist he's lost legitimacy and can't be part of any future Syrian government. US officials waxed hopeful that Russia was finally coming around, pointing out that Russia signed on to a diplomatic statement in Vienna on Saturday calling for a "Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition."
But Putin later said the issue must be decided by the Syrians as part of that process. Assad's political future, Putin said, is a "secondary issue," to be decided later.