The United States is willing to work with Iran and Russia to try to end the Syrian conflict, US President Barack Obama said on Monday but insisted there could not be a return to the status quo under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Speaking at the UN General Assembly, Obama described Assad as a tyrant and as the chief culprit behind the four-year civil war in which at least 200,000 people have died and millions have been driven from their homes internally or abroad as refugees.
However, he did not explicitly call for Assad’s ouster and he suggested there could be a “managed transition” away from his rule, the latest sign that despite US animus toward the Syrian leader it is willing to see him stay for some period of time.
“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” Obama said at the annual gathering of world leaders. “But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo.”
In voicing a willingness to deal with Iran and Russia, both staunch backers of Assad, Obama was openly acknowledging their influence in Syria and swallowing a somewhat bitter pill for the United States.
Tehran has armed the Syrian government and, through its backing of Lebanese Hezbollah fighter, has helped Assad fight rebels seeking to end his family’s four-decade rule. Russia has recently engaged in a military build-up in Syria, where it has a naval base that serves as its foothold in the Middle East.
Obama is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin later on Monday on the sidelines of the gathering, for talks that could provide some hint on how it might be possible to end a conflict that has defied years of diplomatic efforts.
The United States has deep disagreements with Russia, notably over its March 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine as well as its military support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The United States and European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Russia in response.
“We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated,” Obama said. “That’s the basis of the sanctions that the United States and our partners impose on Russia, it’s not a desire to return to a cold war.”
US officials say they believe Putin’s build-up of Russian forces, including tanks and warplanes, in Syria mainly reflects Moscow’s fear that Assad’s grip might be weakening and a desire to shore him up to retain Russian influence in the region.
They also see it as a way for Putin to try to project Russian influence more widely, a goal he appeared to achieve on Sunday with Iraq’s announcement that Russia, Iran, Syria and the Iraqi government were sharing intelligence on Syria.
Putin has cast the Russian build-up as part of a general fight against “terrorism,” notably against the Islamic State militant group that has seized swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.
The United States began a bombing campaign against Islamic State last year but has resisted any commitment of ground troops in Syria.
“There is no room for accommodating an apocalyptic cult like ISIL and the United States makes no apology for using our military as part of a broad coalition to go after it,” he said, referring to the militant group.
“Realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL,” Obama said. “But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos.”
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, which has been drawn into the conflict, also told reporters Assad was the main person responsible for the crisis. “A transitional process is needed in Syria without Assad and those groups involved in crimes,” he said.