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Obama, Putin To Meet On Syria As Tension Builds Ahead Of Russian Offensive Against ISIS

By now, it’s no secret that Moscow has officially called an end to the US policy of utilizing Sunni extremists to destabilize the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

What began months ago with rumors of Russian troops operating alongside the Syrian Arab Army culminated on Wednesday with reports that Vladimir Putin will bomb ISIS positions to support Assad with or without the help of US forces. What that means is that if the US was indeed adopting a “containment strategy” vis-a-vis ISIS (versus mounting a serious attempt to defeat Bakr al-Baghdadi’s army) in order to effectively ensure that Assad would be unable to stabilize the country, the game is now up, as Moscow is set to eliminate any and all threats to the regime. 

That, along with the fact that Russia and Iran are now coordinating their military efforts in support of their mutual ally in Damascus, presents Washington with a serious problem. As we’ve detailed on a number of occasions, the US now must decide between admitting that ousting Assad (and thereby refusing Russia’s offer to join forces against ISIS) takes precedence over combatting terror or else relent and assist Moscow and Tehran with stabilizing the very regime the US and its regional allies have sought to remove for at least ten years.

Although admitting that the fight against ISIS is not America’s top priority is quite clearly not an option, allying with Russia and Iran is apparently so detestable a proposition that The White House will delay a decision for as long as absolutely possible in what’s likely an attempt to use diplomatic back channels to try and see if there’s another way out that allows Washington to save face. 

With the pressure building, Obama is now set to meet directly with Putin next week following the Russian President’s speech to the UN General Assembly. As Reuters notes, both the US and Russia are keen on spinning the narrative in a way that pleases their respective electorates:

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in New York next week at a time of high tension in Europe and the Middle East, but the Kremlin and the White House disagreed on Thursday over the top priority for the talks.

 

The White House insisted the meeting would focus on eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed forces are fighting the Kiev government, prompting tough sanctions that have damaged Russia's economy.

 

Moscow, however, said the main focus would be on Syria, where Russia has built up its military forces in recent weeks with combat aircraft, tanks and other equipment in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

 

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters: "Of course, the primary topic will be Syria." Asked whether Ukraine would be discussed, he said: "Well, if time allows."

 

"There will be time," Obama's spokesman, Josh Earnest, retorted during a briefing in Washington. Earnest, speaking at the White House, played down the possibility for any "major announcement" from the meeting.

Meanwhile, the Ayatollah has predictably moved to ensure that there will be no dialogue between Washington and Tehran with regard to Syria. Here’s WSJ:

Iran also is a core component of any Syria resolution, and administration officials hoped to quickly move to discussions with Tehran on that issue after reaching the nuclear deal. But that effort seems stalled for now.

 

Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif over the weekend.

 

Administration officials have said Mr. Obama is open to meeting with Iran’s president. But the Iranians have indicated to the U.S. that it won’t happen, underscoring the difficulty of redefining relations after decades of hostility.

 

Mr. Rouhani arrived in New York on Thursday with a mandate to convey the message that Iran is open to the world, according to analysts and diplomats inside Iran. But when it comes to the U.S., Iran is drawing a red line.

 

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said in speeches in the past month that engaging with the U.S. beyond the nuclear topic is prohibited.

 

Mr. Rouhani told CBS television’s “60 Minutes” in an interview this week that “many steps have to be taken before we reach such a stage.”

 

Saeed Laylaz, an influential political analyst in Tehran, said a meeting between the presidents “would escalate tensions inside Iran and given Mr. Khamenei’s warning, it would be viewed as a slap in the face to the supreme leader.”

Yes, and make no mistake, Khamenei is not a man who enjoys being slapped in the face and especially not by a president who, when one strips away all the niceties, is really nothing more than a figurehead. 

What the above means is that the US is now completely at the mercy of Russia when it comes to determining the path forward in Syria and the only way that Washington, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar will be able to walk away with their dignity intact is if The Kremlin agrees to allow for a political transition away from Assad but even that would be nothing more than a Pyrrhic victory as there simply is no scenario in which Moscow and Tehran will allow for Assad to be replaced by a government that represents Western interests.