President Obama called for the end of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad on Monday morning, signaling to the world, particularly Russian President Vladimir Putin, that the U.S. will oppose Moscow's efforts to back Assad in the civil war that has torn apart his country.
Speaking to world leaders gathered for the United Nations General Assembly, Obama rejected the assertion that Assad is the better alternative to the Islamic State and other extremist groups terrorizing Iraq and Syria.
Some suggest that "we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs on innocent children, because the alternative is surely worse," Obama told the assembly.
Yes, he said, a realistic worldview suggests that compromise is necessary to end the violence. He noted that the U.S. and Assad are battling a common enemy in the Islamic State terrorist group.
A solution also requires a "managed transition away from Assad and toward a new leader," Obama cautioned.
"When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not just a matter of one nation's internal affairs," he said. "It breeds human suffering on an order of magnitude that affects us all."
But Obama did not pinpoint exactly when he thinks Assad must go, a nod to the widespread concern among world leaders that the Syrian leader's immediate departure might result in the fall of government institutions. In the chaos, they fear, the Islamic State would move in to fill the vacuum.
With a tide of Syrian refugees flooding into Europe and its Syria policy faltering, the Obama administration and its allies are considering a peace formula that would allow Assad to remain in office, at least on an interim basis.
Obama's remarks came as Obama prepares to meet later this afternoon with Putin largely to talk about the conflict in Syria. Russia has built up its military presence in Syria in recent weeks in a bid by Putin both to make himself and his nation central to the international efforts to end the war there and to escape the isolation that the U.S. and its allies have left Russia in over its support for separatists in Ukraine.
Advisors to Obama say he will try to get a deeper understanding of Putin's intent in Syria, Russia's longtime ally.
Obama also hopes to convince Putin of his conviction that there will never be peace in Syria as long as Assad is still in power; that having suppressed, bombed and attacked his people with chemical weapons, Assad cannot be allowed to remain in power by an international community that values international order.
Obama's address to the assembly was crafted as the basis for that argument, offered on the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. Obama came to town to celebrate the idea that nations succeed when they work cooperatively and are weaker when they pursue a path of aggression.
Broadcasting that message to the full General Assembly, Obama on Monday talked about how he sees the U.S. role on the world stage as a leader that confronts threats while pursuing diplomacy, democratic principles and support for international law and order.
The Iran nuclear deal, he said, is an example of what world leaders can accomplish through cooperation, in a setting where nations are held accountable for violating international rules.
Principled diplomacy is the key, he said.
He talked about pairing diplomacy with military efforts, reiterating that he is not eliminating military options against Islamic State.
"While military power is necessary, it is not sufficient to resolve the situation in Syria," he said. "Lasting stability can only take hold when the people of Syria forge an agreement to live together peacefully."
"Together we must strengthen our collective capacity where order has broken down and to support those who seek a just and lasting peace," Obama said, arguing that "nowhere is our commitment to international order more tested than in Syria."
In his remarks to the General Assembly, Putin argued that it is unwise to refuse to engage with the Syrian leadership.
"No one but President Assad and the Kurdish militia are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria," he said.
The Russian moves to support them have been "used as a pretext" to criticize Russia's ambitions, he said, "as if those who say it have no ambitions."
"What we actually propose is to be guided by common values and common interests rather than ambitions," Putin said, standing at the same podium where Obama had spoken two hours prior.
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