Lauren Meyer, Loyola University:
This week, the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly convened in New York City to begin multilateral discussions on a multitude of issues, the most critical of which being the ongoing conflicts occurring in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. While leaders from around the world gathered to speak on these various issues, all eyes were on President Barack Obama of the United States and President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation. This was the first formal face-to-face meeting between the two rival leaders since 2013, and because so much has happened since then, the world was curious to see how these two were going to confront these continuing crises.
The crisis in Syria began in March 2011 when pro-democracy protests erupted in the city of Deraa after teenagers, who painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall, were arrested and tortured. National unrest occurred after security forces opened fire on demonstrators and protests then began throughout Syria calling for President Assad to resign. In 2012, President Obama declared that if President Assad used chemical weapons upon his own people that that would be a “red line” that would alter his military strategy in the region, yet, he did not follow through on this statement after President Assad did indeed cross the “red line.” Violence continued to spread and by June 2013, 90,000 people had been killed in the conflict. Two years later, by March 2015, it had been documented that 220,000 people had been killed.
With the opportunity to discuss a multitude of issues, President Obama spoke first, specifically touching upon the situation in Syria. He took a direct swipe at President Putin when he argued that, “realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader.” Putin, a defender of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, voiced his support of the regime stating that, “it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face.” Both men agree that defeating ISIL is a necessary and favorable outcome for achieving peace in the region, yet their reasons for wanting such a result stem from wildly different perspectives. Putin views suppressing ISIL as a way to still defend and steady the regime of President Assad, a key Russian ally in the region. On the other hand, President Obama views President Assad as a ruthless dictator who needs to be removed from power for any chance of peace to take hold. President Obama commented on the inhumane actions of ISIL and the Assad regime, through emotional rhetoric, saying that “when a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not just matter of one nation’s internal affairs—it breeds human suffering on an order of magnitude that affects us all. Likewise, when a terrorist group beheads captives, slaughters the innocent and enslaves women, that’s not a single nation’s national security problem—that is an assault on all humanity.” The stark contrast between the two speeches demonstrated that the relationship between the two leaders is still extremely shaky and that distrust is certainly a major factor in their lack of cooperation.
On September 30th, only two days after President Putin’s remarks at the United Nations, Russia launched its first set of airstrikes into Syria, a surprising move to U.S. intelligence officials. There are conflicting reports as to the true motive of the airstrikes. While Russia insists that they are targeting the same terror groups that the U.S. is focused on, the U.S. argues that Russian airstrikes have been carrying out random airstrikes on rival insurgent groups, thus supporting the army of President Assad. When asked about Russia’s military actions in a press briefing on September 30th, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stated that “carrying out indiscriminate military operations against the Syrian opposition is dangerous for Russia,” thus alluding to the notion that their actions could drawn them deeper into the conflict.
In just four and a half years, the conflict in Syria has resulted in more than 250,000 civilians killed, over a million injured, and 11 million fleeing from their homes. The human cost has been distressing and the effects of the conflict have reverberated throughout the region and are affecting Europe as well, as four million Syrian refugees have begun entering the continent trying to seek safety and a chance at a better life. It is too early to see how Russia’s actions will further influence the military strategy of the United States going forward, but it is clear that little improvement was made between President Obama and President Putin at the UN General Assembly and that both men are still firmly entrenched in their own beliefs, with little room right now for a path of advancement in Syria. If the United States is not going to directly confront Russia on its military action, then it is possible that we could see the present situation continue into the foreseeable future, and as such, make it harder to come to a peaceful resolution that will help to end the conflict and help those who are suffering.