Russian president Vladimir Putin delivered his first address to the United Nations (UN) in a decade this past Monday, using the platform to berate President Obama and his Western allies about their handling of the Syrian civil war.
Putin, uncompromising to the extreme, lambasted the United States’ unwillingness to work with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad against ISIS.
He declared, “We think 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.”
Putin has firmly announced, and acted upon, his complete support of the Assad regime.
President Obama, for his part, offered a compelling defense of the American policy of isolating Assad, citing Assad’s human rights violations and the dictatorial nature of the regime.
In a stinging rebuke of Russia’s support for the regime, and powerful defense of the isolation policy, Obama harkened back to the beginning of the civil war. He recalled, “Assad reacted to peaceful protest by escalating repression and killing and in turn created the environment for the current strife.”
Behind the rhetoric from both sides, however, are clear geopolitical concerns over the fate of Syria.
Syria sits at a strategic location on the Mediterranean, neighboring NATO Turkey and the unstable Middle East.
Russia, during the Soviet era, had established close military and diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime, providing defense and military might to the country and backing its authoritarian regime in exchange for a toehold in the Mediterranean.
Though the fall of the Soviet Union damaged relations, Putin has endeavored to, and succeeded in, rebuilding relations with the regime.
Only a few weeks ago, satellite photos revealed a new Russian-built air base in the country, and more recently, several Russian fighter jets were moved to this base.
Obama, and more broadly the enitre United States, desires to contain Russia and prevent it from regaining its old measure of international influence.
Allowing the presence of the Russian military in Syria, and therefore allowing Russia to reclaim influence in lands far from its mainland, would be a major setback to this goal.
On Monday, the two presidents met first on the speaking floor of the General Assembly, and then one-on-one to discuss the situation.
Both sides come to the table with geopolitical demands and limitations, which will make finding any kind of compromise exceedingly difficult.
Indeed, the meetings appear to have been inconclusive, both sides emerging still at loggerheads from the contentious meeting.
Thankfully, neither side seems inclined to use force to settle the disputes. Though the situation is reminescent of Cold War era proxy disputes, it seems highly unlikely that either side will commit troops on the ground. Limited airstrikes by both sides have been conducted, but these are aimed at ISIS installations.
Neither Russia nor the U.S. would benefit from a direct confrontation in the region, which makes it likely that this dispute will be settled diplomatically, possibly through sanctions on the U.S. side, or sheer bull-headedness from the Russians.