Syria conflict tops agenda for world leaders at UN

Russian President Vladimir Putin is to hold rare talks with US President Barack Obama to outline his proposals.

The Russians are a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Western leaders have recently softened their stance towards him – conceding that he might be able to stay on during a political transition.

In his opening remarks at the summit, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court, saying there can be no impunity for “atrocious crimes”.

He said five countries – Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran – were key to finding a political solution, but unless they could compromise it would be “futile” to expect change on the ground.

Earlier, Moscow suggested there were plans to form an international contact group including all the countries Mr Ban mentioned plus Egypt.

The morning session at the UN is hearing from both Mr Obama and Mr Putin, as well as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and French President Francois Hollande, whose country has just carried out its first air strikes against Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria.

A famous Russian expression talks about “killing two hares with one shot”. But Vladimir Putin doesn’t do things by halves: he’ll be trying to slay a whole multitude of political and economic hares with one trip to New York.

His UN speech and meeting with President Obama will put President Putin centre stage: a return to the international limelight for a leader shunned by the West over the conflict in Ukraine.

And if he convinces President Obama to put aside their differences and join together in the fight against Islamic State, Russia stands to gain on many levels: by retaining a degree of influence in Syria; by boosting Russian national security (Moscow acknowledges that IS constitutes a threat to Russia); and, crucially, by improving Russia’s international image – rebranding her from pariah to partner and refocusing attention from the conflict in Ukraine.

If Vladimir Putin achieves that, it could be the first step towards easing Western sanctions.

First, though, he will need to convince the US to trust him. It may be a hard sell. 

The threat of IS extremists and the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe has added urgency to the search for a deal to end the civil war.

Mr Putin has reiterated his support for President Assad, who Western countries and the Syrian opposition have said must go.

Mr Putin, who has strongly reinforced Russia’s military presence in Syria, has called for a regional “co-ordinating structure” against IS, and said the Syrian president’s troops were “the only legitimate conventional army there”.

He said Russia would not participate in any troop operations in Syria.

Relations between Russia and the West have been strained over Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last year and its support for separatist rebels in Ukraine’s east.

Mr Putin will also meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Cuban President Raul Castro on the sidelines of the assembly, the Kremlin was quoted as saying by Reuters.

President Rouhani – a key regional ally of President Assad – says the government in Damascus “can’t be weakened” if IS militants are to be defeated.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, however, said the efforts were “not yet co-ordinated” and the US had “concerns about how we are going to go forward”.

What’s the human cost?

More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and one million injured in four and a half years of armed conflict, which began with anti-government protests before escalating into a full-scale civil war.

And the survivors?

More than 11 million others have been forced from their homes, four million of them abroad, as forces loyal to President Assad and those opposed to his rule battle each other – as well as jihadist militants from IS. Growing numbers of refugees are going to Europe.

How has the world reacted?

Regional and world powers have also been drawn into the conflict. Iran and Russia, along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, are propping up the Alawite-led government. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are backing the Sunni-dominated opposition, along with the US, UK and France.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to reflect the softening of the Western stance against Mr Assad this week.

He is set to tell leaders at the gathering in New York that Mr Assad could remain temporarily in power at the head of a transitional government.

Mr Cameron – along with Mr Obama and Mr Hollande – has previously demanded that Mr Assad be removed from power as a condition of any peace deal, a position consistently rejected by Mr Putin.

In addition to Russia’s military build-up in Syria, Iraq on Sunday announced that it had signed an agreement on security and intelligence co-operation with Russia, Iran and Syria to help combat IS.

A US-led coalition has been carrying out air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq for more than a year. France, like the UK, has previously confined its air strikes against the Islamic State group to Iraqi airspace.

The UK announced this month it had carried out a drone strike against two British citizens in Syria, but has yet to fly manned operations in Syrian airspace.

More than 200,000 Syrians have been killed since the country erupted into civil war in 2011, and Islamic State militants took control of swathes of the country in 2014. Mr Assad has been accused of killing tens of thousands of his own citizens with indiscriminate bombing in rebel-held areas.

Approximately four million Syrians have fled abroad so far – the vast majority are in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – and more are on the move.


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