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Obama & Putin Spar at U.N.: Will Regime Change in Syria Further Destabilize War-Torn Nation?

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President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their first formal meeting in two years on Monday in New York to discuss Syria and Ukraine. During the 90-minute meeting, Obama and Putin agreed that their armed forces should hold talks to avoid coming into conflict in Syria, where fighting has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions. Both leaders addressed the United Nations Monday, with Putin defending Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Obama expressing willingness to work with Russia to resolve the crisis in Syria. According to reports, however, the United States ignored a Russian offer in 2012 to have Assad step aside at some point after peace talks had started between the regime and the opposition. And former Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari has said Western powers failed to seize on the 2012 proposal because the United States, Britain and France were convinced that the Syrian dictator was about to fall. Since then, tens of thousands more have been killed, and militants from ISIL have seized swaths of Syria. We talk about the crisis in Syria and the Obama-Putin meeting with Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College and columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline. He also is the author of several books, including “Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their first formal meeting in two years on Monday in New York to discuss Syria and Ukraine. In recent weeks, Russia has built up forces inside Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad and has reached a new intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, Iran and Syria in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. During the 90-minute meeting, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed their armed forces should hold talks to avoid coming into conflict in Syria, where fighting has killed over 200,000 people and displaced millions.

Earlier Monday, both leaders addressed the United Nations. Putin defended Russia’s support for Assad in his first U.N. General Assembly speech since 2005.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] Russia has always been consistently fighting against terrorism in all its forms. Today we provide military and technical assistance both to Iraq and Syria and many other countries of the region who are fighting terrorist groups. 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. We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurdish militia are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: During his U.N. speech, President Obama called for a transition away from Assad as Syria’s leader, but conceded the United States is prepared to work with Russia and Iran to end the fighting in Syria.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Lasting stability can only take hold when the people of Syria forge an agreement to live together peacefully. The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict. But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.

AMY GOODMAN: While President Obama is now expressing willingness to work with Russia to resolve the crisis in Syria, that’s not always been the case. The Guardian recently reported the United States ignored a Russian offer in 2012 to have Syria’s Assad step aside at some point after peace talks had started between the regime and the opposition. According to former Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, Western powers failed to seize on the 2012 proposal because the United States, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator was about to fall. Since then, tens of thousands of more people have been killed, and militants from ISIL have seized swaths of Syria.

To talk more about the crisis in Syria and the Obama-Putin meeting, we’re joined by Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College in Connecticut and columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline. He’s the author of a number of books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.

Professor Prashad, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what’s been happening at the United Nations this week, and particularly about what the Russian and U.S. presidents are saying to the world and to each other?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s an interesting day at the U.N. yesterday. Mr. Obama began—he spoke for twice the designated length. He spoke about the American narrative of, you know, how the world looks. Principally, he spent a great deal of time on Russia and on Iran. He made, you know, critical comments about both countries. And then he said, quite surprisingly or strikingly, that the United States is prepared to coordinate with Iran and Russia over a Syrian strategy. That was the most interesting line in his almost half-an-hour speech at the U.N., the fact that now, after so many years of distrust, in Syria, in particular, that the United States is willing to coordinate with Russia and Iran.

A few speakers later was Vladimir Putin, who laid out a different narrative of events in Syria. He concentrated a great deal on the rise of terrorism, on the phenomena of regime change, particularly by the West, creating failed states, which create the conditions for the rise of extremism. So Putin had a different narrative, and he came at it saying that he would like to coordinate with everybody in a joint fight against ISIS.

Neither Mr. Obama nor Putin laid out any specifics. They just indicated that cooperation was, you know, to be considered. This cooperation, of course, is now a fait accompli, because not only is the United States bombing in northern Syria, but the Russians have moved attack aircraft into western Syria, and they are preparing to bomb, as well, in the same region in northern Syria. So, you know, this is now the situation. Both countries will be, I guess, in parallel, fighting against the Islamic State. Now the question is: What is the politics of this new military, you know, intensification?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin during his address to the U.N. General Assembly Monday. He said it was a mistake not to work with Assad’s forces in the fight against Islamic State militants.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] We support the legitimate government of Syria. And it’s my deep belief that any actions to the contrary, in order to destroy the legitimate government, will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions—for instance, in Libya, where all the state institutions are disintegrated. We see a similar situation in Iraq. And there’s no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism, but at the same time urging them to engage in positive dialogue with the rational opposition and conduct reform.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Vladimir Putin on 60 Minutes being interviewed by Charlie Rose. Your comments on this, Vijay Prashad?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Amy, I think this is a very important point that Putin is making. If you do look at the history of regime change, take the case not only of Iraq and Libya, but Afghanistan, as well, when you destroy the state, it’s very hard to, you know, re-create it just in a few years, maybe even in a decade, as far as Iraq is concerned. So, what Putin is saying is, given this recent history of regime change and the destruction of states, perhaps one has to be cautious in Syria that, yes, there will be some kind of transition, but the absolute destruction of the current Syrian state is going to create chaos-like conditions, as one saw in Iraq and as one saw in Libya. It’s very important to see here that Putin is saying that there is something that needs to be considered in terms of a political transition. You know, he is not actually saying fully that Assad must be defended to the end. That’s not what I hear in his comments. What I hear in his comments is that it would be a great error to destroy the Syrian state; instead, there needs to be a political opening.

I mean, I would just like to say something about that slogan, “Assad must go.” You know, in 2011 and 2012, the slogan meant one thing, because at that time Mr. Assad was fairly powerful, controlled most of Syria and was able to operate with an almost open hand against his population. But today, Mr. Assad is deeply weakened. He is a different Assad entirely. The statement now that “Assad must go” is anachronistic, because in very many ways he’s already gone. He is much weaker than he was in 2012, therefore a political opening has been available since at least last year, when the Iranians came to the Americans and said that they would like to push beyond the Geneva talks for a serious regional discussion about settling matters, at least in the western part of Syria. And I think that’s what Mr. Putin is repeating, this idea that the state structure in Syria must not be destroyed, and at the same time a reasonable process of transition has to be worked out by all the powers in the area.

AMY GOODMAN: During his address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama said the coalition could have done more following the 2011 invasion of Libya. Let’s go to that clip.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Where order has completely broken down, we must act. But we will be stronger when we act together. In such efforts, the United States will always do our part. We will do so mindful of the lessons of the past, not just the lessons of Iraq, but also the example of Libya, where we joined an international coalition, under a U.N. mandate, to prevent a slaughter. Even as we helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant, our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to President Obama, Professor Prashad?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, Amy, I don’t want to argue with him about following the U.N. mandate, because one of the problems here was that the French and the Americans exceeded the U.N. mandate and went for regime change rather than merely responsibility to protect civilians. But let’s set that aside.

This is the first public acknowledgment by the United States—or, indeed, by any Western power—that the bombing in Libya in 2011 was not followed up by any mechanism to shore up the state. This is a test example of the error of regime change, because there was heavy aerial bombardment, the Libyan state was utterly demolished, the military was destroyed, and then the country was essentially given over to the different militia groups, who continued to run riot in Libya. And I think this is an important example. This is the same example that Putin raised. Putin also mentioned Iraq, which, again, Obama mentioned. You know, this history of regime change over the last decade has to have people in the West reconsider this very simple policy of aerial bombardment in order to effect some kind of change on the ground. It produces chaos, which has led to much worse outcomes than the issue that provoked the aerial bombardment in the first instance.

And I think when Obama acknowledges that there is this problem in Libya, I’m sure that there is a serious discussion in the White House, in the State Department, about the consequences of regime change in Syria at this point for further chaos, and whether the United States and the West, in general, has the capacity to pick up the pieces in a chaotic Syria. As it is, there seems to be very little will to pick up the pieces of the chaos that remains in Afghanistan, the chaos in Iraq and the chaos in Libya. I doubt very much that there’s not only the stomach, but the resources, to take charge of a Syria after a regime change of the Bashar al-Assad government.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama said in his U.N. address, “Where order has completely broken down, we must act. But we will be stronger when we act together. In such efforts, the United States will always do our part.” And he goes on to say we have to be “mindful” of the efforts of the past. Obama repeatedly says that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure is a precondition because Assad drops barrel bombs on innocent children. But he doesn’t raise the same issue, for example, with another president who’s at the U.N. General Assembly, and that’s President el-Sisi. Yesterday we were joined on the show by one of the three Al Jazeera journalists, Peter Greste, who has not been pardoned by the government, held for 400 days for being a reporter in Egypt. You look at Sisi’s record in killings, the U.S. selling millions of dollars, to say the least, actually supporting Egypt to the tune of billions of dollars, and yet you have hundreds of people praying in the street who were gunned down, the Egyptian government just finishing a massive military operation in northern Sinai, saying they killed, quote, “500 terrorists”?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, hypocrisy is not something that’s restricted to one theater of the world or the other. At the same time as all this is going on, the United States has been resupplying Saudi Arabia as it’s bombed Yemen, in very much the same way as the United States resupplies Israel in its bombing of Gaza. You know, there is no question of responsibility to protect civilians either in Yemen or in Gaza or indeed in Egypt. It’s very clear that, you know, morality in foreign policy is selectively applied. In his U.N. speech, Vladimir Putin said that people accuse Russia of having ambitions or interests in Syria, and he said, “Well, everybody has ambitions and interests. You know, there is nobody here with a moral high ground.” Unfortunately for Syria, its very powerful social dynamic that has been hijacked by geopolitics. And in a sense, there’s no getting around that. Until the geopolitics are sorted out, I’m afraid, the social dynamic in Syria is not going to be able to breathe effectively enough.

And, you know, when the United States talks about doing its part, let’s just stop for a second and recognize that over the last calendar year, the United States has been operating in Syria, it has been bombing ISIS targets, and yet ISIS took Palmyra. The United States has been bombing ISIS targets in Iraq, and yet there’s been no move to take Mosul back from the Islamic State. Meanwhile, of the $500 million provided by the United States to create a moderate rebel army, General Lloyd Austin, the head of Central Command, was asked, “Well, how many fighters did this $500 million produce?” And he said, quite candidly, “Perhaps four or five.” Not 400 or 500, but four or five. Meanwhile, many, many of these fighters have turned themselves over to the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. There’s something wrong with the American strategy as it’s currently in place in Iraq and Syria, and I think there needs to be a serious rethink.

And perhaps if there is a road to peace of some kind offered by the Iranians, which the Russians are taking forward, I think the Americans need to be at the table for this. There’s no point putting your ego before the suffering of the Syrian people. And by “ego,” I mean all of these great powers trying to vie with each other for who should take leadership in the fight against ISIS. I think that’s really an irrelevant issue. The most important issue is how to create some kind of ceasefire in western Syria and how to drain the swamp that is allowing ISIS to remain in northern Syria and in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you can’t talk about Syria and all of these different places without talking about the refugee crisis, that millions of refugees are fleeing. Relate these two, with Europe, in some cases, closing their borders.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, the Europeans are very strange on this issue. Europe gets upset about something when it becomes a problem for Europe. But let’s consider something. The Middle East is the home of refugees, starting with the Palestinian people ejected from their land in 1948. But more recently, of course, the attack on Iraq in the 1990s, the sanctions regime and then the overthrow of the Iraqi government in 2003 created an enormous refugee crisis. Those refugees spilled into Iran, into Syria, into Jordan and further afield. And then, when the war in Syria broke out, the refugees spilled into Turkey, into Lebanon, into Jordan, into Iraq, as well, and certainly inside Syria, which has a huge number of internally displaced people. Perhaps half the population of Syria are currently displaced. So, certainly, these people would eventually find their way to Europe, some through Libya and others through Turkey. You know, Turkey has also been putting pressure on Europe to open up its asylum policy to, in a sense, let Turkey relieve the pressure on its camps. So, these things are precisely related. I think of many of these refugees as regime change refugees, because they have been produced, essentially, by the original sin of regime change in the region, which was Iraq in 2003.

AMY GOODMAN: So, just to be clear, Vijay Prashad, on the issue of Syria, what do you think is the solution?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, I think that there needs to be a drawdown of the struggle against the Assad government at this time, principally because I think that the Iranians and the Russians have said that the Assad government is prepared to come to the table with a transition plan. I feel that the Russians have entered into western Syria less as a military posture and far more to put pressure on the regional proxies, like Ahrar al-Sham, like Jaysh al-Islam, proxies of Turkey and proxies of Saudi Arabia. This is going to raise the question in Turkey and in Saudi Arabia whether they want their proxies to directly confront the Russians. I believe that this is a push to bring these powers back into some kind of Syria contact group to have a serious discussion about a transition.

At the same time, I think that the Turkish government is going to come again under renewed pressure to close its border. Over this last year, while the United States has been bombing northern Syria, the ISIS fighters have doubled their number. They’re coming from somewhere, most likely from Turkey. There needs to be redoubled effort regionally to have the Turks close that border down. There needs to be efforts to stop the money entering into ISIS territory, whether it is through oil sales that are going through Turkey or individual donations from Gulf Arab sheikhs that go into jihadi networks that end up in ISIS hands. There is a very clear kind of policy that could be produced to bring peace to Syria, but it’s going to require a great deal of cooperation between the great powers and the regional powers.

AMY GOODMAN: Vijay Prashad, I want to thank you for discussing this, but I’d like to ask you to stay with us as we talk about the Indian prime minister and his, what, five-day tour in the United States. Let’s talk about the significance of Prime Minister Modi’s trip to the U.S. We’ll do that with you, as well as an Indian human rights activist, in a minute.

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