Obama has little choice but to work with Putin in Syria

President Barack Obama, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin share an awkward toast during a luncheon at the United Nations on Monday.
President Barack Obama, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin share an awkward toast during a luncheon at the United Nations on Monday. United Nations

With Syria’s bloody civil war raging into its fifth year, it isn’t easy to find any glimmer of hope. So we’ll be optimistic that President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are talking again, however icy their relationship.

If an agreement to oust Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is out of the question, perhaps they can find some unity against a common enemy – the Islamic State, which poses the more immediate threat.

Tuesday, Obama led an important summit of world leaders on countering the Islamic State and other jihadists. Putin didn’t attend but is calling for an alliance against terrorism like the one that defeated Hitler.

Nearly 30,000 foreigners have joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq since 2011, and the estimate has doubled in just the past year. They’re from more than 100 countries, and include several thousand from Russia and more than 250 Americans.

Adding to the concern, a congressional investigation concluded Tuesday that “despite concerted efforts to stem the flow, we have largely failed to stop Americans from traveling overseas to join jihadists.” The bipartisan report warned that a patchwork intelligence system around the world isn’t catching foreign jihadists, who pose a triple threat: “They strengthen terrorist groups, incite others back home to conduct attacks, and can return themselves to launch acts of terror.”

No nation wants these terrorists to return home from Syria with more training and more radicalized. Obama, Putin and other leaders ought to be able to improve cooperation and share intelligence.

But there seems little, if any, hope for a united front on Syria’s civil war, which killed 18,000 civilians last year alone and is the root cause of the refugee crisis in Europe.

Obama and Putin traded blunt critiques in speeches to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, preceding their first face-to-face meeting in nearly a year.

Putin stood behind Assad, a longtime ally, and asserted that U.S. efforts to bring democracy to the Middle East – out of “self-conceit and belief in one’s exceptionality” – has instead brought “violence and social disaster.”

Obama stood firm that Assad – “a dictator (who) slaughters tens of thousands of his own people” – must go, accused Putin of violating international law by annexing Crimea and criticized Russia’s military buildup in Syria.

That buildup, however, does give an advantage to Putin on the ground, with troops and artillery supporting Assad against the Islamic State as well as anti-government rebels.

Obama is boxed in because while he forged a coalition for airstrikes, the U.S. has utterly failed in finding and training “moderate” Syrian rebels – if enough really exist – to fight the Islamic State. A $500 million Pentagon effort has produced nearly as many embarrassing defections as fighters.

Realistically, that puts Obama in the awkward position of partnering with Russia and Iran to take on the Islamic State in Syria. But especially in the Middle East, you can’t always choose your allies.

“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” Obama said at the U.N. “But we must recognize that there cannot be after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo.”

That is Obama’s wish and policy, but realistically – there’s that word again – getting rid of Assad has to take a back seat to combating the Islamic State.