President Barack Obama spoke up at the press conference in Washington Friday against the backdrop of much excitement in the US and abroad that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin is ‘outsmarting’ him in Syria.

These are also Obama’s first remarks on his meeting with Putin in New York last Monday. Three momentous days have also passed since Russia began military operations in Syria, and Obama has some catching up to do.

What emerges out of Obama’s remarks is that he was not exactly taken by surprise at the commencement of the Russian military operations in Syria. Of course, Obama would not admit that he anticipated Putin to act this way, but the overall tenor of his remarks conveyed as much.

Indeed, surveying the range of Russian assessments, Xinhua reported from Moscow Friday that the Obama-Putin meeting might have even given “a green light” to the Russian airstrikes in Syria (which began Wednesday.)

It said, “In spite of distinct disputes on such issues as the Ukraine crisis and the Syrian conflict, the two countries [US and Russia] managed to coordinate, sending a positive signal regarding the improvement of bilateral relations and their readiness to cooperate more”.

Obama’s remarks yesterday signaled that Washington hopes to work with Russia rather than confront Russia over Syria. He pooh-poohed the ‘great game’ theories going around. Obama’s punchline:

  • But we’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. That would be bad strategy on our part… Our battle is with ISIL… This is not some superpower chessboard contest. And anybody who frames it in that way isn’t paying very close attention to what’s been happening on the chessboard.

No doubt, Obama remains skeptical about the prospects of success of the Russian military. He thinks this is not “a smart, strategic move on Russia’s part”, and it runs the high risk of alienating the Sunni opinion not only in Syria but throughout the Middle East, which of course, would impact “at a time when Russia has a significant Muslim population inside of its own borders that it needs to worry about”.

Obama did not condemn the Russian air attacks, but probed the likely Russian motivations and discussed the US’ policy options. His bottom line is, “This is not a contest between the United States and Russia”.

Obama estimates that rather than being a display of Russian strength or assertiveness, the military intervention in Syria is a sign of weakness, “because his [Putin’s] client, Mr. Assad was crumbling. And it was insufficient for him [Putin] simply to send them arms and money; now he’s got to put in his own planes and his own pilots”.

The point is, Obama sees the Russian operations in Syria as aimed principally at weakening the opposition to Assad and not as a fight against the Islamic State.

The narrative is that Assad stares at defeat, while all expert opinion suggests otherwise. Obama still imagines there is a ‘moderate Syrian opposition’ the US can work with and that Assad must amicably make way for this opposition.

Obama probably knows he is holding on to a world of make-believe as part of public diplomacy. The US’ regional allies would expect him to stick to the narrative. On the other hand, what options does he have under the circumstances?

Obama underscored that Washington will neither cooperate nor militarily oppose the Russian operations in Syria. Instead, he chooses to thoroughly disagree with Putin’s decision and will keep harping on the need for a political solution to the conflict.

Actually, Obama is making a virtue out of necessity. He admitted candidly about the US’ limitations in getting into any military involvement in Syria. For one thing, he is not sure the US has the “resources and the capacity to make a serious impact”.

Again, the US’ hands are full with the ongoing fight against the Islamic State, the involvement in Iraq and its commitments in Afghanistan. Besides, Syrian question is of such complexity that “no amount of US military engagement will solve the problem.”

In the ultimate analysis, therefore, “we [US] will find ourselves either doing just a little bit and not making a difference, and losing credibility that way, or finding ourselves drawn in deeper and deeper into a situation that we can’t sustain”.

It is in such that Obama stands out as an extraordinary statesman. To realize one’s own weakness – and, to admit it openly – does not come easy, especially for a politician – and that too, an American president.

In this case, it is not only the loneliness of a long-distance runner but the exasperating conduct of a political class that is myopic or delusionary – “And when I hear people offering up half-baked ideas as if they are solutions, or trying to downplay the challenges involved in this situation – what I’d like to see people ask is, specifically, precisely, what exactly would you do, and how would you fund it, and how would you sustain it?  And typically, what you get is a bunch of mumbo jumbo”.

Perhaps, the most significant part of Obama’s remarks was the quiet confidence he exuded in anticipating that at some point Putin too would “begin to recognize that it is in their interest to broker a political settlement”. Therefore, Obama said, “we’re prepared to work with the Russians and the Iranians… to come up with that political transition [in Syria]… I think it is still possible. And so we will maintain lines of communication”.

Meanwhile, in a masterly stroke in the best traditions of Russian-American détente, Obama brought in the analogy of Ukraine to signal to the Kremlin that there is a much larger backdrop than Syria involved here in the goings on:

  • So I’m hopeful that Mr. Putin, having made this doubling-down of the support he has provided to Mr. Assad, recognizes that this is not going to be a good long-term strategy and that he works instead to bring about a political settlement. Just as I hope that they can resolve the issues with Ukraine in a way that recognizes Russian equities but upholds the principle of sovereignty and independence that the Ukrainian people should enjoy like everybody else.

The impression becomes unavoidable that Putin took the opportunity to explain to Obama at their meeting in New York the raison d’etre of the Russian military intervention in Syria. Obama most certainly voiced skepticism, but then, both also knew that the US did not propose to counter the Russian intervention.

Cutting through the thicket of media rhetoric that surrounds us regarding Russia’s grand strategy and so on, the conclusion that can be drawn from Obama’s remarks is that Putin, being the realist he is, probably held out the assurance to him that after a hard day’s work in Syria, Moscow certainly intends to come to the negotiating table to discuss the modalities of transition in Damascus and that the two things are not mutually exclusive necessarily.

Of course, Obama too would know that in the final analysis, it is the ground reality that becomes the clincher in such situations.

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