America and Russia could still co-operate over Syria

ONLY a few months ago, the speech Vladimir Putin delivered to the UN General Assembly might have been dismissed as the raving of a discredited despot. But by September 28th, as he prepared to lay out Russia’s plans for salvaging Syria on his way to a meeting with Barack Obama, Mr Putin’s words were anticipated by many Western officials as representing the best hope for a solution to the catastrophe. This shift in attitude must count as an indictment of America’s failed Syria policy.


It was hard to find anything terribly promising in what followed; yet there was progress. In an earlier speech to the assembly, Mr Obama had restated America’s position that, as part of any peace process, Syria’s brutal and encircled leader, Bashar Assad, must go. “Let’s remember how this started. Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing,” he said, in an oddly discursive address. “So Assad and his allies cannot simply pacify the broad majority of a population who have been brutalised by chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing.”


Yet Mr Obama said he was prepared to work with those same allies of Assad, “including Russia and Iran”, to end the conflict. To underline that, he reiterated America’s recent suggestion that the Syrian leader need not go immediately, but as part of a “managed transition”. This is in effect an admission that America’s campaign against Islamic State (IS)—its main security concern in Syria—has failed. America’s bombing of IS has done much less damage than it hoped; a $500m effort to train a rival Syrian rebel force has produced only a handful of fighters. The cautious welcome many countries, including in Europe, have given to news that Russia has meanwhile deployed some 2,000 troops and attack aircraft to Syria, to aid Mr Assad, is another mark of America’s failure. Mr Obama’s speech was an olive branch to Mr Putin.


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