Today before the United Nations General Assembly, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin sparred publicly over how their respective nations have approached a solution to crises in Ukraine and Syria. For both leaders, these speeches were an opportunity to regain control of a spiraling military, security, and human rights narrative that is now being influenced not only by the spread of Islamic terrorism, but the effects of mass migration out of the Middle East and Africa and into Europe.

President Obama lashed out at Putin over Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine and criticized Putin’s leadership (or, lack thereof) on the Syrian crisis. Oddly enough, though, Obama somehow managed leave himself space to justify a partnership with Russia as a way of addressing conflict in Syria.

From the New York Times:

Mr. Obama made a forceful defense of diplomacy but also castigated Russia by name multiple times in his speech for its defense of the Syrian government, its takeover of Crimea and its actions supporting Ukrainian rebels.

“Dangerous currents risk pulling us back into a darker, more disordered world,” Mr. Obama said.

Those currents include major powers that want to ignore international rules and impose order through force of military power, he said.

“In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent civilians because the alternative is surely worse,” he said in comments that seemed to be aimed directly at Mr. Putin.

In his earlier speech, Mr. Obama also chided China for its expansions in the South China Sea and Iran for its support of Mr. Assad, as well as the broader anti-American messages that emanate from the Iranians.

“Chanting ‘Death to America’ does not create jobs, or make Iran more secure,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama said that he was realistic, but he said realism had to take into account the brutality of the Assad government in Syria, where war has raged for more than four years.

“Let’s remember how this started,” Mr. Obama said of the Syria conflict. “Assad reacted to peaceful protest by escalating repression and killing and in turn created the environment for the current strife.”

(You can read the full text of Obama’s speech here.)

Putin’s speech, in turn, took a complete 180. He used his time before the GA to bolster Assad’s reputation as a crucial cog in the effort to defeat ISIS in the Middle East. In a clever move, he played to the Eurozone crowd by arguing that Assad’s efforts will help western and other coalition powers prevent the spread of extremism north into Europe.

(Whether or not anyone believed him remains to be seen, seeing as how the majority of Assad’s military efforts in Syria are aimed at plowing over rebel groups.)

Elsewhere, though, Russia has hedged on Syria, and more specifically, on the legitimacy of Assad as a viable leader. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Putin was careful to focus on bolstering the Syrian government at large, as opposed to expressing direct support for Assad:

“We support the legitimate government of Syria,” he said, suggesting that to undermine it was to open the way to the kind of chaos now on show in Libya. But, while Charlie Rose kept peppering Putin with questions about Assad, directly, Putin was careful to talk about the Syrian government in more general terms:

“There is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism,” Putin said. “But, at the same time, urging them to engage in positive dialogue with the rational opposition and conduct reform.”

Putin and Obama also met privately today.

Follow Amy on Twitter @ThatAmyMiller


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