Obama agrees to Syria talks with Putin

President Barack Obama has agreed to meet Vladimir Putin in New York to discuss Syria and Ukraine, bringing to an end a year-long effort by the White House to diplomatically isolate the Russian president.

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The Obama administration has decided that the importance of a face-to-face meeting with Mr Putin to discuss the Syrian conflict outweighs the risk that Mr Obama will appear to be relaxing his criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine.

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The two leaders will both be in New York on Monday for the UN General Assembly. The meeting follows Russia’s recent move to establish an air base in north-western Syria together with fighter jets, anti-aircraft missiles and a significant number of Russian military personnel.

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A senior Obama administration official said the meeting would take place at the “request of President Putin”. The official added: “Despite our profound differences with Moscow, the president believes that it would be irresponsible not to test whether we can make progress through high-level engagement with the Russians.” The Kremlin also confirmed the meeting.

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With the conflict in eastern Ukraine relatively quiet at present, the Russian government has repeatedly appealed to Washington for more communication about the Syria crisis and has cast Mr Putin as a responsible leader who would do his best to settle issues of global significance with the US president.

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At the very least, the meeting will represent a propaganda victory for Mr Putin, who would like to weaken western support for Ukraine-related sanctions on the Russian economy. However, US secretary of state John Kerry is keen to explore the potential for a dialogue with Russia about a political solution to the Syrian civil war.

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While US officials say they do not know Russia’s reasons for the recent military build-up in Syria, one of the possible explanations put forward in Washington is that Mr Putin realises the Assad regime could crumble and he wants to secure his place in the conversation about a transition to a new Syrian government.

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Foreign policy experts close to the Kremlin said on Thursday they believed the UN General Assembly offered a chance for bringing the US closer to the Russian position on Syria. But some analysts say Mr Putin’s ultimate goal is domestic as he needs a new boost to underpin public support ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections and presidential elections in 2018. “He will demonstrate: I’m for peace but they, the Yankees, don’t want it,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, an arm of the US think-tank.

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“The Soviet Union was mighty and solved problems in its sphere of influence, including the Middle East. Now Russia, as its successor, can manage a situation 1,000km from its borders. Therefore Putin is strong, not weak,” he said, describing the narrative the Kremlin aims to present to the domestic audience.

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With the UN celebrating its 70th anniversary, this year’s General Assembly will bring together an unusually large collection of world leaders. In addition to Mr Obama and Mr Putin, the speakers on Monday include Xi Jinping of China and Hassan Rouhani of Iran. – Financial Times

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