The Obama-Putin understanding on a political solution for Syria was all too brief. After the US President Barack Obama backed off from their verbal accord, Vladimir Putin retaliated by removing all curbs from Russian air operations in Syria and Iraq and tightening ties with Tehran at Washington’s expense.
Then, after Turkey downed the Russian Su-24 on Nov. 24, Washington and the Kremlin came close to removing the gloves for their next round over Syria.
As recently as Nov. 14, the situation still looked rosy. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed that they had made large strides towards mutual understanding on how to resolve the Syrian conflict when they met at the multinational talks in Vienna.
Their bilateral understanding covered joint action for fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, after Washington had subscribed to Moscow’s seven-point peace plan for Syria, barring only the issue of Bashar Assad’s personal and political future.
Even so, both top diplomats felt they had achieved a major breakthrough and that a compromise on Assad’s fate was within reach as well: The Russians favored his eventual exit after a protracted political process culminating in general elections. The Americans wanted him removed from the roster of candidates for president and out of office before elections.
Obama reneges on Syria deal
This gap was bridgeable, they believed. Indeed, as DEBKA Weekly’s sources reveal here for the first time, Lavrov passed on to President Putin a hint thrown out by Kerry that Barack Obama would ultimately be amenable to flexibility on the fate of the Syrian ruler.
The next day, Nov. 15, Obama and Putin held a 30-minute conversation face to face on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey. US National Security Adviser Susan Rice was also present. At the end of the conversation, the two presidents reaffirmed the Kerry-Lavrov Vienna understanding, seemingly heralding a new chapter in ties between the White House and the Kremlin.
But then, four days later, on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Manilla, Obama reneged on that understanding, by declaring unequivocally “I do not foresee a situation in which we can end the civil war in Syria while Assad remains in power,” and asserting that ISIS cannot be eliminated if there is instability in the country.
”Even if I said that (the agreement between Kerry and Lavrov) was okay, I still don't think it would actually work," Obama said. "You could not get the Syrian people – the majority of them – to agree to that kind of outcome."
Putin feels Obama humiliated him for the second time after Libya
His remarks landed with a nasty thump in Moscow and were taken as Obama’s abdication from the agreements achieved just days before, whereby the US and Russia had agreed to join forces to fight the Islamic State.
But the shock to the up-and-down relationship between the two presidents was abruptly absorbed into the commotion of the multiple Islamist terror atrocity in Paris, the ISIS threat to attack New York’s Times Square and the White House, and the winds of Islamist terror swirling far and wide.
Putin remained furious with Obama – and still is, according to DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Moscow and Washington. His associates say the Russian president will never forgive Obama for what he considers the US president’s humiliating perfidy and its recurrence for the second time in four years.
He still resents a similar episode in 2011, when the US president promised a joint effort with Moscow for ending the Libyan civil war while keeping Muammar Qaddafi or a family member in power in Tripoli. US and Russian delegations were scheduled to meet in Tunis to further discuss their joint project. The Russians turned up for the date, but waited in vain for the Americans.
For the Kremlin, Obama’s conduct on their Syrian understanding, after the two leaders shook hands on it, was a repetition of the Libyan betrayal.
Putin takes Tehran aboard to retaliate against Obama
Many seasoned brains were wracked in Washington, Moscow and the Middle East to try and second guess Putin’s payback.
DEBKA Weekly’s Moscow sources report that his first step was a directive to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to remove all restrictions on Russian air force operations in Syria and Iraq – both for fighting ISIS and for propping up the Assad regime. Putin now prioritized the preservation of the Syrian dictator in power after ruling the Kerry-Lavrov deal null and void.
His next step was to tighten military and nuclear ties with Iran in disregard of US interests and positions. Russia and Iran decided to lose no time in the race for military and political domination of Iraq and Syria in both their interests.
Just as Tehran had for years sought to build Iraq into its land bridge to Syria and Lebanon, so too Moscow would welcome Iraq’s availability as a bridge for linking the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas.
Putin was beaming with satisfaction when he landed in Tehran on Monday, Nov. 23. He went straight into a meeting with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at which he found an uncommon harmony of purpose.
Putin and Khamenei link arms against Obama
Khamenei called for closer ties between Iran and Russia because, “The Americans have a long-term plot and are trying to dominate Syria and then the whole region…This is a threat to all countries, especially Russia and Iran,” he said.
Referring to the Vienna talks on Syria’s future, Khamenei commented: “The United States is now trying to achieve its failed military objectives in Syria by political means.”
Both leaders had clearly move on, past any attempt to come to terms with the Obama administration on Syria which they judged doomed to failure, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report. They concluded, therefore, that the way was clear for Moscow and Tehran to form an alliance for defeating US interests in the Middle East. Their consensus also had the effect of keeping Bashar Assad in power more firmly than ever.