KUALA LUMPUR - U.S. President Barack Obama said Russia must make a strategic decision about Syria and the next several weeks will show whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will give up backing the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad to join in a broad campaign against Islamic State.
The U.S. won’t in any circumstances agree to a political settlement for the civil war in Syria that leaves Assad in power because he’s lost all legitimacy, Obama said. As long as Assad remains, there is no way to unite the country’s various factions for the fight against Islamic State.
“It is not conceivable that Mr. Assad can regain legitimacy in a country in which a large majority of that country despises Assad, and will not stop fighting so long as he’s in power,” Obama said Sunday at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur.
There is an increasing awareness on Putin’s part that the extremist group is a much bigger threat to Russia than losing an embattled ally in Assad or anything else in the region, Obama said. The downing of a Russian passenger jet last month drove that point home to Putin, he said.
The U.S. and its allies will press ahead with their battle against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq with or without Russia’s cooperation, he said. Discussions will continue in Vienna searching for a political solution.
“Russia has not officially committed to a transition of Assad moving out but they did agree to a political transition process,” Obama said. “And I think we’ll find out over the next several weeks whether or not we can bring about that change in perspective with the Russians.”
French President Francois Hollande will visit Obama at the White House on Tuesday before visiting Moscow on Thursday, part of the French leader’s efforts to unify the U.S. and Russia in the fight against Islamic State. In the days since the group claimed responsibility for attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, Hollande has called for the U.S. and Russia to begin coordinating efforts in Iraq and Syria.
Like France, Russia has been a target of Islamic State terrorism. The group claimed responsibility for blowing a Russian passenger jet out of the sky over Egypt, killing 224 people.
Hollande has seized on international outrage over the downed jet and attacks in Paris to try to galvanize a more robust global campaign against extremists. While agreeing to increase intelligence-sharing with the French since the Paris attacks, the U.S. tempered expectations that it is now ready to join forces with Russia in the skies over Syria.
Obama said the attacks must not be allowed to cause a distorted reaction that would only play into the terrorists’ goals.
“We will not accept the idea that terrorist assaults on restaurants, theaters or hotels are the new normal,” he said. “We will not give into fear or turning on each other.”
The strengthening of Islamic State “became possible partly due to irresponsible U.S. politics” that focused on fighting Assad instead of joining efforts to root out terrorism, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, according to Interfax. The Obama administration declined comment on his statement.
The president said he is confident that the U.S. and its partners would ultimately destroy the Islamic State group, which has shown an ability to strike targets far beyond its base in Syria and Iraq. Obama’s special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that “we’re not going to relent until we destroy this barbaric terrorist organization.”
Obama’s critics have accused the president of underestimating Islamic State and the threat it poses. They’ve seized on previous statements in which the president called them the “JV team” and “contained.”
“He hasn’t even defined what victory means,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who’s seeking the Republican presidential nomination, said at a campaign event in Iowa on Friday. Another candidate, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, said Obama “has started World War III.”
In the weekly Republican address, Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona said Obama lacks a sense urgency in the fight. “We’re telling the administration to step up,” she said. “Take this terrorist threat seriously. The fight against ISIS is a generational conflict, and we must lead now more than ever,” she said, using an abbreviation also applied to Islamic State.
Obama on Sunday stuck to his approach of diminishing the group, saying the leader of the Paris attacks was “not a mastermind” and calling the group “a bunch of killers with good social media.”
“They cannot strike a mortal blow against the United States,” he said.
The Obama administration is pushing for a cease-fire between Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian government that would allow a U.S. coalition to target Islamic State militants. Diplomats from the U.S., Russia, Iran and several other nations have agreed on plan for a political transition in Syria that would yield talks between the government of Assad and opposition forces by Jan. 1. Elections would take place within 18 months, under the proposal.
Obama’s comments came after more than a week of conferences and summits in Asia that were dominated by the battle against terrorism. Obama and Putin spoke last week at the Group of 20 summit in Turkey, a 35-minute meeting that the White House described as constructive.