Here's Why Obama Is Refusing to Meet with Russia to Discuss Syria
Policy + Politics

Here's Why Obama Is Refusing to Meet with Russia to Discuss Syria

© Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Vladimir Putin’s ongoing effort to keep the U.S. off balance has forced the White House into yet another politically awkward choice. The Obama administration has officially refused a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and a high-level delegation of Kremlin officials, following an offer from the Russian government to open up talks about the ongoing conflict in Syria.

The offer, extended by the Kremlin, was ostensibly an effort to begin coordinating the two countries’ military efforts against the terror group ISIS. However, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that the administration has no interest in aligning with the Kremlin in Syria.

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“We’re not interested in doing that, as long as Russia is not willing to make a constructive contribution to our counter-ISIL effort,” said Earnest, according to The Washington Times, referring to the terror group by the acronym preferred by the White House. “Russia has their own agenda and it’s an agenda right now that they’re pursuing on their own. So it’s not particularly surprising to me that President Putin would resort, in some desperation, to try to send the second-highest ranking official in the Russian government to the United States to try to convince us to join them. But the fact is that is a request that’s fallen on deaf ears.”

“We can just express regret,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, according to the government-run news organization TASS. “Any refusal to start dialogue, moreover in such a sensitive situation like we have in Syria, does not facilitate, let's say so, the soonest salvation of that country and the whole region from the so-called Islamic State.

Moscow, he said, would continue providing “support to the Syrian army’s offensive operations.”

Russian senator Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy chair of the Federation Council’s foreign affairs committee, criticized the U.S. decision in public statements Wednesday.

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“The decision taken by the US means they are not willing to have a dialogue on controversial and topical questions,” he said. “So let them decide how they will explain to the entire world why they do not want to hold negotiations.”

The Obama administration, of course, has very obvious reasons for declining high-level talks with Russia on coordinating the two countries efforts against ISIS – not lest of which is that the White House doesn’t appear to believe that Russia really is doing much to counter the terror group that has taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq in the first place.

Syria is currently in the grip of a three-way war, in which the forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad are fighting against rebel groups seeking to overthrow the regime, as well as ISIS. The rebels and ISIS, in addition to fighting Assad, are fighting each other.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has cast the Russian presence in Syria as aimed at pushing back against ISIS. However, according to outside observers, Russia’s involvement in the conflict has been almost completely dedicated to attacking the rebels opposed to Assad, who is one of the Kremlin’s few allies in the region.

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The White House, while obviously opposed to ISIS, has also called for the end of the Assad regime – citing evidence of indiscriminate bombing of civilians and torture by loyalist forces.

Even going so far as to sit down with Medvedev to discuss coordination of an anti-ISIS effort would be politically poisonous for the Obama administration on at least two levels.

First, it would appear to be an endorsement of the Russian presence in Syria, which the White House has already explicitly condemned.

Second, it would lend legitimacy to the Kremlin’s claim that Russia’s primary goal in Syria is to fight ISIS, which the White House has publicly said the administration doesn’t believe.

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Finally, participating in a meeting called by Putin would create the impression that the leader of a country Obama has dismissed as a “regional power” is actually calling the shots in the Middle East right now – not an impression the White House wants to foster.

The Russian offer was meant to put the Obama administration in a difficult position, and it succeeded. The Obama administration really had only one option, and it took it.