HANGZHAO, China—President Barack Obama’s emissaries spent much of Sunday talking with Russian officials here about how to quell the violence in Syria, but the president all but shrugged his shoulders when asked about the prospects of a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Given the previous failures of cessations of hostilities to hold, we approach it with some skepticism, but it is worth trying,” Obama said.
Hours later, Obama engaged in delicate talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose military has recently clashed with US-backed fighters in Syria, complicating the American strategy there and in Iraq.
“We discussed ways in which we can further cooperate in that regard,” Obama said after his meeting with the unpredictable yet crucial North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) ally, whose country is still feeling the effects of a failed military coup and a wide domestic crackdown on suspected instigators.
Despite strained relationships, Obama is obligated by a long list of world problems to engage with leaders, like Erdogan and Putin, with whom White House officials say he is planning to meet in the next day or so.
It is a signature feature of the foreign policy approach Obama promised when he ran for president—that he would talk even with the worst of the worst.
“You don’t negotiate deals with your friends, you negotiate them with your enemies,” he has said.
Much of the difficulty Obama is encountering in China was anticipated. The Turks, for example, repeatedly have tried to blame the US in the weeks since the failed military-led coup against Erdogan.
Erdogan’s government has complained about the US refusal, thus far to, extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric and former ally of Erdogan who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan blames him for plotting the coup and a host of other problems in his country.
In public, Turkish officials have been saying all the things Americans want to hear, particularly when they are talking to US officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, who visited the country recently.
On Sunday Erdogan was politely oblique. There should be no distinction between “good terrorists or bad,” he said, an indirect reference both to Gulen and to US support for Kurdish fighters in Syria whom the Turks regard as a threat to their national security.
The US and Turkey should adopt a “common attitude” against terrorism, he said. Obama, who has dealt with Erdogan for nearly eight years, reassured the Turkish leader that the US will work to make sure the parties responsible for the coup come to justice. He condemned the overthrow before quickly noting the need to “further cooperate.”
US officials say they are awaiting sufficient evidence to justify Turkey’s request for the extradition of Gulen, who is 75 and claims to be in ill health.
In the same way, Obama’s White House aides maintained a sense of reserve as Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in an effort to work out a ceasefire between Syria’s government and at least some rebel groups, as well as possible enhanced military cooperation between Russia and the US in Syria.
State Department officials were optimistic that a deal would come together. But as Obama spoke to reporters early in the day, he was doubtful.
Every experience he has had with Putin tells him to be skeptical about whether a deal is possible and whether Putin would stick to one, said a senior aide, speaking anonymously to comment on diplomatic talks.
Kerry said he and Lavrov have worked out a number of technical issues, but not all of them. They plan to reconvene on Monday to try to reach a final agreement.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has sought one-on-one and small-group meetings with leaders, like Putin, Erdogan and China’s Xi Jinping, to try to form a sense of what motivates them and how they act.
As he closes his final year in office, that experience has largely been disappointing.
Despite seemingly endless talks, for instance, efforts to get Russian cooperation in ending the Syrian civil war have gotten nowhere.
With Xi, Obama and his staff have concluded that the only breakthrough they will achieve is the climate deal they worked out over the last year and ratified on Saturday. Xi wants to clear the air in his smog-choked cities, and by signing onto the Paris climate accord he can get US technical assistance in reaching that goal, as well as a figurative global Good Citizen medal.
The White House believes that on all the other important items on the Chinese-US agenda—trade, cooperation on cybersecurity, human rights—Xi has determined it is not in his interest to work with Obama.
One volatile leader Obama will meet with on this trip presents a new challenge for the president. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was elected this summer despite charges that, as mayor of Davao City, his government had death squads that targeted suspected criminals.
Since taking office two months ago, Mr. Duterte has been accused by international human-rights organizations of fostering the same type of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug traffickers.
But the Obama administration wants to lay a foundation for American interaction with the leader of a nation that remains crucial to US strategic interests in the region. The Philippines has been a leader in opposing China’s expansionist efforts in the contested South China Sea.
Obama’s basic principle applies to President Duterte as to other leaders with troubling records: Engage rather than shun. TNS
Image credits: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP