Published 10:09 am Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Obama: Russia may finally come around on Assad’s future

PARIS — President Barack Obama expressed optimism Tuesday that Russia will ultimately come around on the need for Syrian President Bashar Assad to leave power to end his country’s long civil war, but warned the turnaround would not come overnight.

Discussing the Syria crisis with world leaders in Paris, Obama also urged Turkey and Russia to set aside recent tensions that have undermined his efforts to strengthen the U.S.-led coalition fighting defeating the Islamic State group. Instead, he asked the two countries to focus on IS as a common enemy and on reaching a political solution for Syria.

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Obama’s remarks on the sidelines of global climate talks came as the U.S. continues to press Russia to focus its airstrikes in Syria against IS, rather than on U.S.-backed rebel groups fighting Assad. Obama said it was possible over the coming months that Russia would undergo a “shift in calculations” and back away from its support for Assad.

“I don’t expect that you’re going to see a 180-degree turn on their strategy over the next several weeks,” Obama said. “They have invested for years now in keeping Assad in power. Their presence there is predicated on propping him up. That’s going to take some time for them to change how they think about the issue.”

Obama said he expects that diplomatic negotiations in Vienna to pursue a political solution to Syria’s civil war will move forward at the same time that the U.S.-led coalition applies greater pressure to defeat IS. Still, he conceded the extremist threat that has wrought fear across the Middle East and the West would not be eliminated in the short term.

“ISIL is going to continue to be a deadly organization because of its social media, the resources it has and the networks of experienced fighters that it possesses,” Obama said, using one of several acronyms for the extremist group. “It’s going to continue to be a serious threat for some time to come.”

Concerns about IS have overshadowed Obama’s two-day trip to Paris, where IS-linked attacks killed 130 people last month in the run-up to the climate negotiations. Obama had sought to turn the outrage over the Paris attacks and the group’s shoot-down of a Russian passenger jet in Egypt into new resolve for stepping up the fight against IS.