Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama ahead of a bilateral meeting at UN headquarters in New York on September 28, 2015
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama ahead of a bilateral meeting at UN headquarters in New York on September 28, 2015 © Mandel Ngan - AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama ahead of a bilateral meeting at UN headquarters in New York on September 28, 2015
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Russia, US to cooperate on fighting Islamic State: Moscow

Russia and the United States intend to seek joint ways of fighting the Islamic State group, Moscow said Tuesday, in a major coup for Vladimir Putin as he tries to shake off Western isolation.

Addressing the UN General Assembly for the first time in a decade, Putin on Monday called for a broad UN-backed coalition to fight IS jihadists.

Ostracised by the West over Moscow's annexation of Crimea and support for a separatist insurgency in east Ukraine, Putin also held a 90-minute meeting with US President Barack Obama, their first formal bilateral in two years.

Predictably, the two leaders failed to resolve their dispute over the future role of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, with the US leader branding him a child-killing tyrant and the Kremlin chief saying the world should support him in his battle against IS.

Putin however said the two countries had agreed to cooperate on fighting Islamic State fundamentalists in what many commentators say further highlights the failure of Western efforts to freeze out Moscow over its Ukraine policies.

The Russian president also said he had not ruled out air strikes on the jihadists.

"We have an understanding that it is necessary to ramp up our work at least at the bilateral level," Putin told reporters.

"We are now thinking about creating relevant mechanisms."

Putin and Obama clinked glasses and made eye contact at lunch with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after their addresses but the two barely smiled.

-'Obama heard Putin'-

Russia's top diplomat Sergei Lavrov said the two men agreed their foreign and defence ministries would work together in order to identify "specific ways and means which could make our common goal more achievable."

They agreed to follow up their meeting with talks to find a common position on the Syrian conflict, he said, telling the Kremlin-backed RT television channel it was "a very constructive discussion".

"They did not discuss coalitions in the classical sense of the word.

"What they did discuss was the possibilities for the United States and Russia to cooperate closely on the most burning issues of today, Syria first of all," he said.

"I believe that President Obama heard what President Putin had to say."

Russia took the West by surprise by dispatching troops and fighter jets to Syria, sparking concern in Washington that Moscow might join the fighting alongside its Soviet-era ally.

"We all agreed that our common goal is to defeat ISIL," Lavrov said, referring to the Islamic State group.

"Both Russia and the United States are absolutely determined not to allow them to succeed."

Obama said Washington was ready to work with Russia and Iran against Islamic State, but warned this must not mean keeping Assad in power indefinitely.

Rather than a bulwark against jihadist extremism, Obama argued, Assad drives Syrians into the arms of such groups by such acts as dropping "barrel bombs to massacre innocent children."

Putin's spokesman said US experts had refused to participate in the work of an intelligence task force Russia is setting up together with Iraq, Iran and Syria.

"Unfortunately, they did not take part in the first meetings, first consultations," he told reporters.

- 'United through battle' -

Some European powers are apparently softening their stance, with British Prime Minister David Cameron saying he was open to working with Russia to defeat Islamic State militants but did not support backing Assad.

"One of the best ways to engage with Russia is to say, 'Look, long-term, it is this battle against Islamist extremist violence that should actually unite us'," Cameron told the Wall Street Journal.

Teaming up with Assad was a "self-defeating strategy."

French President Francois Hollande stuck close to Obama's line.

"Russia and Iran say they want to be part of a solution," he said. "So we must work with these countries to explain to them that the route to a solution does not go through Bashar al-Assad."

But Putin warned it was an "enormous mistake" to not cooperate with Syria.

He urged UN General Assembly members to unite to fight the jihadist group and warned he was planning to step up support for Assad's forces.

"We must address the problems that we are all facing and create a broad anti-terror coalition," he said, proposing a Security Council resolution on a coalition to include Assad and Iran.

- 'Grand bargain' -

While many commentators said Putin's speech brought few surprises and some called his UN performance anemic, others noted the Russian president sought to thumb his nose at the United States, which has slapped several rounds of biting sanctions against Moscow.

"Putin offered the West a new Grand Bargain -- a major deal and a way to forget about the current confrontation, " said political analyst Lilia Shevtsova.

A US official said both Putin and Obama agreed there should be a process of political transition in Syria but they "fundamentally disagreed" on the role of Assad.

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