Can Putin and Obama agree on Syria strategy?

Reaction from the 'Special Report' All-Star panel


This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," September 28, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Nowhere is our commitment to international order more tested than in Syria. The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict. But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo. Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL. But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT, (via translator): We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces. We are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face. No one but President Assad's armed forces and Kurd militia are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: The Russian president and President Obama at the United Nations General Assembly today, two different takes on the same conflict: Syria. And they met, the two leaders did, this afternoon.

The clicking is about all we got because we didn't hear anything about the meeting, and that was it. Walk in, walk out. And we did not hear any details about what was talked about, but you can bet Syria was one of the topics.

Let's bring in our panel, syndicated columnist George Will, Charles Lane, opinion writer for The Washington Post, and Steve Hayes, senior writer for The Weekly Standard. George, two different takes, Bashar al Assad should stay, he should go. Something tells me he's staying for a while.

GEORGE WILL, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Yes, the president says he must go. Putin says he must stay. And Putin says it with tanks and fighter planes and what we call boots on the ground.

The president's idea, now we're in the fifth year of a civil war, which by civil war standards is uncommonly savage, 220,000 people perhaps dead by now, and the president's idea is we should compromise. I've been trying to think of a serious civil war that ended with a compromise. The English Civil War ended when Charles I got his head cut off. The American Civil War ended when Lee surrendered to the North. The Russia civil war ended when the Romanovs were dead and Lenin was in power. The Spanish Civil War ended with Franco in Madrid. The Chinese civil war ended when Mao controlled the mainland and his opponents were exiled to what was then called Formosa. I don't think civil wars end with compromises. And Putin says my side is going to win. I would bet on his side.

BAIER: Chuck?

CHARLES LANE, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, I think another thing Putin is about is trying to broadcast this idea that the world is better off with dictators, because he spent a lot of time discussing the bad fallout of the Arab spring and blamed all this uprising on Western meddling and support of democracy. And that's how we really got where we are in Syria.

And he was inviting the world to join him, as it were, in reestablishing, he referred to Yalta after World War II, a new order like Yalta where we turn a blind eye to the abuses of dictators, and indeed, we support them and shore them up because the alternative is always chaos and bloodshed and terrorism.

And you know whose political fortunes that argument serves particularly well? Vladimir Putin, because he is a dictator. And this sort of siren song he's singing there at the U.N., let's go back to the good old days when we had dictators who kept stability, unfortunately it's going to be attractive to some people because of the horrible mess that's been allowed to fester in Syria. And so when President Obama gets up there and talks about democracy and stuff, he doesn't have the muscle behind it, and indeed a little bit of the seductive logic that Putin is bringing to it.

STEVE HAYES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Or the recent history. Listening -- it was an interesting pill between I think what Vladimir Putin was arguing today and what Barack Obama was arguing. Obama was arguing sort of rhetorically and with flourishes in favor of the inevitability of the fall of dictatorships and making sort of a pragmatic argument that tyranny doesn't work. And yet if you look at the past six and a half years at places like Iran, like Russia, like Syria, like Cuba, you're seeing dictatorships, in fact, do work. And I think the strength of the argument --

LANE: They get their way, at least.

HAYES: They get their way, particularly if you have a president of the United States, the leader of the free world, who isn't willing to back up his rhetoric against dictatorships and tyranny with action, with any kind of serious action.

BAIER: Let me bring this in to the conversation: Administration aides are now saying it's OK that Russia is sharing intelligence with Syria and Iran and now Iraq on the ground. It's OK, and we are going to de-conflict with the Russians about what's happening in Syria, even though weeks ago they weren't really sure what Russia was doing.

HAYES: I don't really have any idea what de-conflicting with the Russians means in that context, but the administration is once again going to be late or is late in understanding this emerging coalition. We've been talking about it here at this table for several years. They seem to be in denial that this is anything new and that this is, in fact, being fortified by this agreement. Their argument is, well, Russia has been providing this kind of intelligence for years. That's not a very good argument in terms of how much they're doing now and what they are doing on the ground, as George said.

WILL: But you don't need an argument if you believe, as the president does, that there is a tide in history and that all the people he's opposed to are on the wrong side of history. How many times and about how many things has he said about that? If you believe that history is working itself out, as progressives do by some iron logic, you don't need to do anything. Stand by and wait for history to take its course.

BAIER: Chuck, one thing on Ukraine. The president did press on Ukraine in his speech, said that we cannot, as nations, stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated. We have to stand with Ukraine.

LANE: What does he mean we can't stand by? We did stand by and they swallowed up Crimea, and in fact Putin is boasting about that. And again, part of the reason he's doing what he's doing in Syria, and posing as the good guy fighting against the Islamic State, is to divert everybody's attention from what he did in Ukraine, and not only that, get people to like him and support him and ultimately acquiesce in what he's done there.

BAIER: Quickly, the administration says Russia is feeling the economic pinch, they say, even though they haven't given lethal weapons to the Ukrainians.

HAYES: They've been saying that for years. There is no evidence that it's true. And look, if you just look at the administration's own language, in February of 2015 the president was threatening Russia, saying you will inevitably be isolated because you're doing things that we in the global community don't like. Today he literally said in his speech, we have no interest in isolating Russia. Well, which is it?

BAIER: He just signed a deal with China on a number of fronts.

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