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Russia says Islamic State weakening in Syria; Obama says ‘no meeting of minds’ with Moscow

MOSCOW/WASHINGTON: The aim of Russia’s military operation in Syria is not to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power but to defeat Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Saturday.

Russia began air strikes in Syria in late September, in a move which Moscow says is weakening ISIS but which western powers say aims to support Assad.

Some of Russia’s air strikes have hit groups which are not affiliated to Islamic State but are trying to unseat Assad, and are backed by the United States and its allies.

“Russia, the United States, and all other states that have a stake in seeing peace in this region and in Syria, and a strong government, too, should be discussing precisely political issues,” Medvedev said in an interview with Rossiya TV channel.

“It does not really matter who will be at the helm. We don’t want ISIS to run Syria, do we? It should be a civilized and legitimate government. This is what we need to discuss,” Medvedev said.

Asked whether Syria had to be ruled by Assad, Medvedev said: “No, absolutely not. It is up to the Syrian people to decide who will be the head of Syria … At the moment, we operate on the premise that al-Assad is the legitimate president.”

‘No meeting of minds with Russia on Syria’

US President Barack Obama said there was no meeting of the minds with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin over the continuing rule of Assad, and that the Syrian civil war could only end with a political solution leading to a new inclusive government.

Obama said the only area of US understanding with Russia on Syria was on how to prevent accidental clashes between their planes engaged in the conflict, but they differed on principles and strategies to bring peace.

Speaking at a news conference after meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Friday, Obama said the Syrian civil war was a magnet for extremists and could only end with a political solution leading to a new inclusive government.

“There’s no meeting of the minds in terms of strategy,” he said, which reflected a fundamental difference with President Vladimir Putin over the continuing rule of President Bashar al-Assad. “President Putin believes if he continues to do what he has been doing over the last five years, and that is to prop up the Assad regime, that the problem will be solved,” he said.

Obama said he believed in continuing the fight against the Islamic State and other extremist groups, but said the civil war

“… Will only go away if we’re able to get a political track and a legitimate inclusive government inside of Syria,” he said.

The only understanding with Russia was how to “de-conflict in the event that our planes and their planes might be occupying similar space over Syrian skies,” he said. “We have arrived at an understanding and some channels for communications.”

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