Obama’s decision to step onto Syria’s battlefield was a tacit acknowledgment that the opposition is losing the two-year-old conflict, which has killed an estimated 93,000 people. When Obama first said that Assad had lost the legitimacy to govern, 2,000 Syrians had died.
The new situation on the ground has alarmed the administration and its European allies, whose leaders do not think a proposed peace conference in Geneva in the near future could achieve a favorable outcome with Syria’s rebels losing to Assad. Obama administration officials have said Assad cannot remain in office under any peace agreement, something he is unlikely to agree to while winning the war.
Obama is scheduled to meet Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government has challenged U.S. and European claims that Assad has used chemical weapons. Putin’s government, like Iran’s, is supporting Assad.
But Putin has also endorsed the idea of the Geneva peace conference, an issue Obama will discuss with him. Administration officials say Obama will appeal to Russian strategic interests in making the case that for the war to end, Assad must go.
“They don’t want to see a downward spiral, they don’t want to see a chaotic and unstable situation in the region, they don’t want to see extremist elements gaining a foothold in Syria,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “The point that we’ve made to Russia is that the current course, in which Assad has not been appropriately pressured to step down from power by those who continue to support him in the international community, is bringing about those very outcomes.”
A return to Berlin
After the two-day summit, Obama will make his first visit as president to Berlin, where he will meet with Merkel, one of the few G-8 leaders whose tenure has spanned his own.
But the main event will be his speech Wednesday at the Brandenberg Gate, marking the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s speech of solidarity to a then-divided and besieged Berlin. Unlike Kennedy, who addressed West Berlin with the wall as his backdrop, Obama will speak from the eastern side of the gate to highlight the end of old divisions.
Rhodes said Obama will “hit on broad themes in that speech associated with the shared history of the transatlantic alliance,” urging Europeans to apply that tradition of cooperation to the challenges of nuclear nonproliferation, economic development, human rights abuses and shared security threats.
This will be Obama’s first visit to Berlin since his 2008 stop there as a presidential candidate, when he drew 200,000 people to his open-air speech near the Victory Column in Tiergarten Park. The extraordinary turnout in a foreign country prompted Obama’s Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), to call the speech a “premature victory lap.”
German leaders and many analysts predict another big audience for Obama’s address but one that, unlike the first, may include a few signs of disenchantment with a president who, after less than a year in office, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic promise.