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At U.N., Obama and Putin spar over Syria

At U.N., Obama and Putin spar over Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and President Obama at the start of a luncheon for world leaders during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Monday. (Justin Lane / European Pressphoto Agency)

President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin traded bitter accusations on the world's highest diplomatic stage Monday as they sought international support for their competing political and military approaches to battling Islamic State and ending the conflict in Syria.

The two leaders later shook hands stiffly for the cameras before they met in private for 95 minutes — 35 minutes longer than scheduled — in a small room for their first formal talks since Washington's relations with Moscow deteriorated in 2013.

Obama and Putin had a "businesslike back and forth" on Syria and Ukraine but reached no agreements, according to a senior Obama administration official who requested anonymity in discussing the private meeting.

The Russians see Syrian President Bashar Assad as a bulwark against extremists, the official said, while the Americans believe he exacerbates sectarian conflict.

"I think the Russians certainly understood the importance of there being a political resolution in Syria and there being a process that pursues a political resolution," the official said. "We have a difference about what the outcome of that process would be," particularly as it relates to Assad.

The official also said the two presidents agreed that their militaries should communicate to avoid military conflicts between them in the region.

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Earlier, even as they declared a willingness to cooperate, the two leaders each publicly belittled the other's approach to the Middle East, blamed the other for the multi-sided civil war in Syria and accused the other of flouting international law.

Speaking to world leaders gathered for the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Obama and Putin sparred over the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the expansion of the NATO alliance and the 2011 war in Libya. At times, the taunts from the podium recalled the bitter diatribes of the Cold War.

Each president is trying to lead a coalition against Islamic State fighters who control large parts of Syria and Iraq. The U.S.-led group, which includes about 60 countries, has launched more than 7,000 airstrikes since August 2014, but the militants remain entrenched in major strongholds and continue to recruit thousands of foreign fighters.

Russia sent fighter jets, attack helicopters, tanks and other equipment to an air base in western Syria this month to help prop up Assad's government, which the U.S. opposes. Putin wants other countries to join Russia's effort, which is separate from the U.S.-led coalition.

The Obama administration was caught off guard Sunday when Russia, Iraq, Syria and Iran agreed to share intelligence on Islamic State. The senior administration official, however, said claims about the creation of a Russian intelligence-sharing alliance with the three countries were overstated because Moscow has been sharing information with Iran and Syria for years and has little to give Iraq because it has few assets there.

The annual U.N. summit became a verbal battleground Monday as the two leaders sought to win support for their different strategies.

Obama, who spoke first, accused Russia and its allies of making military force the top priority to preserve world order, rather than searching for political or diplomatic solutions.

"In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children, because the alternative is surely worse," Obama said, in a clear dig at the Russian leader.

"The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict," he said. "But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo" of Assad's rule.

When Putin took the podium two hours later, he denounced America's "aggressive foreign interference" in the Middle East.

"Rather than bringing about reforms… [it] has resulted in a brazen destruction of national institutions," he said. "Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence."

Putin argued that the United States and its European and Arab allies are making a mistake in refusing to support Assad, who he said is "valiantly fighting terrorism face-to-face" together with independent Kurdish militias.

"No one but President Assad and the Kurdish militia are truly fighting Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria," he said.

Putin said he aimed to assemble a "genuinely broad international coalition" endorsed by the U.N. Security Council.

Russia will lead a Security Council session Wednesday that it hopes will produce a statement of support. The White House has refused to consider the proposal, however, and European and Arab diplomats are skeptical of Russia's motivations.

The presidential sniping Monday covered much more than Syria, however.

Obama sketched out, in broad terms, his view of how the world and the international system are threatened when, as he put it, "major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law."

"Dangerous currents risk pulling us back into a darker, more disordered world," he warned.

Obama said the West has imposed economic sanctions on Russia because it has seized Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and supported armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, not because the United States seeks a new Cold War.

"We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a country is flagrantly violated," Obama said.

Putin, in turn, accused the Obama administration of fomenting the conflict in Ukraine to pull Russia's neighbor closer to the West.

"The discontent with the current authorities was used, and the military coup was orchestrated from outside, that triggered a civil war as a result," he said.

Although the Obama administration has sought to isolate Russia for its role in Ukraine, Moscow's military buildup in Syria dramatically changed the diplomatic dynamic.

White House aides said Obama decided to meet with Putin, ending a two-year U.S. freeze, to try to explore his intentions and to see whether they could collaborate against Islamic State.

After the meeting, the senior Obama administration official said the White House does not view Russia's military buildup in Syria as necessarily destructive to a positive outcome in Syria. If the Russians fight Islamic State, rather than bolster Assad's forces, that might be acceptable, the official said.

Although Obama and Putin remain at odds, the White House described the meeting between the leaders as productive.

"This was not a situation where either one of them was seeking to score points in a meeting," the official said. "I think there was a shared desire to figure out a way in which we can address the situation in Syria."

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