World Leaders Clash Over Syrian Crisis

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) President Barack Obama met one on one with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time in more than two years Monday, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

As CBS2’s Jessica Schneider reported, Obama and Putin gave each other a steely handshake before sitting down together for the first time in more than two years.

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U.S. officials wanted to focus the meeting on Ukraine, but Russia sought to focus on Syria.

Russia’s recent military buildup in western Syria blindsided American leaders. Putin has called on the on the international community to support the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Obama has called for Assad’s ouster.

Few details came out of the private meeting between the two world leaders, who are often portrayed as being at odds.

Before their one-on-one meeting, Obama and Putin gave dueling speeches at the United Nations General Assembly. In his address, the president made one thing perfectly clear: that he will not accept the new tough guy approach of Putin, CBS2’s Marcia Kramer reported.

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Obama said he was open to working with Russia, as well as Iran, to bring Syria’s civil war to an end. He called for a “managed transition” that would result in the ouster of Assad, whose forces have clashed with rebels for more than four years, creating a vacuum for the Islamic State and other extremist groups.

Obama even offered to work with Russia and Iran to negotiate a gradual transition.

“We must recognize that there cannot be after so much bloodshed and carnage a return to the pre-war status quo,” he said. “Realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader.”

Obama rejected Putin’s continued support for Assad, saying that simply arguing that the “alternative is surely worse” is not a solution.

He said Assad responded to peaceful protests with repression and killing and wouldn’t be able to satisfactorily bring peace to the nation. Obama calls the situation in Syria “an assault on all our humanity.”

Putin, however, urged the world to stick with Assad, arguing that his military is the only viable option for defeating the Islamic State.

“We believe it’s a huge mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian authorities, with the government forces, those who are bravely fighting terror face-to-face,” Putin said.

Ahead of his speech to the U.N., Putin discussed his strategy for Syria with Charlie Rose of “60 Minutes,” an attempt to go over the president’s head and directly to the American people.

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“There is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism,” Putin said.

Despite Obama’s staunch opposition to Assad remaining in power, the U.S. has struggled to energize a political process to push him from power. Russia has long been a major obstacle, shielding Assad from U.N. sanctions and continuing to provide the Syrian government with weapons.

In fact, Russia has appeared to deepen its support for Assad in recent weeks, sending additional military equipment and troops with the justification that it is helping the government fight the Islamic State. The military buildup has confounded U.S. officials, who spent the summer hoping Russia’s patience with Assad was waning and political negotiations could be started.

While Putin didn’t call out the U.S. by name, he criticized efforts to arm “moderate” rebels in Syria, saying Western-backed fighters have later come to join the Islamic State.

Obama criticized nations that believe “might makes right,” and he sought instead to highlight the benefits of diplomacy. He touted his administration’s efforts to restore ties with Cuba after a half-century freeze and the completion of a nuclear accord with Iran, noting that Russia was a key partner in negotiating the Iran deal.

“If we cannot work together more effectively, we will all suffer the consequences,” he said. “That is true for the United States as well. No matter how powerful our military, how strong our economy, we understand the United States cannot solve the world’s problems alone.”

Putin, without naming the United States, accused Washington of trying to enforce its will on others and mulling a possible reform of the U.N., which he suggested stands in the way of the perceived U.S. domination.

“After the end of the Cold War, the single center of domination has emerged in the world,” Putin said. “Those who have found themselves on top of that pyramid were tempted to think that since they are so strong and singular, they know what to do better than others and it’s unnecessary to pay any attention to the U.N.”

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wasn’t buying what Putin was selling.

“Putin is a combination of a bully and a mischief maker,” Schumer told Kramer. “Messing in Syria, trying to support Assad who is a brutal dictator … I don’t think we should play ball with Putin.”

Obama and Putin have long had a strained relationship, with ties deteriorating to post-Cold War lows after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and allegedly backed rebels in Ukraine’s east.

The U.S. has sought to punish Russia through a barrage of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, including no formal bilateral meetings between Obama and Putin.

Obama, in his address to the U.N., said Washington wasn’t seeking a return to the Cold War but couldn’t stand by while Ukraine’s sovereignty was being violated.

“If it happens in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today,” he said.

U.S. officials said the crisis in Syria, as well as the continued conflict in Ukraine, necessitated an in-person meeting with Putin.

In addition to assessing the Russian leader’s maneuvers in Syria, officials said Obama would push Putin to fully implement a shaky peace deal for Ukraine, including allowing local elections to go forward next month without interference.

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