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Obama, Putin Meet After Trading Dueling Statements On Syria


President Obama defended the International Order today, even as that order is being deeply strained by the civil war in Syria. Obama spoke at the United Nations to more than 150 world leaders, and he met with one of those leaders, Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has begun to play a more assertive role in Syria. NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with the president and joins us now from U.N. Headquarters in New York. Hi, Scott.


SHAPIRO: President Obama said today that military power will be needed to resolve the crisis in Syria but not military power alone. What else does he say it'll take?

HORSLEY: Well, Ari, the U.S. has long argued it will take a political, diplomatic solution to end the civil war in Syria even as the U.S. and its allies continue to launch air strikes on the extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State, which has taken advantage of the vacuum in that country. Obama used Syria as a kind of case study to address the was the international community has tried to respond to various challenges through its 70-year history. And right now, he said Syria is the greatest test to the U.N.'s world order.


BARACK OBAMA: When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not just a matter of one nation's internal affairs. It breeds human suffering on an order of magnitude that it affects us all.

HORSLEY: Obama also said the crisis in Syria is a rebuke to the notion that dictator can impose order from - on high. In the long run, he says that kind of repression just plants the seed for future conflict.

SHAPIRO: And the U.S. and Russia have been on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict. But President Obama did meet, as we mentioned, with Russian president Vladimir Putin just this evening. Now that the meeting has ended, what can you tell us about what went on behind those doors?

HORSLEY: They met for about 90 minutes, and they spent about half that time talking about Ukraine, which, of course, is where the U.S. has been trying to punish Russia for its meddling in its neighbor. But the other half of the meeting was devoted to Syria. And Obama and Putin agreed on their shared goal of battling ISIS there. They do plan to have their two militaries keep in touch if the Russians build up their military presence in Syria so they can essentially stay out of each other's way.

Now, Putin and Obama also talked about the possibility of a lasting political solution to the long-running civil war, but there, there's a fundamental disagreement. The Russians think their longtime ally Bashar al-Assad is a source of stability who warrants defending in Syria. The U.S., of course, thinks Assad is a spark for rebellion who ultimately has to go. And the 90-minute meeting today did not lead to any breaching of that big divide.

SHAPIRO: Now, the U.N. General Assembly is obviously an international gathering, but President Obama's remarks today also seemed to speak to a domestic audience. It seemed as though domestic politics may have been on his mind as well. Tell us about that.

HORSLEY: That's right. He used his speech today to defend his broader approach to international diplomacy, the approach that led, for example, to the Iran nuclear deal and to the renewal of U.S. ties to Cuba. The president acknowledged those have been controversial moves here at home, but he pushed back forcefully against those who criticized his efforts, including many of today's Republican presidential hopefuls.


OBAMA: To believe we can bridge our differences and choose cooperation over conflict - that is not weakness. That is strength.

HORSLEY: Not surprisingly, that call for international cooperation got a big round of applause in the U.N. chambers today. It may be less warmly received, though, by some in the American electorate.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Scott Horsley traveling with the president and speaking with us from U.N. Headquarters in New York. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.