Obama, Putin clash over Syria's future

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Putin Addresses 70th United Nations Session

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin sharply disagreed Monday over the chaos in Syria, with Obama urging a political transition to replace the Syrian president but Putin warning it would be a mistake to abandon the current government.

After dueling speeches at the United Nations General Assembly, Obama and Putin also met privately for 90 minutes — their first face-to-face encounter in nearly a year.

The discussions, which opened with a stony-faced handshake, appeared to do little to ease differences about reaching a political resolution to end Syria's 4½-year civil war. U.S. officials said that Putin agreed with Obama about a need for a political transition in Syria that would include bringing elements of the Syrian opposition into the government, but that they remained at odds about the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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US President Barack Obama poses for the Peacekeeping Summit family photo at the United Nations headquarters on September 28, 2015 in New York, New York. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly September 28, 2015 at the United Nations in New York. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28: President of Russia Vladimir Putin sits after addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015 in New York City. World leaders gathered for the 70th session of the annual meeting. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
United Nations Secretary Genaral Ban Ki-moon addresses the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly September 28, 2015 in New York. AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
UN General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft (R) of Denmark taps the gavel to open the session as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon looks on at the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly September 28, 2015 at the United Nations in New York. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama arrives to speak at the opening session of the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters on September 28, 2015 in New York.AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA. SEPTEMBER 28,: Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and US President Barack Obama shake hands at a meeting after the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 28, 2015. (Photo by Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, Sept. 28, 2015-- Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the annual high-level general debate of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, the United States, Sept. 28, 2015. (Xinhua/Wang Ye via Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry exits after a meeting at the security council during the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 28, 2015. AFP PHOTO/KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly September 28, 2015 at the United Nations in New York. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
President of Argentina Cristina Fernández de Kirchner addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly September 28, 2015 at the United Nations in New York. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - SEPTEMBER 28: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at UN Headquatters September 28, 2015 in New York City. The ongoing war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has spawned are playing a backdrop to this years 70th annual General Assembly meeting of global leaders. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
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The U.S. has long called for Assad to leave power. Russia, meanwhile, has called Assad's military the only viable option for defeating the Islamic State, a militant group that has taken advantage of the vacuum created by the civil war.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Putin suggested Russia might be willing to join airstrikes against the Islamic State.

"We're thinking about it," Putin said, though he added Russia would not send ground troops to Syria.

In his address to the U.N. earlier Monday, Obama said he was open to working with Russia, as well as Iran, to bring Syria's war to an end. He called for a "managed transition" that would result in the ouster of Assad.

"We must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo," Obama said.

Putin, however, urged the world to stick with Assad.

"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 during his first appearance at the U.N. gathering in a decade.

Obama and Putin's disparate views of the grim situation in Syria left little indication of how the two countries might work together to end a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people and resulted in a flood of refugees.

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Obama, Putin clash over Syria's future
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 10: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) attend a family photo ceremony during the APEC Leaders meeting November 10, 2014 in Beijing, China. The APEC Summit hosted 1500 economic leaders in Beijing to deliberate key issues facing the Asia-Pacific economy. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
SAINT PETERSBURG - SEPTEMBER 05: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The G20 summit is expected to be dominated by the issue of military action in Syria while issues surrounding the global economy, including tax avoidance by multinationals, will also be discussed during the two-day summit. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Russias President Vladimir Putin (L) walks past US President Barack Obama as he arrives to pose for the family photo during the G20 summit on September 6, 2013 in Saint Petersburg. World leaders at the G20 summit on Friday failed to bridge their bitter divisions over US plans for military action against the Syrian regime, with Washington signalling that it has given up on securing Russia's support at the UN on the crisis. AFP PHOTO / JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
ENNISKILLEN, NORTHERN IRELAND - JUNE 18: Leaders (L-R) Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama stand for the 'family' group photograph at the G8 venue of Lough Erne on June 18, 2013 in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. The two day G8 summit, hosted by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, is being held in Northern Ireland for the first time. Leaders from the G8 nations have gathered to discuss numerous topics with the situation in Syria expected to dominate the talks. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
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The Syria crisis largely overshadowed the summit's other discussions on peacekeeping, climate change and global poverty.

French President Francois Hollande backed Obama's call for Assad's ouster, saying "nobody can imagine" a political solution in Syria if he is still in power. Hollande called on countries with influence in Syria, including Gulf nations and Iran, to be engaged in a transition.

However, Iran — which along with Russia is a strong backer of Assad — said the Syrian president must remain in power to fight extremists. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that while Syria's government needs reform, the country will fall to the Islamic States if the international community makes getting rid of Assad its top goal.

Despite Obama's staunch opposition to Assad remaining in office, the U.S. has struggled 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.

Obama and Putin each framed his case for Syria's future in the context of a broader approach to the world, launching veiled criticisms at each other.

The U.S. president condemned nations that believe "might makes right," and 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.

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.

Obama and Putin briefly shook hands during a leaders' lunch that followed the morning of speeches. Seated at the same table, they clinked glasses during a toast, with Putin smiling and Obama grim-faced.

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 economic sanctions.

Obama, in his address, said the world could not stand by while Ukraine's sovereignty was being violated.

"If that happens without consequences in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today," Obama said.

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AP writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.

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