Obama and Putin: Awkward moments, few breakthroughs

Frosty Diplomatic Relations at the UN

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin's first formal meeting in more than two years started with an awkward handshake and ended without a breakthrough on Syria, a crisis that has strained their already tense relationship.

On the biggest issue that divides them in Syria — the status of embattled leader Bashar Assad — Obama and Putin left their discussions Monday exactly where they started. The U.S. still insists Syria's future cannot include Assad, while Putin appears to only want to bolster the standing of his longtime ally, casting him as the best defense against Islamic States militants.

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Even so, both leaders appeared interested in whether their meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly could yield progress toward ending Syria's 4½ year civil war. After the 90-minute sit-down at U.N. headquarters, Putin and U.S. officials who described the meeting on Obama's behalf each spoke of the need for cooperation.

"Strange is it may seem, there were many common points," Putin told reporters. "There were also disagreements which we agreed to work together. I hope this work will be constructive."

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Obama and Putin: Awkward moments, few breakthroughs
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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U.S. officials said the leaders agreed to explore ways to pursue a resolution to a crisis that has left more than 250,000 dead, even as they made clear Obama wasn't bending on his insistence that Assad not be part of the eventual solution.

The crisis has taken on fresh urgency amid Russia's recent military buildup in Syria. Putin has cast the increased presence of equipment and troops there as part of the effort to defeat the Islamic State, and suggested Monday that Russia could launch airstrikes against the militants.

"We are thinking about it and don't exclude anything," he said.

It's unlikely Putin would join the U.S.-led coalition already launching strikes against the militants. He said Russia will only take such a step in accordance with international law, and criticized the U.S. and its allies for striking the Syrian territory without U.N. permission.

Monday's meeting marked another chapter in Obama's and Putin's history of colorful and tense encounters. They laid the groundwork for the meeting in dueling speeches at the U.N., and then were forced to sit together at lunch, exchanging steely glances as they clinked champagne glasses during a toast. They appeared briefly before reporters before beginning their talks, quickly shaking hands, but making no remarks.

That the leaders met at all underscored Obama's acceptance of Russia's increasingly prominent role in resolving the crisis in Syria. The U.S. president has resisted granting Putin the legitimacy of a formal bilateral meeting following the Russian president's provocations in Ukraine. But White House officials calculated that it was worth bending on that front for the opportunity to assess Putin's Syria motivations in person.

The meeting also highlighted Putin's ability to command attention and shift it away from the Ukraine. A fragile peace plan in the former Soviet republic remains shaky at best, yet the crisis was largely a footnote at the U.N. gathering.

See photos of Obama and Putin meeting through the years:

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Obama and Putin's awkward meetings through the years
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Obama and Putin: Awkward moments, few breakthroughs
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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Instead, attention was riveted on what Putin would say about Syria and Assad as he arrived in New York for his first U.N. meeting in a decade. In the weeks leading up to his arrival, Putin ratcheted up his country's military presence in Syria and struck an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran, Syria and Iraq, another nation fighting the Islamic State.

Both developments caught U.S. officials off guard.

Putin also moved swiftly to try to capitalize on the failure of U.S. efforts to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels — a $500 million Pentagon program that was supposed to yield more than 5,000 fighters but instead only has only a handful of active graduates. The Russian leader jabbed Obama over the program's failures in his remarks to the U.N. General Assembly on Monday.

The global landscape looks far different than what some in the Obama administration envisioned earlier this year.

Fresh off the success of Iranian nuclear negotiations that resulted in a rare alignment among Russia, China and the West, some U.S. officials wondered whether that partnership could serve as a model for tackling other crises, including Syria. Officials also suggested there was reason to be optimistic that Putin was growing impatient with Assad.

Obama even suggested that possibility in a July interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

"I was encouraged by the fact that Mr. Putin called me a couple of weeks ago and initiated the call to talk about Syria," Obama said after a phone call with Putin. "I think they get a sense that the Assad regime is losing a grip over greater and greater swaths of territory inside of Syria and that the prospects for a takeover or rout of the Syrian regime is not imminent but becomes a greater and greater threat by the day."

"That offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them," Obama added.

Privately, some U.S. officials say they still believe Putin is inclined to cooperate with the U.S. to ease Assad from power. They've raised the prospect that Putin's increased military footprint in Syria isn't just to prop up Assad, but perhaps also to curry favor with whoever might replace him.

But after Obama and Putin's latest encounter, figuring out who might replace Assad — or whether there will be a power transfer at all — still seems like a major challenge.

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AP writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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