During a one-on-one meeting Monday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin shared their views on Syria, disagreeing about the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but agreeing to stay out of each other's way militarily.
“This was not a situation where either one of them was seeking to score points in a meeting," said a senior White House official after the 90-minute meeting in New York. "I think there was a shared desire to figure out a way in which we can address the situation in Syria.”
Calling the exchange "focused" and "businesslike," the official said the meeting – the first in more than two years – produced clarity on Russia's goals. “Their objectives are to go after ISIL [Islamic State] and to support the government./p>
The official said the United States does not view Russia’s military buildup in Syria as necessarily destructive to a positive outcome in Syria, but rather the administration’s view on the Russians will depend on their actions going forward.
If the Russians use their military solely to fight the Islamic State group, that might be OK, the official suggested. If they use their might to continue to strengthen Assad’s battle against his own people, it will be negative, he said.
“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 Russians see Assad as a bulwark against extremists, he explained, while the Americans see Assad as continuing to fan the flames of a sectarian conflict there.
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The two presidents agreed that their militaries should communicate in order to “deconflict,” or avoid military conflicts between them in the region.
The official added that recent stories about the creation of a Russian intelligence-sharing alliance with Iran, Iraq and Syria were overstated in large measure because the Russians have been sharing intelligence with Iran and Syria for years and have little to give the Iraqis since they have few assets in Iraq.
The two presidents spent half the meeting talking about Syria and the other half discussing Ukraine.
“The president reiterated our support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukraine government,” the official said. "Obama also noted positive opportunity to implement the Minsk accord in the next few months.”
Earlier in public speeches at the U.N. General Assembly, the two presidents used the world stage to offer up starkly contrasting views.
With calls for cooperation, Obama hit out at Moscow, criticizing major powers that “assert themselves in ways that contravene international law.”
“They argue for a return to the rules that apply to most of human history and predate this institution -- the belief that power is a zero-sum game, that might makes right, that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones,” the U.S. leader said just minutes into his speech.
Putin blamed Western nations’ policy of expanding NATO and its military infrastructure for offering post-Soviet nations a “false choice” – either to be with the West or the East.
“Sooner or later this logic of confrontation was bound to spark off a grave geopolitical crisis,” the Russian president said. “This is exactly what happened in Ukraine where the discontent of the population with the current authorities was used and a military coup was orchestrated from outside that triggered a civil war as a result.”
Putin called for the full implementation of the peace agreement forged in Minsk in February of this year. It’s a call that U.S. officials have issued – directing Russia to end its support for separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine and live up to the Minsk commitments.