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Obama At U.N. Vows To Work With Russia, Iran To Resolve Syrian Confict

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Obama is defending the International Order today even as that order is being severely strained by the civil war in Syria. We begin this hour with the president's address at the United Nations. He was speaking to more than 150 world leaders. He's meeting now 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 from U.N. Headquarters in New York.

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

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, the White House has long argued that ending the civil war in Syria is going to take a political, diplomatic approach. Even as U.S. military forces and their allies continue to target the extremists from the Islamic State who've taken advantage of the chaos in Syria. More broadly today, Obama used Syria as sort of a case study as he talked about the way the international community has tried to respond to challenges throughout the United Nations' 70-year history. And right now, he said Syria is the greatest test of that U.N. world order. Here's the president.

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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 dictatorial leaders can impose order from above. In the long run, he says, that kind of repression just plants the seeds of future conflict.

SHAPIRO: And Scott, throughout this civil war, Russia and the U.S. have been on opposite sides of the conflict. But President Obama agreed to meet today with Russian president Vladimir Putin. What does he hope to gain from that conversation?

HORSLEY: As you said, Ari, Vladimir Putin's been playing a more assertive role in Syria. He's been moving in more military material. And we also learned he's sharing intelligence with Syria, Iran and Iraq. Vladimir Putin's trying to back up his longtime ally Bashar al-Assad, and as the conflict drags on, more people around the world seem to be willing to say they're willing to put up with Assad if that's what it takes to have stability in Syria. Obama addressed that today, even as he maintained the U.S. position that Assad must go. Here's what he had to say at the U.N.

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OBAMA: Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL. But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad into a new leader.

HORSLEY: And the United States is frankly skeptical of Russia's involvement in Syria. Secretary of State Kerry said over the weekend that any effort by Russia to play a role in the anti-ISIS fight needs to be coordinated, and he says that coordination has been lacking so far.

SHAPIRO: Scott, you're at U.N. Headquarters - obviously an international audience for the president there. But in his speech today, it also sounded like domestic politics was on his mind.

HORSLEY: President Obama used his speech today to defend his broader approach to international diplomacy an approach that led to the Iranian nuclear deal, for example and also the renewed ties between the United States and Cuba. Now, Obama acknowledged those moves have been controversial here in the U.S., and he pushed back forcefully against critics, including many of the Republican presidential candidates.

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OBAMA: I 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 applause here in the U.N. chamber. It may be less warmly received in some parts of the American electorate.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Scott Horsley at U.N. Headquarters in New York. He's traveling with President Obama. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.