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World

Obama, Putin Give Dueling Speeches On Syrian Conflict At United Nations

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Obama says he's ready to work with Iran and Russia to resolve the conflict in Syria. But it's difficult to see where there's room for compromise. The U.S. and Russia just see things differently, and that was clear in dueling speeches heard on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly today. NPR's Michele Kelemen was listening in New York.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At times, it felt like President Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin were talking about completely different planets. They certainly have different readings of history. From Obama's perspective, Assad started this devastating civil war by killing and jailing protesters.

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BARACK OBAMA: And so Assad and his allies can't simply pacify the broad majority of a population who've brutalized by chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing.

KELEMEN: For his part, Vladimir Putin blames the U.S. for fomenting revolutions and leaving dangerous vacuums across the Middle East and North Africa. He spoke through an interpreter.

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VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize now what you've done? But I'm afraid no one is going to answer that.

KELEMEN: Putin says only with an international coalition like the one that defeated the Nazis in World War II can the international community beat back extremists in Syria and elsewhere. And he believes the Syrian government has to be part of this.

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PUTIN: (Through interpreter) We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad's armed forces and Kurds militia are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.

KELEMEN: And the Kremlin leader blasted the U.S. and its partners for supporting so-called moderate rebels in Syria who are fighting both ISIS and Assad.

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PUTIN: (Through interpreter) We believe that any attempts to play games with terrorists, let alone to arm them, are not just shortsighted but fire hazardous.

KELEMEN: The same could be said of President Putin's support for separatists in Ukraine, who last week prevented U.N. agencies from delivering aid to the region. But again, he painted a very different picture of the story of Ukraine, accusing the U.S. of fomenting the conflict by helping protesters oust the former president. Obama, who spoke before Putin, seemed to know that was coming.

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OBAMA: It is not a conspiracy of U.S.-backed NGOs that expose corruption and raised the expectations of people around the globe. It's technology, social media and the irreducible desire of people everywhere to make their own choices about how they are governed.

KELEMEN: Obama's speech was meant to show how the world can come together to resolve problems. He pointed to the nuclear deal with Iran as an example. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani described the deal as a victory over war and said it should help bring peace and stability to the Middle East. Like Putin, Rouhani came with his own ideas of how to do that. He spoke through an interpreter.

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HASSAN ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) As we aid in the establishment of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are prepared to help bring about democracy in Syria. We support the consolidation of power through the vote of people rather than with arms.

KELEMEN: But Iran has been backing Assad and uses Syria to funnel weapons to the militant group Hizbollah in Lebanon. Against this complicated backdrop, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon issued an urgent plea for diplomacy today, saying four years of diplomatic paralysis allowed the conflict in Syria to spin out of control. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.