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Amid Tensions, Obama And Putin To Meet At The U.N.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For a brief moment today in New York City, several world leaders who may influence the future of Syria's disastrous civil war are all in the same city. They include President Obama and also the president of Iran. We'll have a conversation with him in a moment.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And it also includes Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, who will sit down with President Obama for the first time in nearly a year. This meeting comes as Russia is becoming more assertive in the Middle East. It's been beefing up its military presence in Syria. And over the weekend, we learned that Russia is now working more closely with Iraq, a U.S. ally, sharing intelligence in the fight against ISIS. NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with President Obama in New York, where he will address the U.N. General Assembly before meeting with Vladimir Putin.

Scott, good morning to you.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So wow, I mean, the White House has really been stiff-arming Vladimir Putin for a long time now, which really makes this meeting interesting.

HORSLEY: Yeah, from stiff arm to handshake.

GREENE: Yeah.

HORSLEY: The administration has been trying to isolate Russia to protest what Washington sees as the illegal annexation of Crimea. But what appears to have prompted this change now is Russia's decision to send tanks and planes into Syria, propping up Moscow's longtime ally there, Bashar al-Assad. In an interview that aired on "60 Minutes" last night, Putin says he's just trying to keep a lid on the large number of Russians who've traveled to Syria to join the fight against Assad. It's Putin speaking here through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) More than 2,000 fighters from Russia and ex-Soviet republics are in the territory of Syria. There's a threat of their return to us. So instead of waiting for their return, we are better off helping Assad fight them on Syrian territory. So this is the most important thing which encourages us and pushes us to provide assistance to Assad. And in general, we want the situation in the region to stabilize.

HORSLEY: Now, a lot of Western countries are worried about having their own citizens travel to Syria to join the fight with the self-proclaimed Islamic State. In fact, President Obama sponsored a special Security Council meeting on that issue a year ago. And yet, a year later, the flow of fighters into Syria continues unchecked.

GREENE: And the White House has sort of been forced to pay a lot more attention now to Russia, right, Scott? I mean, it's - Russia, we know now, is sharing intelligence about ISIS with Iraq along with Syria. And Iraq is a U.S. ally. I mean, could this administration see Russia as an ally in some way as we head to this meeting?

HORSLEY: Well, the administration is not sure what Russia's up to, and it's hoping to get some clarity during the meeting today between President Obama and President Putin. Certainly there have been times when Russia has been cooperative with the United States - for example, on that Iran nuclear deal. In fact, the last time Obama and Putin spoke was in July when they talked on the phone about the Iran agreement. But I think the White House is pretty skeptical of Russia's intentions in this instance. Secretary of State John Kerry met over the weekend with his Russian counterpart and said if Russia wants to get more heavily involved in the fight against ISIS, that effort needs to be coordinated in a way that it's not being coordinated right now.

GREENE: And, Scott, just briefly, I mean, Obama's going to take the stage and address the General Assembly. I mean, with all of this as the backdrop, what exactly do we expect to hear from him?

HORSLEY: Obama's going to make argument for the kind of diplomacy he's been practicing all year, diplomacy that's sometimes controversial at home but which he insists pays off. That includes the Iran nuclear deal, of course, but also the historic reopening of ties to Cuba. And Obama's going to contrast that with the sort of old-style power moves that Vladimir Putin has been making in Ukraine.

GREENE: That's NPR's Scott Horsley in New York. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.