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Obama, Putin Talks 'Surprisingly Open' After Frosty Beginning

by Alex Johnson /  / Updated 

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Stark differences remain between the United States and Russia over Syria, but Vladimir Putin said Monday that his first formal talks with President Obama in two years had been "very constructive and surprisingly open."

After a toast that was anything but toasty, the two leaders sat down for a summit meeting at the U.N. General Assembly.

There were no breakthroughs but their face-to-face talks, originally scheduled for an hour, ran for 90 minutes, ending about 6:40 p.m. ET.

"We have a lot in common," Putin told reporters afterwards. While "disputes remain," he declared that "we have sound grounds to work on the points of concern together."

Neither leader showed much warmth in front of the cameras, and Obama pointedly refused to return Putin's smile during an awkward toast at dinner, remaining grim-looking and stone-faced.

Richard Engel Analysis: Could Putin End the War in Syria?

Senior Obama administration officials said the two leaders agreed to explore a political resolution in Syria and decided that there should be conversations between U.S. and Russian military officials to de-escalate the conflict there.

In remarks to reporters, Obama insisted President Bashar Assad must relinquish power while Putin supported Assad as the only option to defeat ISIS.

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Obama called Assad a "tyrant" who "drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent civilians."

While ISIS — which he called an "apocalyptic cult" — must be defeated, Obama said, "dangerous currents risk pulling us back into a darker, more disordered world."

Related: We Must Stamp Out 'Apocalyptic Cult' ISIS, Obama Says

Members of the Russian delegation could be seen shaking their heads in disagreement during Obama's remarks.

When his turn came, Putin defended Assad as a stabilizing force who's "valiantly fighting terrorism face to face."

"This is not about Russia's ambitions but about the recognition of the fact that we can no longer tolerate the urgent state of affairs in the world," he said.

Administration officials said Obama also made time to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, stressing his support for its sovereignty and territorial integrity after having said in his public remarks that the country couldn't be allowed to fall under Russian rule.

"If that happens without consequences in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today," Obama said.

Putin has recently ratcheted up his country's military presence in Syria and struck an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran, Syria and Iraq, another nation fighting ISIS.

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.

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