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A wary Obama meets with Putin on Syria crisis. Can Russia help?

Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet with President Obama at the UN Monday to talk about Syria. But the West remains skeptical of his motives.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on agriculture in Rostov region, Russia, September 24, 2015.

Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/REUTERS

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When President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk Monday at the United Nations in their first meeting of any length since 2013, the two estranged presidents will hardly be motivated by the same interests on Syria.

Mr. Obama – who was reluctant to accept the meeting when the Russians first proposed it – appears to want to get a better idea of what Russia is up to. The United States remains unsure of just what Russia’s intentions are as it ratchets up its military assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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For Mr. Putin, the objective of the meeting – just after he addresses the UN General Assembly for the first time in a decade – is to make the point back home that his Russia is back on the world stage, Russia experts say.

By going to the UN and holding a meeting with Obama on Syria, Putin is showing Russians that because of him, Russia “could be the game-changer, it can manage the situation 1,000 miles from Russia’s borders,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, chair of the Russian domestic politics program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. The point is to change the subject from Ukraine and a dismal economy, and to demonstrate that in world diplomacy, “Putin is strong not weak.”

The Obama administration is in the midst of reevaluating its Syria policy, with the president directing his national security team to come up with new options for pushing the five-year conflict toward a diplomatic solution, officials say. Administration efforts to find and back moderate rebels against Mr. Assad have all but failed, and the efforts of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State have stalled.

The stepped-up Russian activity in Syria and the region comes amid those setbacks.

“We’re just at the beginning of trying to understand what the Russians’ intentions are in Syria, in Iraq, and to try to see if there are mutually beneficial ways forward here,” a senior State Department official told reporters at the UN Sunday evening. Speaking after Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the official said the US hoped to hear from Russia an interest in getting back to finding a political solution to Syria’s war.

At a minimum, the US wants to reduce the risks of some kind of US-Russia military accident. But it also wants to see if a renewed diplomatic push on Syria is possible.

“If the Russians are going to be more engaged in this theater, we have to de-conflict militarily,” the State Department official said. “We also have to have a political way forward.”

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Up to now, a key stumbling block for the US and Russia has been their disagreement over the future of Assad, with Russia insisting he must be part of any political resolution and the US saying he must go. Russia does not appear to have budged, but the US and some other Western powers, including Germany, appear to be considering the idea that Assad might have to figure temporarily in an internationally brokered political transition.

The signs of an apparent Western shift in thinking on Assad comes from the stalled efforts to weaken and destroy the Islamic State, as well as the lack of a viable alternative to Assad. Obama will hold a summit of the anti-Islamic State collation countries on Tuesday, but his update on the campaign against the group will not be bright.

That Western muddle over the Islamic State will offer Putin the opportunity – both in his UN speech and in his meeting with Obama – to present his vision of a “grand coalition” to vanquish the terrorist threat presented by IS.

But that proposal is not likely to go far, some analysts say, because it will be seen as primarily an attempt to bolster Assad – and Putin himself.

Putin is determined to convey that “we [Russians] are a force to be reckoned with,” says Andrew Weiss, an expert in US-Russia relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The problem for Putin is that, while his message may sell back home, his diplomatic initiative on Syria is likely to leave Obama and other leaders cold, Mr. Weiss says. After Ukraine and the Crimea annexation “there is still zero trust in the West toward Putin or what’s he’s doing.”