Kerry: Obama's Critics 'Dead Wrong' on Syria

President Barack Obama extends his hand to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the U.N. General Assembly session on September 28. Following the closed-door meeting, U.S. officials said the two nations plan to cooperate in stabilizing Syria. Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Nobody knows exactly what President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin said to each other when they met in private Monday evening after widely divergent speeches at the U.N. General Assembly session. But according to the rhetoric from both sides, the meeting was effective and may have moved the two global powers closer to a shared strategy to manage the continuing deterioration of Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on MSNBC's Morning Joe program that the meeting was "genuinely productive." He called critics of the president's actions on Syria "dead wrong."

The Russian camp had previously described the meeting as frank and businesslike, a tone that came as no surprise after Obama's icy exchange with his counterpart at the U.N. luncheon.

"There was a very candid discussion," Kerry said. "Everybody understands that Syria is at stake."

The U.S. is exploring the possibility of offering Russia incentives to pressure the Syrian regime to stop dropping barrel bombs on U.S.-backed rebels. Kerry did not elaborate on what the incentives could be, but the U.S. currently has economic sanctions in place against Russia over Ukraine, and the administration has used sanctions relief to grease negotiations in the past.

According to Kerry, Putin and Obama agreed on "fundamental principles," including the need for a unified Syria with a secular regime, a "managed transition" of power and the defeat of ISIS. However, the two sides will likely continue to disagree about how to handle Bashar Assad, the brutal dictator whom Russia supports with military equipment and the U.S. nearly removed by force in 2013, before withdrawing.

"We are looking for a way to get to a point where we can manage a transition and get agreement on an outcome," Kerry said, later adding, "With Assad there, there is no Syria."

Kerry claimed that a cease-fire would be possible with the help of Iran, provided that Assad was pressured by the international community to step aside. Yet it seemed as if the dictator was a step ahead of the U.S. earlier this week when Iraq's government announced an agreement on intelligence sharing with the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran.

The Obama administration believes that the country's large Sunni population will never accept peace under Assad, who leads a minority Alawite political elite and has chemically bombed his own citizens. U.S. adversaries Russia and Iran see ISIS as priority No. 1. Obama is effectively in the position of wrangling with a two-headed monster while balancing delicate relations with other stable powers that have different interests.

Kerry defended the decision not to strike Syria after Obama infamously declared the use of chemical weapons by Assad to be a "red line." The president's critics—including most of those running for the Republican presidential nomination—have said the decision irreparably damaged America's reputation abroad and weakened our ability to use the threat of force. Kerry argued that the administration won a victory by securing the removal of chemical weapons diplomatically. Before a U.S. strike could happen, a Republican-controlled Congress voted against a resolution to go into Syria, and Prime Minister David Cameron withdrew British support after Parliament voted against an attack. The Obama administration decided that the public did not have any appetite for a war against Syria.

With an increasing Russian presence in the region, many believe Putin is getting ready to put troops into combat.

"This is not easy for Putin," Kerry said of his discussion with the Russian president after the meeting with Obama. "Everybody says, Oh, Putin just made a big move," but he now faces the prospect of taking on ISIS alone.

The militant group has targeted victims of Assad's war crimes in recruiting, offering a radical jihadist alternative to the brutal political status quo. Kerry reiterated that an international group could end the conflict and weaken ISIS's standing by managing Assad's removal. The debate comes down to the divergent philosophies evident in Putin and Obama's U.N. speeches; according to the U.S., Assad is the problem because he started the civil war by violently quelling political protests.

"If [they] can resolve this transition of Assad," Kerry said, an alliance with Russia against ISIS would be on the table.