US President Barack Obama says Russia has made a strategic mistake in supporting the Syrian government, but that the Arab country’s raging conflict is “not a contest” between him and President Vladimir Putin.
The Obama administration has come under growing criticism that it has done little to contain Russia’s military campaign in Syria launched on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.
At a summit in California on Tuesday, Obama predicted that Syria would become a “quagmire” for Russia, but added, “This is not a contest between me and Putin.”
“The real question we should be asking is what is it that Russia thinks it gains if it gets a country that’s been completely destroyed as an ally, that it now has to perpetually spend billions of dollars to prop up?” the US president said.
Obama characterized the Russian air campaign in Syria as a military occupation that would not be sustainable in the long run. “Putin may think that he’s prepared to invest in a permanent occupation of Syria with Russian military. That’s going to be pretty costly.”
Russia’s airpower appears to have shifted the dynamics of the Syrian conflict in favor of the Syrian armed forces which have recently made major gains against militant groups after nearly five years of fighting.
The airstrikes have powered an offensive by the Syrian armed forces and allied volunteer fighters in the northern city of Aleppo, the biggest remaining militant stronghold.
Obama said Putin’s intervention would make it more difficult for the United Nations-led ceasefire to hold. “If Russia continues indiscriminate bombing of the sort that we’ve been seeing, I think it’s fair to say that you’re not gonna see any take-up by the opposition.”
After days of negotiations in Munich, diplomats from a working group of 17 countries, including the US, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, agreed Thursday to establish a temporary “cessation of hostilities” in Syria within a week.
The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) also called for rapid humanitarian access to besieged Syrian towns.
Obama and Putin spoke by phone this week and agreed to implement the Munich agreement and try to put an end to the hostilities which have deepened tensions between Washington and Moscow.
The foreign-sponsored conflict in Syria, which flared up in March 2011, has killed some 470,000 people and left 1.9 million injured, according to the so-called Syrian Center for Policy Research.