- Russian military has helped Syrian government encircle Aleppo
- Syria `is not a contest between me and Putin,' Obama says
President Barack Obama said that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in the Syrian civil war hasn’t resulted in significant gains for his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and threatens to bog down Russia’s military and economy.
“If there’s anybody who thinks that somehow the fighting ends because Russia and the regime has made some initial advances: about three-quarters of the country is under the control of folks other than Assad,” Obama said at a press conference after a two-day meeting with Southeast Asian leaders at the Sunnylands retreat in Rancho Mirage, California. "I say that, by the way, with no pleasure. This is not a contest between me and Putin."
Putin’s military campaign in Syria has shifted the balance of power in the country’s civil war toward the Assad regime, with Russian airstrikes pushing back rebel forces after five years of fighting.
Putin’s forces have largely targeted opposition fighters backed by the U.S. and Arab Gulf states, U.S. officials have said, rather than the Islamic State terrorists Russia says it is combating. The strikes have powered an offensive by Assad’s military in Aleppo, the biggest remaining insurgent stronghold. Putin’s intervention has also complicated the United Nations-led peace process, as opposition fighters have been reluctant to engage in diplomatic talks while under attack by Russian warplanes.
Obama took issue with the notion that Russia’s intervention will result in lasting gains.
"Putin may think he’s prepared to invest in a permanent occupation of Syria with the Russian military," Obama said. "That’s going to be pretty costly. That’s going to be a big piece of business. If you look at the state of the Russian economy, that’s probably not the best thing for Russia."
The durability of a cease-fire agreement struck Feb. 12 is already in question, as top diplomats from both the U.S. and Russian sides have expressed doubts that all parties would abide by the deal.
The truce, agreed to by outside powers in Syria’s war, including the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, is set to begin on Feb. 19. Meanwhile, Russia has continued to bomb opposition fighters in and around Aleppo, where Syrian government troops are encircling the city and cutting off supply lines.
"If Russia continues indiscriminate bombing of the sort we’ve been seeing, I think it’s fair to say you’re not going to see" rebels accept the cease-fire, Obama said.
The partial cease-fire, if it holds, would allow humanitarian aid shipments into the most distressed parts of northern Syria, where civilians lack food and health care.
It would also allow the Assad regime to lock in gains achieved during the past four months of Russian bombing. The Syrian leader has remained in power despite a 2011 declaration by Obama that “Assad must go” and a civil war that has killed more than 260,000 and sent millions of migrants streaming into Europe.
The conflict has deepened tensions between Russia and the U.S. After Obama and Putin spoke this week by phone and agreed to implement the Munich agreement, Russia continued to bomb U.S.-backed rebels.
At the Munich conference on Saturday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accused the U.S.-led NATO military alliance of antagonism toward Russia.
“We have slid into a time of a new Cold War,” he said.