Obama Says Syria Action Is Sign Putin’s Leadership Slipping

Updated on
  • President tells 60 Minutes that Assad is Putin's 'sole ally'
  • Putin running Russian economy into the ground, Obama says

A Syrian rebel walks the streets of Aleppo, Syria.

Source: AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s military action in Syria is evidence that President Vladimir Putin’s hold on leadership is eroding, President Barack Obama said in an interview with "60 Minutes."

Obama cast Russia’s decision to launch airstrikes in Syria as a desperate move prompted by the weakness of Bashar al-Assad, who has sought to retain power amid a brutal civil war.

"Syria was Russia’s only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they’ve had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally," Obama said in an excerpt of the interview released Friday by CBS News.

The White House has complained that Russia’s strikes have targeted the moderate opposition to Assad, rather than Islamic State militants, and officials have said that forces backed by the U.S. were among those targeted in the campaign.

Training Program

On Friday, the U.S. announced it was shelving a Defense Department program to train and equip opposition fighters, acknowledging the efforts had fallen far short of expectations. Instead, the Pentagon will offer small arms and ammunition to selected opposition leaders for use by their forces rather than picking individuals for training outside Syria.

Russia launched its strikes in Syria before holding talks with the Pentagon about how to avoid any risks of conflict with U.S. and allied forces targeting Islamic State in nearby areas.

The president rejected the notion that his leadership was being challenged by Putin’s moves. Obama cast the Russian strikes as a sign of weakness, and drew a comparison to Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which prompted international sanctions on key economic sectors.

"I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in, in order to prop up your only ally, is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership," Obama said.

Russia’s Reaction

The comments drew a rebuke from the Kremlin, which said the majority of international observers saw the situation in Syria "diametrically opposite" to the U.S. president.

"The main thing here isn’t leadership, the main thing is the effort, which Russia is putting into fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist, extremist groups," Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said on a phone call with reporters. "Efforts, which are eventually also aimed at preserving Syria as a single state."

The interview excerpt was released shortly before the White House announced the changes to the train-and-equip program. Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama, said the Russian military action was "counterproductive" but downplayed its role in the president’s decision to end the training program.

"We’re actually going after ISIL, which Russia is not doing," Rhodes said, using an abbreviation to describe Islamic State. "We see the vast majority of the Russian strikes targeting the non-ISIL opponents to the Assad regime."

The president’s full interview is scheduled to air Sunday night, but was taped before the change in policy was announced. The interview is expected to include a discussion of the 2016 presidential race, including comment onHillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, the possibility that Vice President Joe Biden will enter the race, and Donald Trump’s performance in the Republican nominating contest.