Obama Tells Putin to End Airstrikes on Moderates in Syria's War

  • McCain favors Arab, Turkish, U.S. troops to take Raqqa
  • Syrian opposition leader says U.S. abandoned his country

Civil defense members try to rescue victims from the wreckage after Russian airstrikes hit residential areas in the opposition-controlled Katranci neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on Feb. 14.

Photographer: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin to call for an end to airstrikes against moderate opposition forces in Syria as a security conference in Munich discussed efforts to implement a truce in that country’s five-year civil war.

Obama, in Saturday’s phone call, stressed the need for quick humanitarian access to besieged areas and a nationwide cessation of hostilities, the White House said in a statement released Sunday. Obama emphasized the importance of “Russia playing a constructive role by ceasing its air campaign against moderate opposition forces,” according to the statement.

The Kremlin said earlier in an e-mailed statement that Putin emphasized the importance of a united anti-terror front and close contacts between Russian and U.S. defense forces. The leaders agreed on strengthening diplomatic cooperation, according to the e-mail.

The call was made after both countries’ top diplomats cast doubt over their plan for a Syrian truce less than a day after it was agreed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave the deal less than a 50 percent chance of success. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. and Russian militaries still needed to work out coordination that would allow strikes on Syrian terrorist groups without targeting the “legitimate opposition.”

Outside powers in Syria’s five-year-old conflict, including the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, last week backed a truce set to start on Feb. 19. Peace efforts have intensified after nearly six months of Russian bombing in support of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian regime, supported by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters, is threatening to drive rebels from Aleppo, once the country’s biggest city and an opposition stronghold.

Russian Targets

Earlier at the three-day Munich Security Conference, Kerry warned Russia to stop bombing opponents of Assad that aren’t jihadists. “To date, the vast majority -- in our opinion -- of Russia’s attacks have been against legitimate opposition groups,” Kerry said in a speech. “We think it’s critical that the Russians’ targeting changes.”

U.S. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Sunday at the conference that Arab, Turkish and U.S. troops should join up to take the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State fighters.

“A coalition composed of a number of the Sunni Arab countries, including Turkey,” along with “American participation of some few thousand,” would be sufficient to capture the Islamic State base in eastern Syria, McCain said.

The U.S. lawmaker was responding to a question on how the U.S. could change its Syria policy and reduce the threat from Islamic State militants. McCain also said he favors establishing a no-fly zone over Syria.

‘Abandoned’ Syria

Riad Hijab, a Syrian opposition leader who heads the High Negotiation Committee, told the conference that Obama has failed to follow through on his statement in 2011 that Assad had lost legitimacy and must go.

“Russia has come and seized the situation,” Hijab said. “Our people have been abandoned by the international community and have not had leadership, specifically by the United States of America.”

Norbert Roettgen, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s senior foreign-policy lawmaker, said Russia has gained the upper hand in Syria’s civil war and expressed skepticism that the truce will take hold.

“Russia, by the use of armed force, has significantly, fundamentally improved its political and diplomatic position,” Roettgen, who heads the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told a panel at the Munich conference. “Russia has gained the upper hand in the region and this is, by historical measures, a novelty.”

‘Leverage’ Needed

McCain also expressed doubt that the planned cessation of hostilities will stick because Russia has been given what he portrayed as excessive leeway to continue attacks against terrorists.

Putin “wants to use Syria as a live-fire exercise for Russia’s military,” the senator and 2008 U.S. presidential candidate said. “Common sense will not end the conflict in Syria, that takes leverage.”

Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. undersecretary of state in the Bush administration, said he expects Russia to continue its air campaign until all supply lines to Aleppo are cut.

“That seems to be one of their objectives,” he said in an interview in Munich. “And it’s a very cynical objective to have.”

Refugee Surge

As Russian airstrikes drive more Syrians from their homes, McCain said Putin is intentionally stoking the refugee crisis to sow discord within Europe. “He wants to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon,” McCain said. “His appetite is growing with the eating.”

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in a speech to the conference on Saturday, accused the U.S.-led NATO military alliance of taking an “unfriendly and closed” stance against Russia, saying: “We have slid into a time of a new Cold War.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.