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Obama Rejects Kremlin View That All Syrian Rebels Are Terrorists

  • RFE/RL

U.S. President Barack Obama said Russia’s approach to Syria is a “recipe for disaster” at a White House news conference on October 2.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Russia’s approach to Syria is a “recipe for disaster” at a White House news conference on October 2.

U.S. President Barack Obama has rejected Russia’s views on Syria’s four-year-old crisis, saying that not everyone who is opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is a terrorist, as the Kremlin maintains.

Speaking at a news conference on October 2 in Washington, Obama said Russia’s approach to Syria is a “recipe for disaster.”

Moreover, he said Russia's alliance with Assad and Iran has made it an enemy in the eyes of most Syrians while it risks alienating the wider Sunni Muslim world and forcing Russia into a prolonged war.

"An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won't work," he said.

Obama pointed out that Russian air strikes have been hitting moderate opposition fighters, rather than focusing only on Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda extremists, as Moscow says.

British intelligence services estimated on October 3 that only 5 percent of Russian air strikes thus far have targeted IS while most have hit moderate forces and killed civilians.

That will move Syria further away from being able to achieve a political transition that brings the conflict to an end, Obama said.

Obama admitted that the United States' own program to train and equip moderate opposition forces in Syria has not worked -- conceding a point often made by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other critics.

He said Washington is now working with Ankara to build up forces to help secure Turkey’s southern border with Syria as well as trying to build on efforts that help Kurdish fighters in eastern Syria.

Obama dodged questions about whether the United States would protect rebels groups it backs if they come under attack from Russian air strikes or Russian-backed Syrian forces.

Despite growing evidence such clashes are already occuring, he insisted that he will not allow the Syrian conflict to become a "proxy war" between the two military superpowers.

"We're not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. This is not some superpower chessboard contest," he said.

Obama's remarks came on the third day of Russian air strikes in Syria and rising diplomatic tension over the aims of Moscow in the war-torn country.

Moscow has repeatedly claimed since deploying Russian troops and weaponry in Syria last month that its aim is to defeat terrorism.

But its insistence on working with Assad's regime and early air strikes seemingly targeting anti-Assad fighters -- and not IS positions, according to Washington -- have underscored concerns that Russia's primary goal is to keep Assad in power.

WATCH: Syrian Opposition Groups Hold Reconciliation Talks

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russian warplanes on October 2 carried out 14 flights in Syria and delivered six strikes on IS targets.

He said Su-34, Su-24M, and Su-25 warplanes had taken part in the flights and that an IS military operations center in Idlib Province had been destroyed in the raids.

A Russian Defense Ministry statement said earlier that the warplanes hit a command post and a communications center in the province of Aleppo as well as a militant field camp in Idlib.

The ministry also said a command post in the province of Hama was also destroyed.

But the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict with a network of sources on the ground, said Islamic State had no presence in the areas that were struck.

Turkey and its partners in the U.S.-led coalition against IS have called on Russia to stop targeting the Syrian opposition with its air strikes and focus on fighting IS- and Al-Qaeda-linked militants.

The appeal came in a statement issued on October 2 by Turkey along with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Gulf Arab allies.

In it, those countries express "deep concern" over Moscow's two-day-old bombardment campaign in Syria, arguing they represent a "further escalation" of the conflict and will only fuel more extremism.

Moscow’s permanent envoy to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, said on Russia state television on October 2 that he has “major suspicions about how and for what purpose this message has appeared” and cast doubt on whether it indeed came from the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

However, the statement has been posted on the Turkish Foreign Ministry's website.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in a conference call that Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed to French President Francois Hollande in Paris on October 2 that Moscow’s actions in Syria are in line with international law and aimed at battling terrorism.

Peskov spoke after the leaders met for four-way talks on the Ukraine conflict that also included German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Hollande said he told Putin that Russia's bombing campaign should "only hit" Islamic State and Al-Qaeda militants.

Speaking alongside the French president, Merkel said: "Both of us insisted on the fact that IS is the enemy that we should be fighting."

Speaking before the multilateral meeting, Hollande said France's other conditions for cooperation are that Moscow ensure the safety of civilians and work for a political transition that envisages the departure of Assad.

Meanwhile, the head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's State Duma, Aleksei Pushkov, says the Kremlin estimates its air strike campaign in Syria could last three to four months.

Pushkov also told French radio on October 2 that the Russian bombardment would intensify.

Both Paris and Washington have cast doubts on Moscow's claim to be exclusively targeting IS.

The United States called Russian air strikes in Syria "indiscriminate military operations against the Syrian opposition."

That came as Russia reportedly hit a camp run by rebels trained by the CIA on October 1, the second day of its air strike campaign.

U.S. and Russian military officials held an hourlong video-conference call on October 1 discuss how to keep their respective militaries apart -- dubbed "deconflicting" -- in Syria as they carry out parallel air campaigns with competing objectives.

The Associated Press on October 2 cited U.S. officials as saying that amid the Russian air campaign, the Pentagon is weighing whether to use military force to protect Syrian rebels trained and equipped by Washington.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, and Interfax
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