US President Barack Obama was asked during a press conference Tuesday whether he still believes that Russia has gotten into a “quagmire” in Syria, in light of Russian-supported regime gains in the country.
Obama was also confronted over whether the US would step up its assistance to Western-backed rebels in order to prevent the impending fall of Aleppo, the country’s largest city, to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Finally, he was asked to to respond to criticisms that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “outfoxed” him in sending troops to Syria, now that Russian air power is helping the Assad regime win back vital territory.
Obama replied that he thought the Russian intervention in the country was still a sign of Moscow’s weakness — and that he believes Putin has made a strategic commitment in Syria that he won’t be able to sustain.
“If somebody’s strong, you don’t have to send in your army to prop up your ally,” Obama said of Russia’s support for the Assad regime. “You send in your army when the horse you’re backing isn’t effective.”
Obama noted that about three-quarters of Syrian territory is still under the control of non-regime militant groups, and he opined that it’s “not stopping anytime soon” — an implicit reference to the troubles Assad faces even if he manages to retake Aleppo (and possibly an admission that the fall of the city won’t change the US’ approach to the country’s civil war).
Obama said Russia’s real “quagmire” is its long-term investment in a country that it can’t stabilise without what Obama said would amount to a “long-term military occupation.”
“The question is how can we stop the suffering, stabilise the region, stop this massive out-migration of refugees … end the violence, stop the bombing of schools and hospitals and innocent civilians, stop creating a safe haven for ISIS, and there’s nothing that’s happened over the last several weeks that points to those issues being solved,” Obama said.
“And that is what I mean by a quagmire,” he added.
Obama’s answer revealed a low level of confidence in current efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war diplomatically. Last week, a group of international stakeholders that includes the US and Russia announced a timeline for a “cessation of hostilities” and the negotiation of a ceasefire.
In addition to his comment that he sees “nothing that’s happened over the last several weeks” pointing to a solution to the conflict’s underlying issues, Obama said opposition forces were unlikely to respect a planned “cessation” if Russia didn’t halt its bombing campaign.
“If Russia continues indiscriminate bombing of the sort that we’ve seeing, it’s fair to say we’re not going to see any take-up by the opposition,” Obama said.
Obama’s comments also seemed to assume that the Russian leadership has a potential self-interest in a negotiated solution to the Syria conflict — something that hasn’t quite been borne out by events in the country.
“The real question we should be asking is: What is it what 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?” Obama said.
Russia might not need to make this kind of a long-term commitment if it succeeds in wiping out the country’s non-jihadist opposition — which is a possibility if Aleppo falls.
And Russia’s current behaviour in Syria suggests the Kremlin still believes its level of commitment is a worthwhile strategic trade-off — and that a weakened Assad regime advances Moscow’s regional and global position more than a negotiated transition of power.
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