Rebels cannot focus on ISIL when Assad is in power: Obama
REUTERS photoThe United States’ “train and equip” program for rebels in Syria “did not work,” President Barack Obama admitted in a TV interview broadcast late on Oct. 11, adding that the existence of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad prevented rebels from focusing on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
His statements came at a time when Russian leader Vladimir Putin has once again implied that his aim in military operations in Syria is to stabilize al-Assad’s position.
Obama told CBS’ Steve Kroft that he had been skeptical of the plan to train 5,000 fighters to combat ISIL in Syria but he felt compelled to test the plan.
“I’ve been skeptical from the get-go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria,” the president said.
“My goal has been to try to test the proposition. Can we... train and equip a moderate opposition that’s willing to fight ISIL? And what we’ve learned is that as long as al-Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL,” he said.
“Look, there’s no doubt that it did not work. And one of the challenges that I’ve had throughout this heartbreaking situation inside of Syria is that you’ll have people insist that all you have to do is send in a few truckloads full of arms and people are ready to fight,” he said.
Last week, the Pentagon announced a pause in the train-and-equip program for putatively moderate Syrian opposition groups after the $500 million scheme failed to produce a credible force. Reports claim some of the U.S.-trained fighters defected to groups such as the al-Nusra Front.
Describing the Syrian conflict as a “difficult problem for the entire world community,” Obama recognized that the U.S. had been unable to “change the dynamic inside of Syria.”
He said there were no “silver bullets” to resolve the conflict, which has seen more than 250,000 Syrians killed, and reaffirmed his opposition to “try to reinsert ourselves in a military campaign inside of Syria.”
One of America’s priorities is to support moderate groups to persuade Russia and Iran to pressure al-Assad into accepting change, he added.
Asked if the U.S. was “throwing in the towel,” Obama outlined the “enormous” military presence in the Middle East but said it would be a bad strategy to establish America as “not just the police, but the governors of this region.”
On Oct. 12, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated at a press conference Moscow’s readiness to work with Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group, the Free Syrian Army, to find a political solution to the crisis.
Putin said a day earlier that the goal of the Russian intervention was to “stabilize the legitimate authorities and create conditions for finding a political compromise.”
Putin met with Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Oct. 11 about the possibility of a political solution in Syria, where Moscow has been conducting airstrikes since late September.
The two huddled in the southern Russian city of Sochi and were joined by Lavrov and Energy Minister Alexander Novak.
“We have closely cooperated with Saudi Arabia for years on the crisis in Syria,” Lavrov told journalists, according to remarks broadcast on television. “The two parties confirmed that Saudi Arabia and Russia have similar objectives when it comes to Syria. Above all, it is to not let a terrorist caliphate take over the country.
After today’s talks, we understand better how to move toward a political solution.”
Bin Salman said Riyadh was worried about Russia’s military intervention in Syria and the country’s possible alliance with Iran.
He added that Saudi Arabia was in favor of a political solution in Syria, but one which includes the departure of al-Assad, a staunch ally of Moscow. Lavrov also said that Moscow was ready for closer cooperation with Riyadh to make clear that the country was in fact targeting ISIL, al-Nusra and other terrorist strongholds in Syria.
Using modern jets and older Soviet aircraft, Russia has bombed command posts and training camps of what it says are radical “terrorists,” backing a ground offensive by the forces of al-Assad.
Moscow has flexed its muscles with the bombing campaign across the war-torn country that has put a U.S.-led coalition in the shade and angered Washington and its allies.