US President Barack Obama has said Russia’s recent military intervention in the war in Syria is a sign of Moscow’s weakness, brushing off criticism that Washington had been caught off guard by the recent offensive.
Speaking in an interview on Sunday on CBS’ 60 Minutes programme, the US president said, “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.”
“The fact that they had to do this is not an indication of strength, it’s an indication that their strategy did not work,” he added.
Russia’s military campaign in Syria began on Sept. 30, just hours after lawmakers in Moscow approved air strikes against the ISIS militant group, which has seized swathes of land across Syria after taking advantage of the security vacuum arising from the conflict in the country.
The campaign began after Russia began building up its military presence in the country, particularly in the coastal governorates of Latakia and Tartus, where the Russians are reportedly expanding a naval base and constructing an airstrip.
Although talks are ongoing regarding possible coordination between Russia and the US over air strikes targeting the ISIS militant group, disagreement over the status of Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad in a proposed “transition phase” to end the four-and-a-half-year-old conflict is proving to be a cause for tensions between the two global superpowers.
While the US insists that Assad has no future in Syria, Russia has been unwavering in its support for its key ally and seeks to include Assad in the political process.
The US has also raised concerns over Russian air strikes hitting CIA-trained opposition fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). While Moscow initially said it was only targeting ISIS militants, it later said air strikes would also target other terrorist groups.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Russia views the FSA as a terrorist organisation, but also doubted the existence of the umbrella group of loosely aligned opposition brigades.
“They tell us about the Free Syrian Army, but where is it? It remains a phantom group, nothing is known about it," Lavrov said during a visit to Laos earlier this month.
"We will be ready to establish contact with it if it’s really a capable military group of patriotic opposition consisting of Syrians. We do not hide this fact. But this structure is already a phantom. I have asked [State Secretary] John Kerry to provide us with information about the whereabouts of this Free Syrian Army and who commands it," Lavrov added.
The US Department of Defense announced on Friday that the US military programme to train and equip Syrian opposition fighters will be overhauled, amended and refocused “to provide equipment packages and weapons to a select group of vetted leaders and their units so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL [ISIS]," Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.
However, the Pentagon denied an earlier report by the New York Times that the programme will be abandoned and the statement suggested a change of focus and strategy rather than a complete termination.
In early 2015 the US announced plans to train and equip 15,000 Syrian opposition fighters over the course of three years and was planning to raise at least 5,000 fighters until the end of this year.
The programme came under harsh criticism after it failed to recruit enough fighters and the first group of trainees disbanded or were captured in Syria and another group forfeited their weapons and equipment to the Al Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front.
On Saturday, Cook said officials from the Russian Ministry of Defence and with the US Department of Defence held discussions via a 90 minute-long video meeting aimed towards taking steps to ensure Russian and US-led anti-ISIS coalition aircrafts conduct secure and safe flight campaigns over Syrian territory.
"The discussions were professional and focused narrowly on the implementation of specific safety procedures," the statement said.
"Progress was made during the talks, and the US agreed to another discussion with Russia in the near future."
Over four years of fighting in Syria has left over 250,000 Syrians dead, according to UN estimates. More than 6.7 million are displaced internally while at least 5 million have fled the country to the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.