NEW YORK -- President Barack Obama on Friday criticized Russia's recent airstrikes over the Syrian city of Homs as a dead-end strategy that will ultimately empower the Islamic State militant group.
Speaking from the White House, Obama accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of failing to differentiate between Islamic State extremists and moderate groups who oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“That’s a recipe for disaster. And one that I reject," said Obama, adding that Russia's targeting of moderate opposition groups will encourage foreign fighters to join the conflict and draw the Russians into a quagmire. The Russian bombing of Homs, which is controlled by anti-Assad forces, targeted the Free Syrian Army, an opposition group that has received training from the U.S. to fight the Islamic State.
The remarks are the president's first foray into the escalating battle of rhetoric about the Syrian civil war that has pitted the U.S. and its allies against the Assad regime and one of its key backers, Russia.
Despite his criticism of Russia's intervention, Obama reiterated his willingness to work with Russia and Iran, the other major backer of the Assad regime, to negotiate the Syrian dictator's transition out of power.
Shortly before Obama’s remarks, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem took the U.N. General Assembly stage in New York and thanked Russia for its “effective participation in the support of the Syrian efforts in combating terrorism." He framed the Assad regime’s war against its people as a noble effort to quell terrorism -- a message similar to the one Putin conveyed on the same stage earlier in the week.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday that the strikes “do not go beyond ISIL, [Jabhat] al-Nusra or other terrorist groups recognized by the United Nations Security Council or Russian law.” The Islamic State is also known as ISIS or ISIL.
However, the Pentagon has confirmed that the area hit by Russia is not an ISIS stronghold. Earlier this week, White House press secretary Josh Earnest questioned Russia's claim that the airstrikes were intended to fight terrorism.
The Syrian National Coalition, which represents the FSA and several other opposition groups, told reporters earlier this week that all 36 people killed by Russia’s airstrikes were civilians. “They are there to uphold a regime that lost its legitimacy, that only controls 14 percent of the land in Syria,” Dr. Najib Ghadbian, the group’s U.S. representative. said at the U.N. Wednesday. “That was proven today.”
Earlier on Friday, the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey issued a joint statement calling on Russia to narrow its airstrikes to strictly target ISIS fighters. (Notably absent from the list of signatories were Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, two of the U.S.' main allies in the bombing campaign against ISIS.)
While Russian and American defense officials have met to discuss ways to avoid accidental confrontations in an increasingly crowded Syrian airspace, it is unlikely the Russians will heed the targeting advice.
Lavrov pointed out to reporters on Thursday that the U.S. operation against relies on a 2001 war authorization that allows for the use of force against al-Qaeda and “affiliated forces.” In the absence of a new congressional authorization of force, the Obama administration has said the 2001 mandate allows it to target ISIS and al-Nusra in Syria, arguing that those groups are offshoots of al-Qaeda.
In response to a question about who -- in addition to ISIS -- the Russians see as legitimate targets in Syria, Lavrov said, “If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it's a terrorist."