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President Barack Obama sharply criticized Russia’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on Friday, saying Moscow’s actions could create a “quagmire” in the region.
“What started off as peaceful protests against Assad ... evolved into civil war because Assad met those protests with unimaginable brutality,” Obama said. “The reason Assad is still in power is because Russia and Iran have supported him in that process. They have been propping a regime that is rejected by an overwhelming majority of the population."
Obama's and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s icy relationship took on an even chillier tone this week amid a perception that Moscow is seizing on a perceived American vulnerability in addressing the Syrian conflict and making a power play in the war-torn region.
The U.S. and Russia began talks Thursday aimed at calming tensions between their opposing military operations in Syria. Russia defended its latest round of airstrikes in Syria amid mounting questions over its targets, insisting that Moscow's planes had struck ISIS installations.
U.S. officials have questioned whether Moscow’s strikes — in the name of defeating ISIS — were genuinely targeting the group or were instead a cover to shore up Assad by bombing anti-government rebel groups. The U.S. has maintained Assad must leave office in order to help stabilize the war-torn nation. Russia has said Assad's leadership is key to helping defeat the influence of ISIS in Syria.
The president said he has discussed the two nations' differences on an approach to conflicts in the region with Putin.
“What was very clear is that he doesn’t distinguish between ISIL and a moderate opposition that wants to see Mr. Assad go,” Obama said.
In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Putin called for an "international coalition against terrorism" which would include the Syria regime. Putin also defended his efforts to prop up Assad as the only way to curtail ISIS and stem the overwhelming flow of refugees.
Putin’s endorsement of an international coalition helps put him in a position to help Assad, an ally in the region, and could help Moscow play a pivotal role in choosing the Syrian leader’s successor should he leave office, said David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and editor of Foreign Policy Group, a collection of foreign policy publications.
Obama on Friday took issue with Putin’s suggestion that his coalition has a better course of action in the region.
“I didn’t see the 60-nation coalition lining up behind him,” Obama said of Putin’s announcement. “Iran and Assad make up his coalition, the rest of the world make up ours.”
However, the president added that the U.S. would not make Syria a proxy war between Russia and the U.S..
"This is not some superpower chessboard contest."