By Toluse Olorunnipa
President Barack Obama offered a depressing prognosis on Sunday for the bloody Syrian civil war, saying Russian and Iranian intervention on behalf of the country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, has stymied any hope for peace.
“I am not optimistic about the short-term prospects in Syria,” Obama said at a news conference in Lima. “Once Russia and Iran made a decision to back Assad in a brutal air campaign and essentially a pacification of Aleppo, regardless of the potential for civilian casualties, children being killed or wounded, schools or hospitals being destroyed, then it was very hard to see a way in which even a trained and committed moderate opposition could hold its ground for long periods of time.”
Assad’s government in concert with its Russian allies has intensified a bombing campaign in Aleppo, the largest city in the country still contested by rebels. At least 172 people have been killed in the city in the last six days, according to a tally from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported by the Associated Press. The Syrian government rejected a United Nations proposal for a truce in the city on Sunday.
Obama said that Assad “had decided that destroying his country, turning it to rubble, and seeing its population scattered or killed was worth it to cling to power, when he had an option to engage in a peaceful transition that could have kept the country intact.”
Bottom of Form
The Syrian civil war, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and hostility toward other neighbors, and the Russian government’s alleged hacking of Democratic Party organizations during the U.S. election campaign has brought relations between the two countries to a recent low point. Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke for about four minutes on Sunday during a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders, their first meeting since the election of Republican Donald Trump as Obama’s successor and probably their last.
Trump has suggested Russia will enjoy better relations with the U.S. under his presidency, and Russia officials are hopeful he will lift sanctions imposed after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Obama has called on Trump to “stand up’’ to Putin when Russia pursues policies that are at odds with American interests.
He said that in his brief meeting with Putin he again urged the Russian leader to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Syrian civil war and to implement a cease-fire in Ukraine. Obama said he didn’t raise the U.S. election or Russian hacking.
Obama repeated his belief that the U.S. “did not have a legal basis” and that it “would have been a strategic mistake” to intervene militarily in Syria. The U.S. has supported rebel groups Assad and Putin’s forces have targeted, though it has not supplied advanced weaponry that could have been used against Russian air forces.
“We are just not getting help or interest from those parties who are supporting Assad,” Obama said. “At this stage we’re going to need to have a change in how all parties think about this in order to end the situation there.”