President Barack Obama says the Syrian civil war is not going to become a "proxy war" between the U.S. and Russia, as the two countries conduct airstrikes on different groups inside Syria.
"This is not some superpower chessboard contest," Obama said Friday at a White House news conference.
At the same time, he was critical of Russia's military engagement in Syria, calling it a "recipe for disaster."
"[Russian President Vladimir Putin] had to go into Syria not out of strength, but out of weakness because his client, [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] was crumbling and it was insufficient for him [Putin] to send him arms and money. Now, he's got to put in his own planes and his own pilots."
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Obama noted that the Russians do not distinguish between Islamic State militants "and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Assad go. From their perspective, they're all terrorists."
The president said this lack of distinction will have consequences for the Syria that emerges from the conflict, because the moderates will be needed to help run the country.
Nor does Obama think that Putin's strategy is a very popular one: "Iran and Assad make up Putin's coalition at the moment. The rest of the world makes up ours. I don't think people are fooled by the current strategy."
Obama said the U.S. will continue its current policies of attacking Islamic State, supporting Syrian moderates and working with the Turks along the border – and above all, seeking a political solution, which he said will “not be easy” but is “still possible."
Russia carried out a third day of airstrikes Friday.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its warplanes flew 14 missions on Friday, hitting six Islamic State targets. The ministry said the strikes destroyed an IS bomb-making facility near the city of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province. He also said an IS underground command post in Hama province was hit.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Friday that Russian strikes in Raqqa province Thursday killed 12 IS fighters.
A U.S.-led coalition urged Moscow to halt any attacks on the Syrian opposition and focus on Islamic State targets.
"These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalization," said the coalition statement, posted on the Turkish Foreign Ministry's website.
The coalition that includes U.S., Britain, Turkey, France, Germany, Qatar and Saudi Arabia has been carrying out airstrikes against IS targets for about a year.
In a comment clearly aimed at the coalition airstrikes, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Friday that airstrikes "are useless unless they are conducted in cooperation with the Syrian army, the only force in Syria that is combating terrorism."
Working toward political solution
Putin, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed Syria during a peace summit on Ukraine on Friday.
Hollande said afterward he told Putin that Russian airstrikes must target Islamic State and only Islamic State.
In his speech Friday at the U.N. General Assembly, Syrian Foreign Minister Moualem said his government would participate in U.N. working groups to reach a peace deal, but also said it could not implement democratic reforms related to elections or the constitution while "fighting terrorism."