PENTAGON - President Barack Obama on Thursday cast extreme doubt on whether the United States could trust Russia as a partner to end the Syrian civil war.
“I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians and Vladimir Putin, which is why we have to test whether or not we can get an actual cessation of hostilities,” Obama told reporters at the Pentagon after meeting with members of his National Security Council to discuss the fight against Islamic State.
The president said Russia might not be able to help end the violence, “either because they don’t want to, or because they don’t have sufficient influence over [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad."
“That’s what we’re going to test,” Obama said, “We go into this without any blinders on.”
The Syrian government and its Russian allies are battling rebels for control of an area in and around Aleppo. Fighting has raged for more than two months, and monitors from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights report at least 6,000 people have been killed or wounded in the past 80 days.
"We're very clear," Obama said, "that Russia has been willing to support a murderous regime and an individual, in Assad, who has destroyed his country just to cling on to power."
The president said any cessation of hostilities in Syria must include an end to aerial bombings and other methods used to kill civilians that have been carried out by the Syrian regime.
For nearly two years, the U.S. has been supporting local forces in Syria and neighboring Iraq as they work to push Islamic State terrorists out of their countries. The U.S. started launching strikes against IS in Afghanistan in January and began supporting local forces aligned with the government in Libya earlier this week as they fight to push IS out of its stronghold, Sirte.
"The finish line is in sight," Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis told reporters this week, "and we are helping [the Libyan Government of National Accord] get there."
The president held an hours-long meeting with military leaders at the Pentagon about the fight against Islamic State. He later told reporters there have been gains in weakening IS in Iraq and Syria, but he conceded the extremist group still poses a threat to the United States as it shifts its tactics to recruit members, train them and encourage "lone wolf" attacks.
While those attacks may result in less carnage, Obama said IS knows it still can create "the kinds of fear and concern that elevates their profile."
Libya air operation
A Pentagon official said the air operation in Libya, dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning, probably will last weeks, rather than months.
The forces aligned with the U.N.-backed GNA have spent several months whittling down IS territory along the coastline of the Gulf of Sidra from Tripoli to near Benghazi. Davis said thanks to GNA-aligned fighters, IS control in Libya has essentially collapsed to the city center of Sirte.
The Pentagon estimates that IS fighter numbers have been reduced from thousands in the city to fewer than 1,000.
After Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi was ousted in 2011, IS extremists targeted Libya as a safe haven outside its initial strongholds in Iraq and Syria.