Obama says Putin wrong on Syria but no 'proxy war'

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Russia Launches First Airstrikes in Syria


WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama on Friday vehemently rejected Russia's military actions in Syria as self-defeating and dismissed the idea that Moscow was strengthening its hand in the region. He vowed not to let the conflict become a U.S.-Russia "proxy war."

At a White House news conference, Obama pledged to stay the course with his strategy of supporting moderate rebels who oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad, but he dodged questions about whether the U.S. would protect them if they came under Russian attack.

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Russia's dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war, after a year of airstrikes by the U.S. and its coalition partners, has raised the specter of dangerous confrontations in the skies over Syria. And it prompted a question at the news conference as to whether Putin was outfoxing the U.S. at a time when the American-led military campaign in Syria has failed to weaken the Islamic State.

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Obama says Putin wrong on Syria but no 'proxy war'
This photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, shows a target hit during a Russian air raid in Syria. Russia has been carrying out airstrikes on Islamic State fighters in Syria since the end of September at the request of President Bashar Assad, Russia's long-term ally. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 03: A Syrian man runs past the rubble of a building destroyed in the Russian airstrikes on the opposition-controlled Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 03, 2015. (Photo by Beha el Halebi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 03: Syrians search for survivors in the rubble of buildings following the Russian airstrikes on the opposition-controlled Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 03, 2015. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 03: Syrians evacuate people from damaged buildings following the Russian airstrikes on the opposition-controlled Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 03, 2015. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 03: Syrians evacuate people from damaged buildings following the Russian airstrikes on the opposition-controlled Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on November 03, 2015. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - OCTOBER 17: Smoke rises from an opposition-controlled residential area in Aleppo, Syria following the Russian airstrikes on October 17, 2015. (Photo by Beha El-Halebi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Pentagon officials urged the Russian military on Thursday to focus its airstrikes in Syria on Islamic State fighters rather than opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, U.S. administration officials said. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches cruise missileS in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria.(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria.(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria.(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria.(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said four Russian navy ships in the Caspian launched 26 cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this image made from video provided by Homs Media Centre, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, smoke rises after airstrikes by military jets in Talbiseh of the Homs province, western Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. Russian military jets carried out airstrikes in Syria for the first time on Wednesday, targeting what Moscow said were Islamic State positions. U.S. officials and others cast doubt on that claim, saying the Russians appeared to be attacking opposition groups fighting Syrian government forces. (Homs Media Centre via AP)
This image taken in Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015 posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer search and rescue group, shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria. Russia on Wednesday carried out its first airstrikes in Syria in what President Vladimir Putin called a pre-emptive strike against the militants. Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the U.N. that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed dozens of civilians, with children among the dead. (Syria Civil Defence via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
This image taken in Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015 posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer search and rescue group, shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria. Russia on Wednesday carried out its first airstrikes in Syria in what President Vladimir Putin called a pre-emptive strike against the militants. Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the U.N. that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed dozens of civilians, with children among the dead. (Syria Civil Defence via AP)
This image taken in Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015 posted on the Twitter account of Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a volunteer search and rescue group, shows the aftermath of an airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria. Russia on Wednesday carried out its first airstrikes in Syria in what President Vladimir Putin called a pre-emptive strike against the militants. Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the U.N. that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed dozens of civilians, with children among the dead. (Syria Civil Defence via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official website on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 a bomb explosion is seen in Syria. Reacting to criticism that it is targeting opponents of the Syrian government, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on Thursday that Russia's airstrikes in Syria are targeting not only Islamic State militants but also other groups. (AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during a weekly meeting with ministers of the Russian Government in Novo-Ogaryovo State Residence September 30, 2015 outside Moscow, Russia. Vladimir Putin has received permission from Parliament for Russian military forces to launch airstrikes in Syria, two days after the Russian leader spoke to the UN and called for an international coalition against terrorism to fight Islamic State (ISIS). (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, rear center, holds a meeting with senior government officials at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. Russian military jets carried out airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria on Wednesday for the first time, after President Vladimir Putin received parliamentary approval to send Russian troops to Syria. (Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to a weekly meeting with ministers of the Russian Government in Novo-Ogaryovo State Residence September 30, 2015 outside Moscow, Russia. Vladimir Putin has received permission from Parliament for Russian military forces to launch airstrikes in Syria, two days after the Russian leader spoke to the UN and called for an international coalition against terrorism to fight Islamic State (ISIS). (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
A picture taken on September 30, 2015 shows damaged buildings and a minaret in the central Syrian town of Talbisseh in the Homs province. Russian warplanes carried out air strikes in three Syrian provinces, including Homs, along with regime aircraft on September 30, according to a Syrian security source. Earlier in the day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, reported at least 27 civilians had been killed in air strikes in the Homs province, adding that the strikes hit Rastan, Talbisseh and Zaafarani. The other Syrian security source said the Russian strikes had hit Rastan and Talbisseh in the province of Homs. AFP PHOTO / MAHMOUD TAHA (Photo credit should read MAHMOUD TAHA/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on September 30, 2015 shows a general view of deserted streets and damaged buildings in the central Syrian town of Talbisseh in the Homs province. Russia confirmed on Septemer 30 that it carried out its first airstrike in Syria, near the city of Homs, marking the formal start of Moscow's military intervention in the 4.5-year-old conflict. AFP PHOTO / MAHMOUD TAHA (Photo credit should read MAHMOUD TAHA/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - OCTOBER 01: A damaged vehicle is seen at the site of the alleged Russian airstrikes targeting the training camp of Suqour al-Jabal Brigades in Kafr Nabl town of Idlib, Syria on October 01, 2015. (Photo by Firas Khalife/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - OCTOBER 01: The training camp of Suqour al-Jabal Brigades is destroyed in the alleged Russian airstrikes in Kafr Nabl town of Idlib, Syria on October 01, 2015. (Photo by Firas Khalife/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Obama dismissed that idea with an expression of disdain.

"This is not a smart strategic move on Russia's part," he said, referring to Putin's decision to "double down" on his support for Assad by stationing warplanes, air defenses, tanks and troops in Syria. Moscow says it is targeting Islamic State forces and fighting terrorism, but U.S. leaders are skeptical of that and Obama said the Russian president has overplayed his hand.

"It's only strengthening ISIL, and that's not good for anybody," Obama contended. He said he hoped Putin would come to realize that allying Russia with Iran to try to keep Assad in power "is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won't work. And they will be there for a while if they don't take a different course."

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Obama said Putin has stepped deeper into a conflict that cannot be solved by military power alone, and that his approach is misguided in not distinguishing between Syrian rebels who want Assad ousted and those who are terrorists.

"From their perspective they're all terrorists, and that's a recipe for disaster," Obama said in his most extensive comments on the topic since Russia began its airstrikes on Monday.

Evoking the Cold War era of U.S. and Soviet forces working behind the scenes to prop up client states, Obama added, "We're not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia."

Asked if he felt out-smarted by Putin, Obama argued that Putin was acting in Syria out of political weakness and trying to gin up support at home while Russia's own economy struggles.

"As a consequence of these brilliant moves, their economy is contracting 4 percent this year. They're isolated in the world community," Obama said, noting that Russia is under international sanctions for its military intervention in Ukraine.

"Russia's not strong as a consequence of what they've been doing. They get attention," he said. "Mr. Putin's action have been successful only insofar as it's boosted his poll ratings inside Russia, which may be why the Beltway is so impressed because that tends to be the measure of the success."

Still, Russia's airstrikes have forced the Pentagon to grapple with whether the U.S. should use military force to protect American-trained and -equipped Syrian rebels now that they may be the targets of Russian airstrikes.

Senior military leaders and others are working through the thorny legal and foreign policy issues surrounding that subject and are weighing the risks of using force in response to a Russian attack, U.S. officials said Thursday.

Pentagon leaders have consistently said the U.S. must take steps to protect the U.S.-trained rebels because it would be far more difficult to recruit fighters without those assurances. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters in March that the U.S. has an obligation to support them, "and we're working through what kinds of support and under what conditions we would do so."

U.S. officials later made it clear that rebels trained by the U.S. would receive air support in the event they were attacked by either Islamic State militants or Syrian government troops. Currently, that protection would apply only to about 80 U.S.-trained Syrian rebels who are back in Syria fighting with their units.

The U.S. policy so far is very specific. It doesn't address a potential attack by Russian planes and does not include Syrian rebels who have not been through the U.S. military training.

A key concern is the prospect of U.S. getting drawn into a proxy war with Russia in the event that Russian warplanes hit moderate Syrian rebels who have been trained and equipped by the U.S. military.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing deliberations publicly.

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Associated Press writers Josh Lederman, Kathleen Hennessey, Julie Pace and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

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