• By
  • Felicia Schwartz
President Barack Obama, seen boarding Air Force One prior to his departure from Los Angeles International Airport on Saturday, said Russia is devoting its own military to barely hold together its sole ally, Syria. Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Russia’s nearly two-week-long military offensive in Syria comes from a position of weakness, after his administration was criticized for appearing to be caught flat-footed by Moscow’s mobilization.

In an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday, Mr. Obama said Russia’s land, air and sea military campaign in Syria aimed at propping up Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime demonstrates that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Syria strategy has failed.

“Today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they’ve had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally,” Mr. Obama said, according to a CBS transcript of the interview to be aired Sunday night. “The fact that they had to do this is not an indication of strength, it’s an indication that their strategy did not work.”

Russia began airstrikes in Syria in late September and Russia escalated its assault on Mr. Assad’s opponents last week with its first naval bombardment on Wednesday.

Russia’s burgeoning military campaign is at odds with U.S. goals to bring about a political transition away from Mr. Assad, stoking tensions between the two powers.

Mr. Obama said in the interview that Mr. Putin’s actions in Syria don’t amount to Russia challenging U.S. leadership in the Middle East.

“If you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in, in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership,” Mr. Obama said.

The U.S. and Russia held a second round of military discussions this weekend aimed at avoiding mishaps between aircraft operating in Syria. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the technical talks yielded progress and another round is expected soon.

Messrs. Putin and Obama met last month in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, their first meeting since last November and their longest face-to-face conversation since 2012. Mr. Obama left the recent exchange with clarity on Russian’s intentions on Syria, officials said, but Russia’s launch of strikes in Syria shortly after caught the U.S. off guard.

In the wide-ranging interview, Mr. Obama also discussed the failed U.S. program to train and equip Syrian rebels, which the U.S. said it would halt Friday. The president said he had been skeptical of the program from the start, but he felt it was worth trying.

“My goal has been to try to test the proposition, can we be able to train and equip a moderate opposition that’s willing to fight ISIL? And what we’ve learned is that as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL,” Mr. Obama said, referring to Islamic State by a different name. “There’s no doubt that it did not work.”


2016 Election Calendar | WSJ/NBC Polls | 2016 Poll Standings

Politics Alerts: Get email alerts on breaking news and big scoops.
Capital Journal Daybreak Newsletter: Sign up to get the latest on politics, policy and defense delivered to your inbox every morning.

For the latest Washington news,

For outside analysis,