Obama: Putin's actions in Syria a sign of weakness

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military action in Syria is not a challenge to American leadership in the Middle East, President Obama said in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

“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,” he said in the interview, which will air Sunday.  

Obama argued that Putin’s decision to launch airstrikes in Syria is meant to prop up President Bashar al-Assad, a desperate move to maintain Russia’s lone foothold in the Middle East.

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Obama claimed Putin’s moves in Syria are a sign of weakness, just like Russia's intervention in Ukraine.

“Syria was Russia's only ally in the region. And 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,” the president said. “Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally.”

Assad is fighting to maintain power in a two-front war against opposition rebels and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces. 

Putin has claimed the strikes are meant to combat ISIS, but U.S. officials have said Russia is simply trying to damage moderate rebels fighting Assad, who Obama has called on to step down.

The interview was published on the same day the Obama administration announced it will wind down the Pentagon's $500 million program to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels, which is widely regarded as a failure. 

Top military officials made a shocking admission last month that only four or five of the first class of 54 rebels remained as fighters.  

The disintegration of the train-and-equip mission has raised questions about the Obama administration’s strategy in Syria.

Critics of the administration argue that Russia’s decision to launch airstrikes in Syria is a sign that the U.S. has left a leadership vacuum in that country. 

Russia also began carrying out its strikes before coordinating with U.S. officials to ensure its forces would not conflict with American personnel operating in Syria.

The Pentagon said this week that U.S. aircraft were forced to change course at least once to avoid colliding with Russian jets flying missions over Syria. Russian missiles fired at Syria, also reportedly missed their targets, and crashed in Iran.