Obama Seeks to Avert 'Firefights in the Air' with Russia in Syria

President Barack Obama

President Obama said Friday that the U.S. was trying to avoid "firefights in the air" with the Russians over Syria while pressing for a political settlement whose bottom line was that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had to go.

Obama said he told Russian President Vladimir Putin in a private meeting earlier this week in New York that "an attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and pacify the population is just going to get them in a quagmire. It won't work."

At a surprise late-afternoon White House news conference, Obama said he was still ready to work with Putin on a political solution that would ease Assad from power despite Russia's military buildup in Syria and three days of airstrikes this week that were mostly aimed at groups other than ISIS.

Obama said Putin was acting in Syria "not out of strength but out of weakness. His client was crumbling. Now he's got to put in his own planes and his own pilots' to rescue the regime.

Obama did not specify what the U.S. response to the Russians would be but said "we are not going to cooperate with a Russian campaign to simply try to destroy anybody who is disgusted and fed up with Mr. Assad's behavior.'

Obama also noted the failures in the U.S. approach to Syria, including the program to train and equip so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels to combat ISIS in Syria. "I'm the first one to acknowledge that it has not worked" as intended, Obama said.

Obama dismissed critics of U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria for failing to offer realistic alternatives. When he asks "What would you do, how would you fund it, how would you sustain it-- typically what I get is mumbo-jumbo," Obama said.

In Moscow Friday, the Russian Defense Ministry said its Sukhoi-34, Sukhoi-24M and Sukhoi-25 warplanes had flown 18 sorties hitting targets that included a command post and a communications center in the province of Aleppo, a militant field camp in Idlib and a command post in Hama.

The twin-engine, two-seat Sukhoi-34, dubbed "Fullback" by NATO, is Russia's most advanced fighter and reportedly was used Friday to attack near Raqaa, the nominal capital of ISIS, in northwestern Syria.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the Sukhoi-34 was specifically designated to attack near Raqaa, where U.S. and coalition have frequently flown to attack ISIS.

The U.S. was also sending more of its most advanced F-22 Raptor fighters to the Mideast. The Hawaii Air National Guard said Friday that 200 personnel and an unspecified number of F-22s were being deployed to U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility in the Mideast.

Hawaii Air National Guard F-22 Raptor fighters have been sent on their first operational deployment to the Middle East.

The military has not confirmed how many aircraft or pilots are involved, but altogether about 200 members of Hawaii's Air National Guard were deployed, along with active duty Air Force members.

Families of those deployed said their goodbyes last week at Joint Base Pearl Harbor, but the Pentagon kept it secret because of security reasons.

Officials have not confirmed where the Raptors will be based during the next six months. However, other F-22's have been carrying out air strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

F-22s have previously flown missions in Iraq and Syria.

On Thursday, U.S. and Russian defense officials spoke by teleconference in an effort to draw up guidelines to avoid clashes between U.S. and Russian aircraft. They were scheduled to hold discussions again in the coming days.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog group which monitors Syria with a network of sources on the ground, said there was believed to be no ISIS presence in the areas hit by the Russians.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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