- The Washington Times - Monday, October 12, 2015

Europe’s foreign ministers called on Russia Monday to stop bombing U.S.-backed opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as the collapse of President Obama’s plan to fight extremists in Syria raised more questions about America’s faltering influence in the Middle East.

In their most strongly worded statement since Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war, European diplomats said Moscow’s military attacks “are of deep concern and must cease immediately.” The foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, said the military escalation risks “increasing radicalization” and prolonging the crisis, which is fueling a surge of refugees in neighboring countries and in Europe.

But Russian jets intensified their airstrikes Monday in central Syria as government forces battled insurgents in a strategic area near a rebel-held province and a government stronghold. The fighting was focused on the village of Kfar Nabudeh, which officials said had been seized by government troops.

Activists said Syrian rebels repelled the attack. The government push is the latest in a bid to regain the Sahl al-Ghab plain, which is adjacent to Latakia province, a stronghold of Mr. Assad and the Alawite religious minority to which he belongs.

The developments come just days after Obama administration officials acknowledged they are abandoning a $500 million plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIL, which controls large parts of Syria. The strategy, which Mr. Obama last year called “the best counterweight to extremists,” produced only a few dozen fighters instead of the more than 5,000 projected by the administration.

Asked on the CBS program “60 Minutes” if the failure in Syria was a humiliation, the president said Sunday that his plan had been merely an experiment.

“I’ve been skeptical from the get-go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”

Some security analysts said the abandonment of the train-and-equip plan in Syria is another indication of the administration’s fading influence in the Middle East.

“It didn’t work because it was a stupid idea,” said James Jay Carafano, a national security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “To hear the president say on ‘60 Minutes’ that he didn’t think it was a very good idea, and he was just kind of experimenting — next time he experiments with $500 million, could he do it with his own dollars and not our tax dollars?”

Mr. Carafano said America’s friends and foes alike in the Middle East are taking notice of the U.S. bumbling while Russia expands its military power in the region.

“The perception of people in the Middle East, whether you’re a friend or enemy, is not that the United States is trying, it’s that the United States is failing,” he said. “Our stature, our influence has become almost irrelevant under this president. In the next 12 to 18 months, we’re going to see an excellent example of what the Middle East looks like without the influence of American power.”

Mr. Obama said the U.S. still has “an enormous presence in the Middle East.”

“We have bases and we have aircraft carriers. And our pilots are flying through those skies,” he said. “And we are currently supporting Iraq as it tries to continue to build up its forces.”

Syrian opposition groups say Russian forces are attacking groups fighting the Assad regime, a claim Moscow denies. Russian President Vladimir Putin said his forces are striking at the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, and that supporting the Syrian military is the best way to defeat the extremists.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Monday it struck 53 alleged Islamic State targets in the previous 24 hours, destroying command centers, ammunition and fuel depots as well as training camps allegedly used by foreign militants. The ministry said the Islamic State positions were in the central provinces of Homs and Hama, as well as in Latakia and Idlib.

The Islamic State has a limited presence in Hama, away from where the fighting has been concentrated.

The multipronged ground-and-air offensive is being waged in areas controlled by mainstream rebels as well as the Nusra Front. The government ground offensive began on Oct. 7, a week after Russia began its airstrikes.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 30 airstrikes were carried out in Kfar Nabudeh, while government troops and Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters entered the village from the south. Another activist-run monitoring group, the Shaam News Network, said the insurgents ambushed government forces inside the village, which is reportedly laden with tunnels.

Nearly two weeks since joining the 4-year-old war in Syria, Mr. Putin took his biggest step to win over regional opponents, meeting Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman on the sidelines of a Formula One race in a Russian resort on Sunday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that those talks, along with discussions with the U.S., had yielded progress on the conflict, although Moscow, Washington and Riyadh did not agree in full “as yet.”

But a Saudi source said the defense minister, a son of the Saudi king and one of the chief architects of its regional policy, had told Mr. Putin that Russia’s intervention would escalate the war and inspire militants from around the world to go fight.

Riyadh would continue to support Mr. Assad’s opponents and demand that the Syrian leader leave power, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity while describing the talks with the Russians.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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