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Obama tells ’60 Minutes’ he’s going to stay the course on Syria

President Obama speaks at a news conference at the White House on Oct. 2. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

SAN DIEGO — President Obama indicated in an interview with “60 Minutes” that he isn’t mulling over any major changes to his approach to Syria following the failure of his administration’s plan to train more than 5,000 moderate rebels and the unexpected emergence of Russia as a major military player in the conflict.

Obama has been heavily criticized in recent months as lacking a strategy to stem Syria's chaos and defeat Islamic State militants. He made clear, though, that his plans for Syria were guided by an overriding goal: He wants to keep the United States from becoming more deeply involved militarily in a place where he believes that the American force offers no viable, long-term solutions.

“We are prepared to work both diplomatically and where we can to support moderate opposition that can help convince the Russians and Iranians to put pressure on Assad for a transition,” Obama told "60 Minutes" in the interview, which was scheduled to air Sunday night. “But … what we are not going to do is to try to reinsert ourselves in a military campaign inside of Syria.”

The Obama administration announced last week that it was ending a blighted $500 million effort to train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State in favor of a new plan that will provide direct aid to existing rebel units that the Pentagon thinks has a better chance of succeeding against the militants. Obama, who resisted pressure from some of his top national security advisers — including then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — to arm the moderate rebels in the early months of Syria’s civil war, told “60 Minutes” that he had grave doubts about the training program before it even began.

But he pressed forward with it last year out of an instinct to “try different things” to improve the chaotic and deteriorating situation inside the country. Obama said the program failed because it was difficult, if not impossible, to focus the moderate Syrian rebels on fighting the Islamic State when they viewed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his military as an even greater threat.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter says President Obama will speak later about how Washington will approach supporting Syrian rebels moving forward. (Video: Reuters)

The Pentagon-run training program produced only four or five trained fighters before it was abandoned. Obama reiterated that the only way to get rid of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was to mobilize the local Sunnis, who feel besieged by Shiite-backed governments, to turn on the Sunni militants.

“What we have not been able to do so far, and I’m the first to acknowledge this, is to change the dynamic inside of Syria,” Obama said. “We’ve never been under any illusion that militarily we ourselves can solve the problem inside of Syria.”

Throughout the interview, Obama made clear that he wasn’t interested in any approaches to the war in Syria that would lead to a significantly larger American commitment. The U.S. military has dropped thousands of bombs on Iraq and Syria since returning to the country last summer to battle the Islamic State. The air attacks have been successful in some parts of the country, but haven’t been able to dislodge the Islamic State militants from their key strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

He dismissed suggestions by some Republicans that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entrance into the conflict was an indication of American weakness. Rather, Obama said, Putin was rushing into Syria to save an ally on the brink of defeat.

“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, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally,” Obama said.