Senator John McCain said on Sunday the US was now engaged in a proxy war with Russia in Syria, as a result of “an abdication of American leadership” on the part of the Obama White House.

The chairman of the Senate armed forces committee also said Russian president Vladimir Putin was “treating the United States with disdain and contempt” over Syria, carrying out airstrikes and “inserting himself into the Middle East in a way that Russia has not been since Anwar Sadat threw them out in 1973”.

On Friday, discussing Russian airstrikes against both Islamic State militants and non-Isis forces opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, which began on Wednesday and which he called “a recipe for disaster”, President Obama said: “We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. That would be bad strategy on our part.

“This is not some superpower chessboard contest.”

Appearing on CNN on Sunday, McCain said: “Of course it is [a proxy war], and when the president says we’re not going to have that strategy, we don’t have a strategy. Excuse me? We don’t have a strategy.”

Last weekend, McCain said, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry had watched Russia implement a “military build-up including anti-aircraft batteries and fighter aircraft”.

“Isis doesn’t have fighter aircraft,” he said. “So that was kind of interesting.

“But more importantly, John Kerry called [Russian foreign minister Sergei] Lavrov three times to find out what was going on, the president had a 90-minute meeting with Vladimir Putin, then 48 hours later a Russian general shows up at our embassy in Baghdad to give us an hour’s warning that strikes are commencing.

“That is treating the United States with disdain and contempt and of course they’re hitting the Free Syrian Army enclaves and places which have had some success. This is the CIA-run operations, and they want to take them out.”

McCain said Putin’s strategy was to “provide us with a choice between Isis and Bashar Assad”.

Asked what US strategy should be in response, he said: “[Former CIA director] General David Petraeus testified before the Senate armed services committee not too many days ago, where he really laid out a strategy on what we need to do, which many of us have been calling for for some time.

“Stop the barrel bombing, establish a no-fly zone, arm the Kurds, get some forward air controllers at work there, build up the Free Syrian Army again and it’s not too late.

“This flood of refugees is a direct result of our failed policy,” McCain continued. “It was a year ago the president said our goal was to degrade and destroy Isis. We’ve made no progress there and of course we now see Vladimir Putin inserting himself into the Middle East in a way that Russia has not been since [Egyptian president] Anwar Sadat threw them out in 1973.

Faez and his wife got out of Syria in 2013 when life in their hometown, Deraa, became unbearable. After two years in limbo, they find new beginnings in Dallas

“He is now dictating the pace of events in Syria, which is of course an abdication of American leadership.”

McCain, who has been the subject of some of Donald Trump’s signature campaign-trail vitriol, was also asked about the Republican 2016 frontrunner’s recent assessment of the situation in Syria: “Let Isis and Syria fight … and let Russia take care of Isis.”

McCain said: “I don’t think he very well understands the situation.”

On Sunday, Trump told NBC the removal of Assad would have an adverse effect on Syria, similar to that on Iraq and Libya after the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

“You can make the case, if you look at Libya, look at what we did there, it’s a mess,” Trump said. “If you look at Saddam Hussein with Iraq, look what we did there, it’s a mess.

In Syria, he said, “It’s going to be the same thing.”

Asked if the Middle East would be more stable with Gaddafi and Saddam in power, Trump said: “Of course it would be.”

This article titled “John McCain says US is engaged in proxy war with Russia in Syria” was written by Martin Pengelly in New York, for on Sunday 4th October 2015 15.53 UTC

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