US diplomats: Russian strikes hit Syrian rebels, civilians

AP News
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Posted: Nov 04, 2015 2:31 PM
US diplomats: Russian strikes hit Syrian rebels, civilians

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two top U.S. diplomats said Wednesday that 85 to 90 percent of Russian air strikes in Syria have killed moderate opposition forces and civilians and that Moscow's intervention has done little to stop Islamic State militants.

The State Department officials testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee where both Democratic and Republican members maintained that the current U.S. policy in Syria is too limited.

The hearing follows the White House's announcement last week that it was deploying as many as 50 special operations forces to Syria and Secretary of State John Kerry's recent meetings in Vienna to chart a political transition to the conflict, which has killed 225,000 Syrians and caused more than 4 million to become refugees.

"Russia's military intervention has dangerously exacerbated an already complex environment," said Anne Patterson, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, adding that Russian airstrikes predominately have targeted areas where Islamic State militants are not present.

She said Moscow has claimed that it is striking terrorists, but that so far, 85 to 90 percent of Syrian strikes have hit moderate Syrian opposition forces and have also killed civilians.

"So far, then, this has not been a Russian fight against terrorism so much as an effort to preserve the Assad regime," she said about Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Patterson said that so far, U.S. diplomatic efforts have not led to any agreement on the fate of Assad.

Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said Moscow has failed to exact any humanitarian concessions from Assad as a price for Russian support.

"The regime continues to barrel bomb its own citizens with impunity, perhaps even emboldened by Moscow's help," Nuland said.

She said Kerry is hoping that if the U.S. and others can "rope" Russia into the diplomatic effort, it will lead Moscow to seek a peaceful solution different than the military intervention they are engaged in today.

Nuland said Russia is spending $2 million to $4 million a day on its air campaign in Syria at a time when Russians are hurting from an economic downturn.

"What would positive cooperation by Russia look like?" she asked. "First, Russia would turn its guns on IS and stop carnage in and around Syria's western cities. As the price of its support, Moscow would insist that Assad ground the helicopters and planes he uses to drop barrel bombs on innocents on a daily basis."

Moreover she said Russia also should work with the U.S. and its partners toward a cease-fire and political transition.

Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the committee, called Obama's policy "tepid" and "very ineffectual." He also said Russian cargo aircraft have been seen running Iranian weapons into Syria in violation of the U.N. arms embargo.

"The administration has done little to help the opposition. Its feeble train-and-equip program is now defunct. ... And no one believes Friday's announcement of 50 special forces will be decisive," Royce said.

New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the failed effort to train and equip moderate Syrians to fight IS was too little, too late. He said the U.S. needs to learn from its past mistakes, look forward and focus on ways that Congress can work with the White House to strengthen the current policy.