ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Russia's foreign minister said Thursday that he believes the U.S. may hope to use al-Qaida's branch in Syria to unseat Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.
Addressing an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Sergey Lavrov argued that the reluctance of U.S.-backed Syrian opposition groups to distance themselves from al-Qaida's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, has been a major reason behind continuing fighting.
He said the U.S. could be "playing some kind of game here, and they may want to keep Nusra in some form and use it to topple the regime."
Lavrov added that he raised the issue in a recent phone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who he said denied any such plans. "But why then the Americans with all their potential can't force the units they have been working with to leave the territories controlled by bandits and terrorists," he said.
Lavrov was commenting on Kerry's warning that Washington is losing its patience with Russia, as the U.S.- and Russia-brokered cease-fire in Syria was at risk mainly due to violations by Assad's forces with Russian air support.
The truce, which went into effect on Feb. 27, has helped reduce hostilities in certain areas of the country, but fierce fighting has continued around Aleppo and in some other provinces. Nusra and the Islamic State group have been exempt from the truce.
Russia at some point issued an ultimatum for opposition units to leave Nusra-controlled areas or face air strikes, but later agreed to give more time for them to pull out. Spared the Russian strikes, Nusra has used the moment to replenish its supplies and receive reinforcements, Lavrov said.
A senior U.S. defense official said Thursday that Russian aircraft conducted a series of airstrikes near al-Tanf against U.S.-backed Syrian forces. No U.S. forces were involved and there were no details on the number of casualties, the official said.
The official said that Russian aircraft haven't been active in that area of southern Syria for some time, and there were no Syrian regime or Russian ground forces in the vicinity.
The official said the strikes raise serious concerns about Russian intentions and that the U.S. has asked Moscow for an explanation and assurances it won't happen again. The official was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.