Rus­sia, Turkey may move on Syria amid Trump tran­si­tion

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By W.J. Hen­ni­gan and Brian Ben­nett

WASH­ING­TON — U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials ex­pect Turkey and Rus­sia to ex­pand mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in Syria over the next two months as Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s tran­si­tion team takes over and Pres­i­dent Barack Obama ex­its the White House.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has stood back as Turk­ish forces have pushed deeper into north­ern Syria and as Rus­sia has es­ca­lated airstrikes on eastern Aleppo this week, pum­mel­ing the city with cruise mis­siles and fighter jets launched from its air­craft car­rier in the Mediter­ranean.

A shake-up this week among Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity team has fur­ther em­bold­ened Turkey and Rus­sia in Syria, ac­cord­ing to a U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss in­ter­nal as­sess­ments.

The of­fi­cial said Ankara and Moscow are tak­ing ad­van­tage of con­fus­ing dipl omatic sig­nals f rom Trump’s team about fu­ture U.S. pol­icy in Syria.

“They will do what they can in the next two months,” said the of­fi­cial. “The ex­pec­ta­tion is they will put pres­sure on” to take more ter­ri­tory.

Both coun­tries were “in a wait and see mode” be­fore the elec­tion, the of­fi­cial said.

Both ap­par­ently see op­por­tu­ni­ties now that Trump has won. In the past week, Rus­sia and its ally, Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, have stepped up their at­tacks on rebel forces in Aleppo.

Af­ter a three-week lull, As­sad’s forces spent the last three days drop­ping mu­ni­tions on Aleppo’s hos­pi­tals, blood banks and other fa­cil­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to hu­man rights groups, while Rus­sia launched air at­tacks from the sea.

U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials ex­pect Rus­sia’s es­ca­la­tion in bombings to con­tinue, James Clap­per told law­mak­ers Thurs­day .

The Rus­sian airstrikes sup­port As­sad’s ef­forts to de­feat the rebels, Clap­per said, and al­low As­sad to re­sist negotiating an end to a con­flict that be­gan in 2011 and has taken over 400,000 lives.

Trump has vowed to ex­tend a hand to Moscow to see if the U.S. and Rus­sia could work to­gether more to re­solve the cri­sis.

Trump spoke via tele­phone Mon­day with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, a con­ver­sa­tion the Krem­lin said cen­tered on their com­mon re­solve to fight “in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism and ex­trem­ism.”

Turk­ish air and ground forces, joined by Syr­ian rebel fighters, are near the Is­lamic State-held town of Al Bab, which is 25 miles from the Turk­ish bor­der. They will try to re­cap­ture the city with­out sup­port from the U.S.-led coali­tion.

An­thony Cordes­man, a for­mer State and De­fense depart­ment of­fi­cial, said Trump has not of­fered specifics on his plans for Syria, and the state­ments he has made were con­tra­dic­tory.

“He needs to de­fine his poli­cies to­ward Syria early on be­cause other na­tions, like Rus­sia and Turkey, have clear in­ter­ests,” he said. “They will con­tinue to push the lim­its un­til they are told there are con­se­quences.”

ABD DOUMANY/GETTY-AFP

Red Cres­cent mem­bers search for vic­tims Thurs­day fol­low­ing a re­ported govern­ment airstrike on the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern out­skirts of Da­m­as­cus.

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