U.S. gen­eral: Rus­sia plays both ‘ar­son­ist and fire­man’ in Syria

The Republican Herald - - NATION/WORLD - BY ROBERT BURNS

WASH­ING­TON — Rus­sia is seek­ing to counter U.S. diplo­matic in­flu­ence by stok­ing con­flict in Syria even as it por­trays it­self as an ar­biter in the civil war, the top Amer­i­can gen­eral in the Mid­dle East said Tues­day in notably pointed crit­i­cism of Moscow.

“I’m be­ing very se­ri­ous when I say they play the role of both ar­son­ist and fire­man — fu­el­ing ten­sions and then try­ing to re­solve them in their fa­vor,” Army Gen. Joseph Vo­tel told the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. He said Moscow is push­ing al­ter­na­tives to Western-led po­lit­i­cal ne­go­ti­a­tions in both Syria and Afghanistan in or­der to limit U.S. in­flu­ence.

Rus­sia “has to ad­mit” that it is in­ca­pable of, or not in­ter­ested in, play­ing a con­struc­tive role in end­ing the mul­ti­di­men­sional war in Syria, he said.

“I think their role is in­cred­i­bly desta­bi­liz­ing at this point,” he said.

For its part, the Rus­sian mil­i­tary has con­sis­tently ac­cused the U.S. of spar­ing the Is­lamic State group and other mil­i­tants in Syria in the hope of us­ing them to top­ple Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad. Rus­sian of­fi­cials have strongly de­nied re­spon­si­bil­ity for any civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in Syria and in­sisted that they have only struck mil­i­tant tar­gets af­ter ver­i­fy­ing their lo­ca­tion through mul­ti­ple in­tel­li­gence sources and avoided tar­get­ing pop­u­lated ar­eas. Rus­sian mil­i­tary of­fi­cials and diplo­mats also have scolded the U.S.-led coali­tion for re­duc­ing the one-time IS cap­i­tal, Raqqa, to rub­ble and caus­ing se­vere suf­fer­ing for its res­i­dents.

On the mil­i­tary front in Syria, Vo­tel said Rus­sia is us­ing the con­flict to test and ex­er­cise new weapons and tac­tics, “of­ten with lit­tle re­gard for col­lat­eral dam­age or civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.” He as­serted that an in­crease in Rus­sian sur­face-to-air mis­sile sys­tems in the Mid­dle East “threat­ens our ac­cess and abil­ity to dom­i­nate the airspace” of the re­gion.

He said that along with Iran, Rus­sia is try­ing to bol­ster the As­sad gov­ern­ment and frac­ture the long­stand­ing strate­gic part­ner­ship be­tween the United States and Tur­key. Wash­ing­ton and Ankara are in­creas­ingly at odds over the pres­ence of U.S.-backed Syr­ian Kur­dish fight­ers re­garded by the Turks as aligned with Kur­dish ter­ror­ists.

Al­lud­ing to these fight­ers, who op­er­ate un­der the ban­ner of the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, Vo­tel said, “our part­ners on the ground in Syria have ad­vanced us a long way to­ward our ob­jec­tives, and we will stick with them through the com­ple­tion of this fight,” re­fer­ring to the goal of elim­i­nat­ing the Is­lamic State’s shrink­ing hold on Syr­ian ter­ri­tory.

Rus­sian of­fi­cials say they seek the de­struc­tion of IS even as they sup­port As­sad’s ef­fort to stamp out op­po­si­tion forces. Vo­tel said Moscow should get no credit for what he called the im­mi­nent de­feat of the Is­lamic State’s “phys­i­cal caliphate.”

“Rus­sia has placed this progress at risk with their ac­tiv­i­ties, which are not fo­cused on de­feat­ing ISIS, but rather on pre­serv­ing their own in­flu­ence and con­trol over the out­come of the sit­u­a­tion,” he said, us­ing an al­ter­nate name for the ex­trem­ist group. “It is clear that Rus­sia’s in­ter­ests in Syria are ... not those of the wider in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.”

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