- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

While Moscow asserts that its military campaign in Syria is aggressively targeting the Islamic State, a top U.S. State Department official said Wednesday that as much as 90 percent of strikes carried out by the Russian fighter jets over the past month have actually hit moderate opposition rebels groups in the war-torn nation.

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson cited the figure in congressional testimony as evidence that the real goal of Russia’s campaign is to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom the Obama administration has sought the removal of for the past four years.

Moscow has cynically tried to claim that its strikes are focused on terrorists, but so far, 85 to 90 percent of Syrian strikes have hit the moderate Syrian opposition, and they have killed civilians in the process,” Ms. Patterson said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday morning.

Moscow has yet to stop the Assad regime’s horrific practice of barrel bombing the Syrian people,” she said. “We know that Russia’s primary intent is to preserve the regime.”

Ms. Patterson’s comments appeared only to prompt frustration among some lawmakers — particularly the Foreign Affairs committee’s Republican leadership — who have leveled biting criticism toward the Obama administration’s overall response to the Russian incursion into Syria during recent weeks.

While the White House has sought to frame Moscow’s campaign as a potentially dangerous escalation of Syria’s multi-front war, the administration’s senior-most diplomats are seen at the same time to be yielding to an increasingly influential role in the conflict by both Russia and Iran — the Assad regime’s other top military backer.

President Obama “still hasn’t put forward the broad, overarching strategy needed to defeat” the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq, the Foreign Affairs committee’s chairman, Rep. Ed Royce, said at the start of Wednesday’s hearing.

“Instead, it is now Russia that is taking the decisive role in shaping Syria’s future, and not in a helpful way,” the California Republican said.

In a related twist on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that he is hopeful that international diplomats, including from the U.S., will soon agree on a list of moderate Syrian opposition groups that should be invited to an upcoming round of U.N.-brokered peace talks on Syria.

Moscow has previously lamented that there is no agreement among the international members of a U.S.-led coalition in Syria on who should be declared legitimate opposition to Mr. Assad’s government — or should, or should not be targeted like the Islamic State.

Mr. Lavrov said he hopes for an agreement on the Syrian opposition list as well as on a list of extremist groups that “will not be covered by a cease-fire that we hope to declare at some point,” The Associated Press reported.

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