- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Obama administration confronted setbacks Thursday in its efforts to defeat the Islamic State, with reports that Russia is moving more military equipment into Syria to support President Bashar Assad as a truce collapsed and President Obama acknowledging that political paralysis in Iraq is impeding U.S.-led efforts to defeat the militant group.

As Mr. Obama wrapped up a summit with Gulf Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, Syrian government forces and rebels geared up for more war.

“We’ve been concerned about reports of Russia moving materiel into Syria,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama, told reporters in Riyadh. “We think it would be negative for Russia to move additional military equipment or personnel into Syria. We believe that our efforts are best focused on supporting the diplomatic process.”

A U.S. official separately said Russia has been repositioning artillery to northern Syria — a move that suggests the Syrian government and its allies may be preparing another assault on the divided city of Aleppo.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said the cease-fire is “effectively dead” and that the time has come for serious debate on whatever “Plan B” the Obama administration has for responding to the nation’s 6-year-old civil war. Mr. Corker made the assertions Thursday after speaking with Riyad Hijab, a senior representative of the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition, which announced this week that it was putting a “pause” on peace talks with the Assad regime in Geneva.

Mr. Corker said he understands why the moderate opposition is withdrawing from the Geneva talks.

“The Assad regime continues to target civilians, block humanitarian access and refuse the release of detainees,” he said. “Russia and Iran continue to flood weapons, heavy equipment and personnel into Syria as violence is picking up throughout the country.”

He said it’s time to consider what Secretary of State John F. Kerry has referred to as “plan B” for Syria.

“I look forward to him laying that out very soon,” he said.

Mr. Obama says a political solution in Syria is the key to defeating the Islamic State, whose base spans territory in Syria and Iraq. On Monday, he had what the White House described as an “intense” phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the need to uphold the cease-fire in Syria.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama said the cease-fire “may be breaking down in part because of the Assad regime’s continuing attacks on areas where they perceive they have an advantage.” He said Mr. Putin “needs to be holding the regime to account.”

The president also acknowledged “big challenges” in Iraq, where Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been unable to form a complete government. Mr. Obama told Gulf leaders to wait to see whether Iraq can resolve its political crisis before committing more financial aid to Baghdad.

“Right now in Baghdad, there’s some big challenges,” Mr. Obama said. “Until that’s settled, I think it’s important for us to make sure that any additional stabilization dollars that we put in are going to be effectively spent.”

The president said Mr. al-Abadi is a good partner for the U.S. but that the Iraqi government must finalize a Cabinet to move toward stability.

“They’ve got a lot on their plate,” Mr. Obama said. “Now is not the time for government gridlock or bickering.”

Republican lawmakers said the developments in Syria and Iraq were predictable results of Mr. Obama’s weak foreign policy.

“Over the past two years, Vladimir Putin has been learning from bloody experience in Ukraine and Syria that military adventure pays, that diplomacy can be manipulated to serve his strategic ambitions and that the worst refugee crisis since World War II can be weaponized to divide the West and weaken its resolve,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said the president repeatedly has disregarded conditions on the ground when making his military decisions.

“I just want to say for the record, to the president, you ignored sound military advice when it came to Iraq to keep it to residual force,” Mr. Graham said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “The rest is history. You turned down the advice of your entire national security team to help the free Syrian army when it would have mattered in Syria.”

The administration said this week that it would deploy more than 200 additional troops to Iraq to help fight the Islamic State, and Mr. Kerry announced another $155 million in U.S. aid for Iraq during a trip to Baghdad last week.

The administration has worked to strengthen Mr. al-Abadi, who is seen as a major improvement over his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, and Mr. Obama said “ultimately it’s up to the Iraqis” to make decisions about their government.

Already beset by corruption and a worsening financial crisis, Iraq’s government is in turmoil over a lineup of Cabinet ministers that Mr. al-Abadi proposed last month after weeks of pressure from an influential Shiite cleric and rallies by thousands of his followers.

The crisis shows no signs of quick resolution. On Tuesday, lawmakers failed to vote on the fate of the parliamentary speaker amid calls for Iraq’s top leadership to step down.

The Pentagon released video Thursday showing a B-52 bomber destroying an Islamic State weapons storage facility in Iraq — the first strike from the aircraft since it joined the fight this month. The airstrike took place outside the militant base of Mosul on Monday, defense officials said.

The nuclear-capable B-52 Stratofortress can stay in the air for over 10 hours at a time and carries a much larger payload than F-16 or F-15 fighter jets.

In Syria, the arrival of Russian reinforcements would risk driving the war into an even higher gear after the effective collapse of the truce and U.N.-led peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending a five-year war that has killed at least 250,000 people.

U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura will assess Friday whether Geneva talks can go on with the main opposition negotiators refusing to participate and combatants accusing one another of breaking the 6-week-old cease-fire.

The opposition this week urged more military support for rebels after declaring a truce was over and that talks would not restart until the government stopped committing “massacres.”

The talks aim to halt a conflict that has allowed for the rise of the Islamic State group, sucked in regional and major powers and created the world’s worst refugee crisis.

With talks on life support, all members of the main Syrian opposition will leave Geneva by Friday, a source close to the High Negotiations Committee and a Western diplomat said.

“I’m saddened and believe it’s a mistake,” the diplomat said. “It will be very difficult to find a pretext for them to return given the situation on the ground and now the regime knows that a bombing will ensure they stay away,” he said, referring to an airstrike this week that killed dozens.

Both sides are far apart, and Syrian government forces have been boosted on the battlefield by Russia’s firepower.

Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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