- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2015

Uneasy Obama administration officials said they plan to accept an offer from Russia for direct talks on its military buildup in Syria, while Moscow strongly urged the U.S. and its allies Thursday to engage the Syrian government as a “partner” in the fight against the Islamic State.

Seeking answers about the precise reasoning behind Moscow’s recent deliveries of materiel and manpower to a base in northern Syria, U.S. officials said they expect the administration to begin a military-to-military dialogue with Russia in the coming days. The Pentagon will take the lead in the discussions, but the exact level, venue and timing have yet to be determined, U.S. officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Moscow offered to share with Washington information about any of its military supplies to Damascus, as fresh reports emerged Thursday that Syria’s military has started using new types of air and ground weapons supplied by Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq should coordinate its action with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government in conformity with international law.

“There is no reason to evade cooperation with the Syrian leadership, which confronts that terror threat,” Mr. Lavrov said after talks with his Turkish counterpart. He added that “the Syrian president commands the most capable ground force fighting terrorism.”

“Rejecting such a possibility, ignoring the capability of the Syrian army as a partner and ally in the fight against the [Islamic State] means sacrificing security of the entire region for political or geopolitical intentions and calculations,” the Russian diplomat said.

But the White House warned that Syria’s government should stay out of the U.S.-led coalition’s operations against the terrorist group, which mainly have consisted of about 5,000 airstrikes.

“We have made clear from the beginning of our actions inside of Syria that it was, you know, the responsibility of the Syrian government to not interfere in our activities,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “The fact is the United States and our coalition partners hold the Assad regime responsible for the dramatic growth that we’ve seen in ISIL over the last year-and-a-half or so.”

The developments came as the White House acknowledged the failure so far of President Obama’s $500 million plan to recruit and equip a Syrian opposition army of up to 15,000 fighters, which the president has called “the best counterweight to extremists” of the Islamic State. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command leading the war on the Islamic State, told Congress Wednesday that only “four or five” opposition fighters exist after nearly a year of effort.

“Obviously, the specific train-and-equip program has fallen far short of that goal,” Mr. Earnest said. “In fairness to the president, I don’t think he contemplated those 15,000 Syrian opposition fighters being trained and equipped and fighting all within the space of one year.”

But then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last summer that about 5,000 fighters would be ready within a year. Sen. Deb Fischer, Nebraska Republican, said Thursday the U.S. strategy “does not connect to events on the ground.”

“Five thousand were expected, and four or five remain,” Ms. Fischer said on the Senate floor. “I wish I could say the complete failure of this strategy comes as a surprise. Unfortunately, it does not. The question is: what we are going to do about it?”

Asked if Mr. Obama is discouraged by the results so far, Mr. Earnest replied, “The president believes the program needs to operate at a much higher level.”

Mr. Earnest said Gen. Austin is considering “changes to the program.” He said the U.S. also has boosted support for Syrian opposition forces who haven’t been trained by the U.S., such as the Syrian Kurds.

The Russian government said Thursday its military support for Damascus was aimed at fighting terrorism, safeguarding Syria’s statehood and preventing a “total catastrophe” in the region.

It includes a larger Russian military presence on the ground in Syria, where Mr. Assad has faced increased pressure this year from rebels fighting to topple him, but its full scope and intentions remain unclear.

Washington, which wants Mr. Assad gone from power, has said it believes Russia is undertaking a significant military buildup which could exacerbate the war.

The U.S., along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have supported insurgents battling to unseat Mr. Assad, whose foreign military backing so far has come mostly from Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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