- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Russian warplanes have ratcheted up their operations in the skies above Syria, striking anti-government targets in the country a day after the Pentagon announced it was ramping up its own military mission in the country, a top U.S. commander said Tuesday.

Russian fighters based out of Latakia on Syria’s eastern coast have launched airstrikes against anti-government strongholds in northeast Syria as forces loyal to embattled President Bashar Assad look to shore up their gains in the area, Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten, the operations chief for U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday.

“We have observed the Russians bombing Aleppo down to Palmyra … [and] the oil fields,” Gen. Gersten said during a press briefing from Baghdad. “We have seen them begin operations again in that region.”

Washington maintains Russia’s expanded air campaign will not interfere with American-led efforts to defeat Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, but Moscow’s presence in Syria adds another dangerous variable to an increasingly complicated battlefield.

Russian President Vladimir Putin officially called an end to the country’s air war in Syria as part of a tenuous cease-fire pact reached between the country’s warring factions in March.

But Moscow continued to strike anti-government targets in Homs, the opposition’s de facto headquarters, along with other anti-Assad centers in western Syria in the face of international condemnation. Russia claimed it was targeting Islamic State forces and those tied to Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian cell, who were not covered by the cease-fire.

SEE ALSO: U.S. airstrikes cost ISIS nearly $800M

The U.S. and its European allies claimed Russian warplanes were also hitting more moderate rebel groups, some of which were trained and equipped by American advisers, as well as civilian targets in the country.

As hundreds of U.S. troops prepare to head into Syria, tasked with preparing local forces to retake the Islamic State’s base in Raqqa, the chances of Russian bombs hitting American troops has increased significantly.

President Obama announced Monday that 250 U.S. special operations forces and military advisers were en route to Syria to coordinate efforts to retake Raqqa with the Syrian-Arab Coalition, a 5,000-man unit under the Syrian Democratic Forces, Pentagon officials say.

The American forces in Syria “will not be on the front lines, but they will be in harm’s way,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters on Monday.

But Gen. Gersten made clear Russia’s operations in Syria would not affect the American mission, adding U.S. commanders have not reached out to Moscow to coordinate operations in the country.

“We simply observe their actions, that’s about as far as we work with the Russians at all,” Gen. Gersten said. “We don’t have a relationship with them.”

To that end, Russia has been “very respectful” of U.S. forces in the country in places like Shaddadi in southern Syria and other areas where the two countries missions overlap, the general said.

U.S. fighters have picked off a number of major Islamic State banks and cash depots, costing the terror group between $300 million to $800 million since the operation began last October.

During one particular airstrike on an Islamic State cash house outside Mosul, U.S. forces reportedly destroyed $150 million in funds and killed the group’s finance minister, Hajji Iman, according to Gen. Gersten.

As a result, the number of foreign Islamic State recruits heading into Syria and Iraq has dropped from roughly 2,000 per month down to 200 a month. The Defense Department estimates the group has between 19,000 and 25,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria, which is the lowest estimate since 2014.

“We’re seeing their inability to pay. We’re seeing the inability to fight. We’re watching [foreign fighters] try to leave [the Islamic State],” Gen. Gersten said.

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