- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Russia is either unwilling or unable to halt the violence in Syria’s bloody civil war, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East told Congress on Tuesday, warning that Moscow’s support of the Syrian military’s recent bombardment of rebel-held areas has pushed a peace deal further beyond reach.

Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that Moscow is trying to be both “arsonist and fireman” in Syria as part of an apparent strategy to extend its influence over the nation’s future.

A five-hour truce called by Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow civilians to flee a besieged, opposition-held enclave near Damascus failed to result in aid deliveries or medical evacuations Tuesday, while fighting in the region continued unabated, The Associated Press reported.

The United Nations and aid agencies criticized the unilateral arrangement for a daily “humanitarian pause” announced by Mr. Putin, saying it gave no guarantees of safety for tens of thousands of residents of eastern Ghouta, where they have been trapped for weeks under intense attack by the Syrian government.

Gen. Votel said Moscow had only halfheartedly promoted the truce while the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad called the Ghouta campaign a “counterterrorism operation” that was carried out with Moscow’s blessing.

Russia’s intervention in Syria has nothing to do with combating terrorism or battling remnants of the Islamic State in Syria, Gen. Votel told the House committee.

Moscow’s activities, he said, “are not focused on defeating ISIS, but rather on preserving their own influence and control over the outcome of the situation.”

“It is clear that Russia’s interests in Syria are Russia’s interests and not those of the wider international community,” the four-star general said.

Russia has argued that its troops are in Syria at the invitation of the officially recognized government, and it denies responsibility for any civilian casualties in Syria. Moscow says it is the U.S. that is covertly seeking a partition of Syria, even allowing a remnant of Islamic State to operate in the country to justify the American mission.

Gen. Votel said the U.S. military is committed to staying in Syria as long as necessary to support its Syrian Kurdish allies, who are the go-to ground force in the battle to eliminate the last enclaves held by Islamic State and other jihadi groups.

Policy shift

Gen. Votel’s testimony appeared to signal a decisive break with the Trump administration’s early hopes of working more closely with Moscow in the struggle to defeat Islamic State and other jihadi groups and end Syria’s bloody 7-year-old civil war. The general gave his testimony against a backdrop of rising criticism of Russian activities in Syria by Trump administration officials, who argue that the recent spike in violence, particularly around Damascus, has exposed Moscow’s failure to play a leadership role in the war zone.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters last week that Russia “bears a unique responsibility” for the massacre carried out against more than 400 civilians in East Ghouta. Without Russian backing of the Syrian military, she said, the “devastation and the deaths would certainly not be occurring.”

Ms. Nauert also argued that the Kremlin was aiming to subvert U.S.- and U.N.-backed peace talks in Geneva in favor of an alternative, Moscow-driven process known as the “Astana process,” with Russia, Turkey and Iran acting as guarantors of any agreement. The grim fate of East Ghouta — one of the “de-escalation zones” envisioned by Russia — undercut Moscow’s arguments, she said.

Gen. Votel said Russia was trying to exacerbate the violence and division in Syria in order to maximize its own advantages.

“I’m being very serious when I say they play the role of both arsonists and firemen, fueling tensions and then trying to resolve them in their favor, manipulating all the parties they can to try to achieve their objectives,” he said.

“I think there certainly has to be more accountability and pressure put on Russia to do what they said they were going to do,” he added.

Iranian expansion

The multilateral Syrian conflict has also created an opening for Iran, also ally of Mr. Assad, to expand its influence in Syria and elsewhere.

From facilitating military support to Shiite militias in Iraq, known as the Popular Mobilization Units, to pro-regime paramilitaries loyal to Mr. Assad battling U.S.-backed forces in Syria, Tehran has expanded its network of regional allies and proxy forces, Gen. Votel said. That process has accelerated despite Tehran’s signing of the 2015 nuclear deal with the Obama administration and other world powers, he said, through increased hard-line support for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Shiite paramilitary forces across the Middle East.

“Despite an agreement regarding its nuclear program, Iran remains a designated state sponsor of terrorism, and it exerts destabilizing influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen,” Gen. Votel said.

Amos Yadlin, a former head of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence Directorate, said Iran is “determined to build a military presence and military capabilities in Syria the way they built Hezbollah in Lebanon for many, many years.”

Mr. Yadlin, who currently heads the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Mr. Putin has tremendous influence over developments in Syria, but it’s not clear if the Russian president has the appetite to contain Iran.

“President Putin has a unique position in the Middle East, not only in Syria,” the former Israeli intelligence official told reporters last week on a conference call hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“He is the only one who can pick up the phone to everybody — to each pair of enemies: the Saudis and the Iranians, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Kurds and the Turks, and in this case, the Israelis, the Syrians and the Iranians,” Mr. Yadlin said.

But on Tuesday Gen. Votel told lawmakers that it was Yemen, not Syria, that stood the biggest chance of becoming a Shiite proxy state loyal to Iran. Tehran is “attempting to do in five years with the Houthis in Yemen” what it took “20 years with Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Gen. Votel said.

Gen. Votel shed a little more light on the still-murky clash in which a large force of Russian-recruited mercenaries attacked a force of U.S.-allied Syrians and Kurds, with 100 or mercenaries reported killed by a U.S. airstrike.

Tensions with Russia continue to escalate in the region as media reports revealed that Russian mercenaries attacked U.S. special operation forces in eastern Syria this month.

“This was a very clear case of self-defense on our part,” Gen. Votel said.

The article is based in part on wire service reports.


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