Russia has repositioned artillery near the disputed city of
Aleppo, several U.S. officials told Reuters. Despite withdrawing
some fixed-wing aircraft in March, Russia has also bolstered its
forces in Syria with advanced helicopter gunships, and renewed
airstrikes against moderate opposition groups, said U.S. officials,
speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Russian reassertion of military backing has prompted some U.S.
officials to warn that a failure to respond would be seen by Moscow
as a fresh sign of American timidity. That, they say, could
encourage Russia to escalate challenges to U.S. and allied
militaries through more provocative Russian air and naval maneuvers.
They also contend that a U.S. failure to respond would further
damage Washington’s relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf
states seeking to oust Assad, and with Turkey, which has been firing
artillery at Islamic State targets in Syria.
The answer, they argue, is stepped-up U.S. support for moderate
Syrian rebel factions with more anti-tank missiles and grenade
launchers sent through third countries.
However, other officials, including National Security Advisor Susan
Rice, have vetoed any significant escalation of U.S. involvement in
Syria, the officials said.
“Rice is the fly in the ointment,” said a person familiar with the
Obama himself has long been reluctant to deepen U.S. involvement in
the war, saying last October that Washington would not get drawn
into a "proxy war" with Moscow. His administration has focused more
on pressing the fight against the militant Islamic State group,
which controls a swathe of northeastern Syria.
The White House declined comment about any internal debate on Syria
or Putin's intentions.
The United States and other Western nations have struggled to read
Putin's intentions ever since Russian forces launched a surprise
deployment in support of Assad last September.
His abrupt announcement in March of a partial withdrawal and other
steps have continued to leave Western policy makers guessing about
The current debate over how to respond to Russia's military moves
partly reflects a difference of opinion in Washington over whether
Putin has been sincere in his backing for the U.N. peace process
which is now struggling for survival.
U.S. officials and experts question why Putin hasn’t been able, or
willing, to press Assad into making more concessions in the
“Either Russia has pulled the wool over Obama’s and (U.S. Secretary
of State John) Kerry’s eyes or they’ve pulled it over their own
eyes,” said the person familiar with the internal debate and who
asked not to be identified.
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On one side are U.S. military and intelligence officials who think
Putin does support the U.N.-backed talks.
These officials argue that Assad then undermined the initiative by
obstructing the Geneva process and ignoring the ceasefire, provoking
responses by the rebels and leaving the truce in shreds. As a
result, Putin had no choice but to ramp up support for his Syrian
ally, they say.
“I think the regime played a very, very sly game,” said Charles
Lister, an expert with the Middle East Institute. “They were playing
spoiler with the full knowledge that the opposition’s patience would
Other U.S. officials and experts think Putin has never been sincere
about diplomacy, and that Obama and Kerry were naive to believe
Russian statements of support.
Putin remains wedded to keeping Assad in power and ensuring that
Russia retains a naval port on the Mediterranean coast and an
airfield in northern Syria, the only major military bases it has
outside the former Soviet Union, they said.
“This was a cynical game from the beginning by Putin,” agreed
Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst
now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I don’t
believe for a minute that he was buffaloed by Assad. I think they
are in league together.”
While U.S. officials gave conflicting assessments on whether Russia
had sent additional artillery to Syria, the Obama administration on
Thursday openly expressed concern about reports that Russia has
shipped more materiel into the country.
The Pentagon has declined to speculate on Russian motives.
“I don’t know what their intentions are. What I do know is that we
have seen regime forces, with some Russian support as well, begin to
mass and concentrate combat power around Aleppo,” Army Colonel Steve
Warren, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition
fighting Islamic State, said on Wednesday.
“So this is something that we’re concerned about and something we’re
keeping an eye on."
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Phil Stewart; editing by Don
Durfee and Stuart Grudgings)
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