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Pentagon: Syria Accord Tests Russia's Will to De-escalate War

FILE - Syrian government troops fire at Islamic State group positions near Mahin, Syria, Jan. 30, 2016.

The Pentagon on Tuesday called the cessation-of-hostilities agreement in Syria a “test” for Russia, as potential effects and implementation of the agreement remain uncertain.

“The test is really — it’s up to the Russians at this point,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters.

Cook asserted that the U.S. military’s fight remained against Islamic State militants in Syria and would not be affected by the cessation agreement reached last week in Munich.

He added, however, that the U.S. would be watching to see who does not abide by the agreement and would “respond” and “adjust” if necessary.

FILE - Smoke rises after shelling by the Syrian army, after Russian airstrikes, in Damascus, Syria, Oct. 14, 2015.
FILE - Smoke rises after shelling by the Syrian army, after Russian airstrikes, in Damascus, Syria, Oct. 14, 2015.

The cessation agreement halts fighting to allow humanitarian aid into besieged areas. The agreement excludes attacks on terrorist groups Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria. A task force of nations, led by the U.S. and Russia, will determine eligible targets and geographic areas.

The deal raised concern about whether Russia will actually change its behavior in Syria. The U.S. and rights groups have accused Russia of using cluster munitions that have struck schools and medical facilities in Aleppo and Idlib.

Russia has blamed the U.S. for those strikes, and the Russian news agency Interfax has quoted a Russian Foreign Ministry official as saying Moscow will continue its airstrikes around Aleppo even if a cease-fire agreement in Syria is reached.

No penalty

U.S. opponents of the cessation agreement argue that there's no provision of repercussions for those who do not abide by it.

"It requires opposition groups to stop fighting, but it allows Russia to continue bombing terrorists, which it insists is everyone, even civilians,” U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Sunday at the Munich Security Conference. If Russia or the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "violates this agreement, what are the consequences?" he asked. "I don’t see any."

The senator blasted the deal as “diplomacy in the service of military aggression,” accusing Russia of using “the denial and delivery of humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip” to lock in the Assad regime’s territorial gains and choose when to resume fighting.

The cessation agreement had been expected to take effect within a week from last Friday, but the State Department on Tuesday seemed to back away from a timetable.

"I'm not trying to excuse the delay in any way,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “But we also recognize we need, the parties involved need, a little space in order to at least make the effort."

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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