Top U.S. defense officials are launching renewed criticism at Russian President Vladimir Putin, charging that Moscow's military intervention in Syria failed to achieve its stated goals, and that it likely lessened Russia's standing in the region.
"Russia said it was coming into Syria to fight ISIL but that's not what it did," Defense Secretary Ash Carter told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, using an acronym for the Islamic State terror group. "Their military has only prolonged the civil war, propped up [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] and, as of now, we haven't seen whether Russia retained the leverage to find a diplomatic way forward."
Putin announced a partial withdrawal of Russian forces Monday, saying all of Russia's objectives had been achieved. Since then, Russian media have shown videos of a steady departure of Russian warplanes from airbases in Syria.
The commander of the Russian air force said Thursday that the withdrawal of most of its troops in Syria would be completed within two or three days. The United States has estimated that Russia had 3,000 to 6,000 troops in Syria, with Russia saying about 1,000 would remain after the drawdown.
‘Minor’ impact for Russia
Still, U.S. military and intelligence officials have expressed caution, describing the pullout's impact on Russia's air combat capabilities as "relatively minor." They have also noted the continued presence of Russian artillery and other equipment on the battlefield.
Putin himself said Thursday that Russia could ramp up its military presence in Syria within "several hours" if deemed necessary.
At an event at the Kremlin honoring officers who served in Syria, Putin said Russia's actions demonstrated "leadership, will and responsibility" while fighting what he called "enemies of civilization."
The top U.S. military officer refuted such claims Thursday.
"When Putin went into Syria he said his express purpose was to go down and address ISIL," said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford. "ISIL is not addressed."
Dunford also told lawmakers the Russian withdrawal could bolster U.S. standing in the region at Russia's expense.
"For those who question whether the United States is the most reliable partner in the region or not, I would just say for the record, we're still there," he added.
U.S. efforts against IS
Dunford also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. efforts to defeat the Islamic State terror group in Syria are gaining momentum.
He said U.S. and coalition forces are now working with a Syrian Democratic Force that now has 10,000 to 15,000 fighters, including 5,000 Arabs — twice the number of Arabs fighters that had signed on just a month ago.
Still, Dunford refused to put a timeline on when those forces might be ready to advance on Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate.
Other top U.S. military and intelligence officials have previously said a final push to retake the Islamic State's Iraqi capital of Mosul would not take place until after the end of this year.
Carter also said the U.S. is warning countries in the region they need to "get in the game" in the fight against IS.
"We need those in the region to play their part," Carter said. "We'll remember who played their role and who didn't."
The U.N. is conducting Syrian peace talks in Geneva in hopes of ending the five-year civil war that has left 300,000 or more people dead. Violence in Syria has been sharply reduced during a three-week-old "cessation of hostilities" calling for an end to fighting except for continued attacks on Islamic State, al-Nusra Front and other extremist groups.
VOA's Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.