CAPITOL HILL - Eighty-five to 90 percent of Russian airstrikes in Syria since last month have hit the moderate Syrian opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, and not Islamic State militant targets as Moscow claims.
That's what the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Anne Patterson, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday.
Committee members expressed frustration with U.S. policy on Syria, with most of them saying the president’s decision to send a small number of U.S. troops there to “advise and assist” is not likely to make a difference.
Ambassador Patterson told the panel that despite what she termed Russia’s “cynical claims,” the vast majority of its airstrikes have hit the moderate Syrian opposition to Assad in areas where Islamic State militants are not active. She said Moscow’s primary intent is to help keep the Assad regime in power.
Also testifying before the committee, top U.S. diplomat for Europe Victoria Nuland, said Russia has also started deploying ground assets such as artillery to areas Assad forces have lost to the moderate opposition, including near the cities of Hama and Homs.
Both Patterson and Nuland said Russia’s intervention has increased the mass exodus of Syrian refugees to Europe and other countries.
Late last week, the Obama administration announced it would send fewer than 50 U.S. special operations forces into Syria in an advise and assist capacity. Nuland told the panel that President Barack Obama is also “looking at a number of other efforts to intensify our efforts in this battle.” She did not specify what those efforts might be.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Republican Ed Royce called the hearing to examine what impact Russia’s military escalation in Syria is having on an already desperate situation after four-and-a-half years of civil war.
Royce blamed the Obama administration for not taking action sooner in Syria, saying, “ISIS stands where it stands today as a result of our failure to act. Royce also said, “Russia is taking a "decisive role in shaping Syria's future, and not in a helpful way."
Democratic Rep. William Keating said those who are criticizing President Obama should be prepared to say they support sending a substantial number of U.S. ground troops to Syria for the long term, adding he does not think that would be in America’s best interests.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul told VOA a lack of a U.S. political or military strategy for Syria has created a vacuum of power that Russia has now stepped in to fill. The Republican said Russia’s involvement greatly complicates efforts to get Assad to leave and have a political transition in Syria.
Ranking Democratic member Eliot Engel told VOA he is hoping for a political solution, and added “I don’t think the future of Syria includes Assad. I think he has been responsible for the deaths of too many people.”