WASHINGTON - Top U.S. intelligence officials are raising concerns Russia may not be completely committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told lawmakers Thursday that Russia is “preoccupied” with its involvement in Syria and could soon take additional steps to bolster the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
“They are confronting the possibility, I think, or considering whether they're going to put more ground forces in,” he said during testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“I think the constraining factor for them is the memory of Afghanistan, getting into kind of a bottomless pit,” Clapper added. “That does affect Russian thinking and is one of the reasons why I think there's apparent interest in a cessation of hostilities.”
Intelligence officials say there has been a constant but incremental expansion of the Russian footprint in Syria but caution they have not seen indications of any major uptick in Russian operations ahead of the midnight Saturday deadline for the cessation of hostilities to go into effect.
“We haven’t really seen any uptick in activity,” a U.S. official told VOA on condition of anonymity. “They’re continuing to maintain their posture.”
But the official also noted that Russia has demonstrated an ability to scale its military operations in Syria “in accordance with the regime… to keep momentum going.”
Syrian rebel groups say Russian warplanes have continued to carry out airstrikes in northwest Syria, backing the regime’s ongoing push into Latakia province.
"The regime wants to try to retake all of northern Latakia before February 26," a spokesman for the First Coastal Division rebel group who claimed to have witnessed some of the most recent fighting told Reuters.
Russia insists cease-fire is on
Russia Thursday insisted the cease-fire process was underway, though it accused U.S. officials of trying to undermine the agreement.
"By and large, a number of (U.S.) officials in fact attempted to call into question the agreements reached, which were approved by the two presidents," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. "It actually looked like sabotage."
United Nations diplomats have been considering a Security Council resolution endorsing the cease-fire in Syria, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called "the one way that we can end this war."
The Syrian government has said it will take part, but will continue attacking Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked terrorists, which are excluded from the cease-fire.
The main opposition High Committee for Negotiations (HNC) gave a reserved endorsement for the cease-fire on Wednesday, saying it will participate for two weeks to determine the commitment of the other side.
The HNC has also said its participation is contingent on the delivery of humanitarian aid and the end of sieges and airstrikes against civilians.
The U.S. envoy for Syria Michael Ratney said in a statement the HNC's recommendations are being carefully considered. He also expressed hope that the maximum number of armed factions will sign on to the cease-fire.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned Thursday that his country will not be bound by the truce if it is threatened by Syrian Kurdish fighters or the Islamic State group.
Turkey has carried out cross-border shelling into northern Syria targeting the Kurdish YPG militia, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says should not be part of the cease-fire deal.
Turkey considers the YPG to be terrorists based on their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has carried out a three-decade insurgency in southeastern Turkey. The PKK is recognized as a terror group by the United States and the European Union.
U.S. President Barack Obama struck a cautious tone on the cease-fire after meeting Wednesday with Jordan's King Abdullah II.
"We are very cautious about raising expectations on this; the situation on the ground is difficult," the president said.
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