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Russian Strikes in Syria Have Stabilized Assad, Top U.S. General Says

Russia's campaign of airstrikes against opponents of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has stabilized Mr. Assad's government, America's top general said Wednesday. That has probably given Mr. Assad a stronger hand to play next week, when negotiations toward a political solution to the conflict will begin in Geneva, American officials said.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Russia's entry into the crowded battlefield had not changed how the American military was proceeding in Syria. He said the American-led coalition battling the Islamic State there and in Iraq had made significant gains, retaking an important dam on the Euphrates River and a large stretch of territory north of Raqqa, Syria, where the militant group has its stronghold.

The campaign to isolate Raqqa from other Islamic State-controlled territory — and in particular, from the Iraqi city of Mosul, whose fall to the militants in 2014 seized international attention — is well underway, General Dunford said. The main highway between Raqqa and Mosul has been cut, he said, and coalition troops are working to block smaller roads that link the two cities. That will impede supplies from reaching Islamic State fighters in Mosul, the objective of an expected Iraqi offensive.

While "there's still freedom of movement between Mosul and Raqqa, current operations are designed to cut them," General Dunford told reporters traveling with him to a meeting of the chiefs of staff of the militaries of NATO countries.

But the general also tacitly acknowledged that reaching a political solution in Syria may be an uphill battle because of Russia's strengthening of the Assad government.

"It hasn't changed the game for us," the general said, adding that the Syrian government was "in a worse place before, and the regime is in a better place now."

Because of the Russian airstrikes, General Dunford said, Mr. Assad has "regained some small amounts of ground" and has managed to consolidate control in some areas where his forces had previously been under siege from opposition groups, including some backed by the United States.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday that so far, Russian airstrikes had killed 893 Islamic State fighters, but that they had also killed more than 1,000 civilians.

The Geneva talks are supposed to include the Assad government and a number of Syrian opposition groups, though there is no agreement yet on who exactly will be at the table. Whatever the lineup, though, Mr. Assad's position has improved, administration officials and Middle East analysts say. "He may feel emboldened," an American diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the diplomat was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

The Obama administration's policy in Syria is now focused not on Mr. Assad but on the Islamic State, including its means of support. Col. Steve Warren, the United States military's spokesman in Baghdad, told reporters in a videoconference on Wednesday that nine American airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in recent months had destroyed tens of millions of dollars in cash that the Islamic State had collected.

The Pentagon released videos of some of the strikes, including one in which a cloud of bank notes appeared to be fluttering through the air after a strike on a building in Mosul, Iraq, this month. Colonel Warren said the militants "operate on cash; there's no credit," and added, "Striking these cash collection points hurts this enemy."

General Dunford said Wednesday that it remained American policy to conduct military operations in Syria separately from Russia. He said that he had spoken twice in recent months with his Russian counterpart, Valery Gerasimov, on a "wide range of issues," but he added that "we are not doing anything now that is characterized as coordinating" in Syria.

[Source: By Helene Cooper, The New York Times, Brussels, 20Jan16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 21Jan16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.