WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nearly 9 out of 10 airstrikes launched by the Russian military in Syria have hit so-called moderate rebels opposed to the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, killing civilians as well as destroying hospitals and shelters in the process, a senior U.S. State Department official told lawmakers.
The top U.S. diplomat in Europe, who testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee alongside the senior State official, added that Russia has begun deploying ground assets such as artillery to areas the moderate opposition took from the Assad regime, including territory near the cities of Hama and Homs.
“Moscow deployed forces [into Syria] because its ally, the Assad regime, was losing territory and even Iran’s support was insufficient to protect it,” Anne Patterson, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, testified during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, titled U.S. Policy After Russia’s Escalation in Syria. “Moscow has cynically tried to claim that its strikes are focused on terrorist, but so far 85 to 90 percent of Syrian strikes have hit the moderate Syrian opposition and they have killed civilians in the process.”
“Despite our urging, Moscow has yet to stop the Assad regime’s horrific practice of barrel bombing the Syrian people so we know that Russia’s primary intent is to preserve the regime,” she added.
In her written testimony, Patterson noted that some of Russian attacks have struck hospitals, Internally Displaced Person (IDP) shelters, and ambulances.
“Since the beginning of Russian strikes in Syria, at least 120,000 Syrians have been displaced as a result of regime offensives aided by Russian airstrikes in the cities of Hama, Aleppo, and Idlib,” she also wrote.
Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, also testified during Wednesday’s House panel hearing.
Nuland echoed Patterson, telling lawmakers that Russian airstrikes have primarily targeted the moderate Syrian opposition instead of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL).
“While Moscow asserts that its military action is directed at ISIL, the vast majority of Russian strikes target areas where the Assad regime has lost territory to forces led by the moderate opposition, in towns like Hama, Homs, Aleppo and Idlib,” said Nuland in her written testimony.
“Now Russia is fielding its own artillery and other ground assets around Hama and Homs, greatly increasing their soldiers’ vulnerability to counterattack,” she added. “And, Moscow has failed to exact any humanitarian concessions from Asad as the price for Russian support. The regime continues to barrel bomb its own citizens with impunity, perhaps even emboldened by Moscow’s help.”
Patterson reiterated the Obama administration’s position that Assad has no place in Syria’s political future.
“One thing is clear, Assad cannot unite and govern Syria and we cannot continue to hold the lives of the Syrian people hostage to the desire of one man to retain power,” she declared. “We, the Syrian people, and our regional allies need a political transition that ends ISIL’s reign of terror and allows displaced Syrians to return home.”
In her written remarks, Patterson pointed out that President Obama is escalating the anti-ISIS campaign.
“We are intensifying our campaign against ISIL, both through the airstrikes in Syria and Iraq and by working on the ground with partners in Iraq and Syria who have proven capable of reclaiming territory from ISIL,” she wrote. “The United States and our coalition partners have conducted a total of over 7,700 airstrikes against ISIL targets, including 2,600 in Syria. Our coalition is over 65 partners and theirs is three.”
On Friday, Obama authorized the deployment of up to 50 U.S. special operations forces to northern Syria. There, they will assists Arab and Kurdish troops on the ground.
“To complement that effort, the administration has adjusted the [failed $500 million] train and equip program to train vetted groups that are already fighting ISIL on the battlefield, and will support them with additional airpower,” noted Patterson.
“With Turkey’s support, we are deploying A-10s and F-15s to Incirlik Airbase to enable the intensification of strikes, and we are increasing our counter-ISIL military assistance to neighboring Jordan and Lebanon,” she added. “As Secretary of Defense Carter recently testified, U.S. and coalition aircraft will target ISIL with a higher and heavier rate of strikes, including those on ISIL’s oil enterprise to weaken its financial resources.”
The Obama administration claims the F-15s are being deployed to combat ISIS. However, the fighters specialize in air-to-air combat and ISIS has no warplanes, prompting the Daily Beast to report that Russia is “the real adversary.”