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Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of the Supreme Allied Command Europe and the U.S. Europe Command, looks on before the start of an House Armed Services Committee hearing on Feb. 25, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. In another congressional hearing Tuesday, March 1, Breedlove said Russia's bombing campaign in Syria was causing the increased flow of refugees into Europe.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of the Supreme Allied Command Europe and the U.S. Europe Command, looks on before the start of an House Armed Services Committee hearing on Feb. 25, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. In another congressional hearing Tuesday, March 1, Breedlove said Russia's bombing campaign in Syria was causing the increased flow of refugees into Europe. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

The top U.S. general in Europe told a congressional committee Tuesday that Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria has increased the flow of refugees into Europe, a mass migration that now includes a growing number of foreign fighters and terrorists who are using the crisis for cover.

“This criminality, the terrorists and this return of foreign fighters [to Europe] is clearly a daily part of the refugee flow now,” U.S. European Command’s Gen. Philip Breedlove told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Breedlove’s comments come amid a fragile cease-fire in Syria, which calls for Russia and the government of Bashar Assad to refrain from airstrikes against anti-government rebel fighters. The agreement does allow continued strikes against terrorist groups such as the Islamic State group and al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front.

The U.S. has repeatedly charged that Russia has attacked more-moderate rebel groups supported by the West. Moscow claims they are affiliated with al-Nusra. Before the cease-fire took effect, Syrian forces and Russian airstrikes targeted rebel forces around the city of Aleppo, causing a flow of refugees north toward the Turkish border.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, accused Moscow of continuing to carry out strikes on other groups despite the cease-fire.

“To the surprise of no one on this committee, it only took until the second day of the so-called cease-fire in Syria before [Russian President] Vladimir Putin resumed his airstrikes in support of the murderous Assad regime,” McCain said. “I am sure Russia will say it has only targeted terrorists.”

Moscow has denied that it has violated the terms of the cease-fire. The dispute over Syria highlights the strategic challenge posed by Russia, whose campaign in Syria, officials charge, is helping to destabilize Europe.

“I can’t find any other reason ... other than to cause refugees to be on the move and be someone else’s problem,” Breedlove said. “Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration … to break European resolve.”

Europe has been struggling to cope with the flow of refugees, who are coming in numbers not seen since World War II. Germany alone took in more than 1 million people last year, and the continuing flow has led to deep disagreements among European countries about how to handle the refugee crisis and to calls for reinstating border controls, restricting passport-free travel among some European countries.

Breedlove repeated his assertions that his command does not have the resources it needs to face the growing challenges posed by a more assertive Russia, whose aggressive moves in Ukraine have upended the post-Cold War status quo.

During the past week, Breedlove said, there have been increased signs of fighting in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels have been involved in a two-year-old civil war with the Ukrainian government.

“I believe Russia will dial up and down the pressure along the line of contact to keep Kiev under pressure,” he said.

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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