Former NATO general warns against Russia partnership in Syria
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 9, 2017
WASHINGTON — The former U.S. supreme allied commander of NATO said Thursday that Russia has little interest in fighting the Islamic State group and the United States should be wary of partnering with the country in war-torn Syria.
Retired Gen. Philip Breedlove said he backs new dialogue with Moscow but warned that Russia’s operations in Syria are aimed at propping up the “savage” government of President Bashar Assad.
“I don’t see their priorities as the same as ours in any way, shape or form in Syria,” he said in testimony before the Senate. “To align ourselves with Iran and Russia in support of Mr. Assad would be very tough for me to deal with.”
His testimony comes as President Donald Trump and Congress weigh a new approach to Russia — including a major thaw in relations — amid its growing aggression, including indiscriminate bombing in Syria, an incursion into Ukraine and interference in the U.S. presidential election last year.
“As an F-16 fighter pilot, watching the way bombing has been conducted in Syria, to try to associate our type of conducting this conflict in Syria with Russia’s way of conducting this conflict in Syria would be an affront to the way I believe we should conduct this conflict,” Breedlove told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Since 2014, the United States has been fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, where Russia has intervened in a civil war on the side of Assad, whose regime has long been seen as a foe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has been accused of bombing schools and hospitals in operations against anti-Assad rebels and Assad has been accused of using indiscriminate bombing, chemical weapons and mass executions of prisoners during the war, which has displaced millions of Syrians.
Breedlove said the Russian operations in Syria and elsewhere are part of wide-ranging effort to elevate its own influence and undermine the United States and its allies.
Julianne Smith, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for New American Strategy think tank, also cautioned senators against a partnership with Russia in Syria, saying the Russians “have very little to offer.”
She said 80 percent of Russian strikes in Syria are in areas where the Islamic State group is not present.
Trump has been signaling a closer relationship and possibly a new partnership with Putin to fight the Islamic State group.
“I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not, and if Russia helps us in the fight against [the Islamic State group], which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world, major fight, that’s a good thing,” Trump said in a Fox News interview that aired Sunday.
The president brushed aside the growing list of accusations against Russia on Sunday when asked by Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly why he would support a “killer” like Putin.
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump said in response. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, both recently appointed by Trump, said they support new dialogue with Russia aimed at reducing tensions.
But Trump’s language and dramatic shift in attitude toward Putin and his government — casting off years of Republican orthodoxy that sees Russia as a top threat — is drawing sharp criticism from his own party on Capitol Hill.
“The way [Putin] claims to fight terrorists is bombing civilian populations,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a former presidential candidate who has emerged as one of the Republicans willing to challenge Trump.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate panel, said he wants to pursue a firmer approach than President Barack Obama’s administration in dealing with Russia and is considering legislation including possibly sanctions that could strengthen Tillerson’s hand in diplomacy.
But Corker also took issue with Trump’s “killers” comment, saying the two countries should not be seen acting in the same way.
“I see no moral equivalence — none — between ourselves and the actions that Russia has taken and … those comments to me do not reflect certainly most members of the United States Senate,” he said.