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Votel: Russia Not Capable, Willing to Help End Syrian Civil War

Gen. Joseph Votel, U. S. Central Command commander, speaks at a commander’s call at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Feb. 23, 2017. US Air Force Photo

Time and again, Russia has failed to deliver the regime of Bashar al-Assad on Moscow’s promises to facilitate an end the Syrian civil war or even to have it comply with temporary ceasefires, the commander of U.S. Central Command told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

Gen. Joseph Votel put it bluntly: Moscow “is not capable or doesn’t want to play a role” in finding a political solution to the fighting that has gone since 2011. The United Nations estimates an estimated 350,000 have been killed and the widespread, prolonged fighting has displaced millions.

As the Islamic State’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq is collapsing, the civil war continues. “Russia has added complications” to the situation where Turkish, Iranian, American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and Assad regime forces are converging on each other, setting the stage for more fighting. He called the Kremlin’s manipulative behavior as being both “arsonist and firefighter” to advance its own interests.

Votel said Russia’s objective is to “weaken each party’s bargaining position” before some form of Geneva negotiation process takes hold to resolve the conflict. In his opening statement, he noted, “Russia’s interests in Syria are Russia’s interests.”

Later in answer to a question, he said, “As we see the convergence of forces in Syria, we see divergences” of how to proceed among all the parties.

“The principal reason [the United States is engaged in Syria] is defeating ISIS.” Under the administration’s announced plan, it intends remaining engaged when that defeat happens so the Sunni-terrorist organization can’t re-surge as it did following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. He added during Tuesday’s hearing that American presence will continue until “the right security and stability is in place. …That will take some time.”

Votel, in his written testimony, estimated that 98 percent of the territory once controlled by the Islamic State has been retaken, including Raqqah, its self-proclaimed capital in Syria.

Other American goals in the operation include: stopping the use of weapons of mass destruction, providing humanitarian aid to refugees and displaced civilians, re-assuring allies on Syria’s borders of American commitment and ensuring a political solution.

The original reason for sending American forces to Syria was “largely driven by the collective security [arrangement with] Iraq,” following the Islamic State’s military forces’ capture of the large city of Mosul. in 2014. The second largest city in Iraq has also been retaken.

Several times, he was asked what the United States is doing to counter Iran’s influence in Syria and Iraq. “We can do a lot through our partners” and “we can do that with a smaller investment” with lower costs, he said.

Working with the Iraqi government and the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mixture primarily of Kurdish and Arab fighters, this cooperation “makes it difficult to carry out their activities” of supplying supporters, moving forces or controlling territory. Votel said, “They don’t want them in their country; they don’t want them in their area” threatening stability. He added the disruption effort has been aimed at land routes, but Tehran could shift to using air, maritime or going through North Africa to coordinate with its supporters and partners.

As an example of this approach of working with indigenous forces outside of Syria, he cited the command’s “using our intelligence and using some of our experience” with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in keeping the Bab el-Mandeb Strait clear of mines. He added without going into detail that collaboration extends to preventing the laying of mines in the waterway connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden in Yemen, not simply sweeping for explosives.

Sixty to 70 ships, primarily oil tankers, pass through the chokepoint daily. In addition to the danger of mines, tankers have come under attacks from Houthi rebels ashore.

Votel said, “Maritime resources are adequate” for the command’s mission and they “do maintain a constant presence” in those waters. The presence includes vessels from partners and allies.

Overall to counter Iran in the region, the command is assuring allies and partners of a continued U.S. commitment, defending them against its ballistic missile threat, ensuring Tehran does not develop nuclear weapons and “pushing back on the narrative” of America becoming a disinterested ally.

At the far eastern reach of the command’s responsibility, Votel said success in Afghanistan “will require cooperation with Pakistan” in eliminating cross-border safe havens from the Haqqani network, Taliban and other terrorist groups. “We are now beginning to see positive indicators” from Islamabad in that direction. But those moves do “not yet reach decisive action.”

In his prepared statement, he acknowledged the Afghan government’s continued problems with “competing interests” for political control of the country and corruption.

  • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

    America is no more willing or capable of ending that civil war.
    After all, the CIA spent 6 years training, financing & weaponising jihadist entities with the purpose of unnecessarily extending that war.

    • TomD

      “After all, the CIA spent 6 years training, financing & weaponising jihadist entities with the purpose of unnecessarily extending that war.”

      No, the CIA spent 6 years training, financing & weaponizing mostly jihadist entities with the purpose of toppling the Assad regime, which nearly everyone recognized as the legitimate government of the country. It really cannot be said that it was unnecessarily extending that war, because the war was largely unnecessary in the first place. The major reason for toppling Assad was resolved when the Israelis destroyed the North Korean reactor near Deir ez-Zor in 2007, an act easily repeatable if necessary.

  • THOR HAMMERSTRONG

    They dont give a damn about fighting ISIS or other terror groups .They are not there to protect syrians.They drop unguided incendiary bombs on civilians daily . They are fighting on behalf of Assad to preserve and expand their military bases in that country . They must be defeated and forced out of Syria . The recent shoot down of the SU-25 by opposition forces and the air strikes that vaporized hundreds of russian and iranian mercenaries is a good way of increasing the stakes and the costs for both of these terrorist nations . Give the opposition better anti air missiles . HAWK missiles will do. Target their airbase in Latakia not with cheap drones but with rocket artillery . Make their airbases unusable .

  • Chesapeakeguy

    Why would anyone buy into any Russian ‘promises’ on anything, much less them selling out an ally? They’ve been arming the Assad regime most of my life. As Russia tries to become a world power again, Syria is a safe area (for them) to try to show some dominance.

    • tpharwell

      Agree, though I question how safe the area is for them to make their play. Safe for some Russians, perhaps; not for others. Safe for now; perhaps not for later. The way they make it safe for themselves is by making it unsafe for Turkey, Israel, Jordan, the United States, and generally, the western world.

  • publius_maximus_III

    So basically, Syria has become another Lebanon, on steroids.

    As for trying to get the Russians to twist the Optometrist’s arm to end the fighting, I think it’s more the Iranians who are keeping the pot stirred than da Poot or Assad. And I doubt Russia has very much influence over them. The mullahs obviously aren’t spending all that money Obama airlifted to them on domestic needs, otherwise Iranian civilians would not be out in the streets.

    • TomD

      “And I doubt Russia has very much influence over them [the Iranians].”

      With Iranian money pouring into Russia for SAMs and the like, it would appear that not only are you correct, but that the influence flows the other way.

      • D. Jones

        Where did Iran get that money?

        • TomD

          Lots of places. The U.S. government, China, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, South Africa, etc.

  • Jay

    Can’t buck Russia, Putin would call in Trump’s loans and then Cadet Bonespurs would just be a prole.

  • Tracy Johnson

    I’m sure the Russkies are capable, it’s a matter of will. Perhaps they have an agenda of earning experience points on Close Air Support. Where else can they go for live fire exercises besides Ukraine (which would just lead us to commit equally on the lethal side)?

  • SFC Steven M Barry USA RET

    Vogel is a liar and a hypocrite. The US is the *cause* of “instability” in Syria and has been since 2011.

  • Korben

    USA go away from Syria. It has no UN mandate. They were not invited by the reguler government.
    Why the US supports Turkey and its Kurdish genocide? why US weapons are in the hands of ISIS. Why US AIR FORCE did not destroy ISIS, years isis transported oil to Turkey, and the US left them.
    The United States is the largest supporter of terrorism.