Brussels: Russia's campaign of airstrikes against opponents of President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria had stabilised Assad's government, America's top general said on Wednesday. That had probably given Assad a stronger hand to play next week, when negotiations toward a political solution to the conflict would begin in Geneva, US officials said.
General Joseph F. Dunford Jr, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Russia's entry into the crowded battlefield had not changed how the US military was proceeding in Syria. He said the US-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.
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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 was well underway, General Dunford said. The main highway between Raqqa and Mosul had been cut and coalition troops were working to block smaller roads that linked the two cities. That would 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 travelling 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 might 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, he said, Assad had "regained some small amounts of ground" and had 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 on Wednesday that so far, Russian airstrikes had killed 893 Islamic State fighters, but that they had also killed more than 1000 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, Assad's position had improved, administration officials and Middle East analysts said. "He may feel emboldened," a US diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the diplomat was not authorised to speak publicly on the issue.
The Obama administration's policy in Syria is now focused not on Assad but on the Islamic State, including its means of support. Colonel Steve Warren, the US military's spokesman in Baghdad, told reporters in a video conference on Wednesday that nine US 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 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 on Wednesday that it remained US 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 characterised as co-ordinating" in Syria.
New York Times