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U.S. and Russia at odds, again, on all fronts, in Syria

The Baghdad spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) refuted Russian claims that American planes bombed Aleppo hospitals, saying the incident was an example of Russia's "indiscriminate" use of force.

The Russian Ministry of Defense rejected the pentagon's claim Wednesday that Russian aircraft hit two hospitals in Aleppo saying that it was U.S. aircraft that operated over the city Wednesday. Russian defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Thursday that Russian jets hit targets no closer than about 12 miles from Aleppo. Konashenkov said that two A-10 ground attack jets of the U.S. Air Force flew in from Turkey Wednesday and attacked Aleppo.

"There were no Coalition airstrikes in or near Aleppo on Wednesday, Feb 10th. Any claim that the coalition had aircraft in the area is a fabrication," the U.S. spokesman in Baghdad, Col. Steve Warren, told CBS Radio News correspondent Cami McCormick.

Speaking separately to the Associated Press, Warren said Russian aircraft in Syria are using "dumb" bombs, and "indiscriminately scattering those bombs across populated areas regardless of whether those populated areas have women and children, civilians or hospitals."

U.S. officials said Thursday, meanwhile, that Russia had proposed a March 1 ceasefire in Syria, but that Washington believes Moscow is just trying to give itself and the Syrian government three weeks to try to crush moderate rebel groups.

The United States has countered with demands for the fighting to stop immediately, the officials said Wednesday. Peace talks are supposed to resume by Feb. 25.

The talk of new ceasefire plans comes as the U.S., Russia and more than a dozen other countries meet in Munich to try to halt five years of civil war in the Arab country. The conflict has killed more than a quarter-million people, created Europe's biggest refugee crisis since World War II and allowed ISIS to seize territory across large parts of both countries.

According to a new study published Wednesday, the actual death toll attributable to the war is far higher. The Syrian Center for Policy Research published a report on the war's human and economic impact on the country, saying some 470,000 deaths can be blamed on the conflict, and that it has killed or injured, overall, a staggering 11.5 percent of the Syrian population.

The SCPR also said in its report, entitled "Confronting Fragmentation," that more than 10 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes -- 4 million of them to other countries, representing a huge percentage of the refugees arriving every day on Europe's shores and filling the camps in neigboring states.

Russia says it is supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad's government as part of a counterterrorism campaign. But the West says the majority of its strikes are targeting moderate groups that are opposed to Assad and ISIS.

The most recent Russian-backed offensive, near Aleppo, prompted opposition groups to walk out of peace talks last month in Geneva, while forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee toward the Turkish border.

The U.S. officials weren't authorized to speak publicly about private diplomatic discussions in the run-up to the Munich conference and demanded anonymity. One said the U.S. can't accept Russia's offer because opposition forces could suffer irreversible losses in northern and southern Syria before the ceasefire ever takes hold.

The officials said the U.S. counterproposal is simple: A ceasefire that is effective immediately and is accompanied by full humanitarian access to Syria's besieged civilian centers.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrived in Germany Wednesday, had talks planned late in the evening with U.N. peace envoy Staffan de Mistura and Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, a key backer of Syria's rebel groups.

The Obama administration has been trying for months to clinch a ceasefire and pave the way for a transition government in Syria that would allow parties to the conflict to concentrate on defeating the threat posed by ISIS and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

But after having long demanded Assad's ouster, the shift in the U.S. focus to combating terrorism has resulted in a confusing mix of priorities and a layered strategy in Syria that few understand, and even fewer see working. Beyond Russia, the administration has often struggled to keep its own allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia in line.

"We will approach this meeting in Munich with great hopes that this will be a telling moment," Kerry said Tuesday in Washington. His peace push coincides with Defense Secretary Ash Carter's attendance at a gathering in Brussels to hash out military options with NATO partners.

Brett McGurk, the Obama administration's point-man for defeating ISIS, said Russia's Aleppo offensive was having the perverse effect of helping the extremists by drawing local fighters away from the battle against ISIS and to the war against Syria's government.

"What Russia's doing is directly enabling ISIL," McGurk told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington.

But the panel's top Democrat echoed some of the frustration of his Republican colleagues with the larger U.S. strategy.

"It seems as if we're only halfheartedly going after ISIS, and halfheartedly helping the (rebel) Free Syria Army and others on the ground," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. He urged a "robust campaign, not a tentative one, not one that seems like we're dragging ourselves in ... to destroy ISIS and get rid of Assad."

Kerry emphasized Tuesday that U.S. officials "are not blind to what is happening." He said the Aleppo battle makes it "much more difficult to be able to come to the table and to be able to have a serious conversation."

But the U.S. has staked its hopes for an end to the five-year civil war in Syria on the peace talks and Assad's eventual departure, saying the American public has no appetite for a military solution.

To that end, Washington has tempered its calls dating back to August 2011 for Assad to immediately leave power. And to get Russia on board, it now won't even say that Assad should be barred from running for re-election if and when a new Syrian constitution is drafted.

The ambiguity has emboldened Assad's supporters, Russia and Iran, while upsetting American allies in the Middle East, who are frustrated by a process that appears to lock the Syrian leader in place well into 2017 - and perhaps beyond.