WASHINGTON -- Two top U.S. diplomats on Wednesday defended President Barack Obama's policy to defeat Islamic State militants in Syria in the wake of Russian intervention that both said has dangerously destabilized the battlefield.
The two answered criticism from both Democratic and Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who claimed the current U.S. policy is too limited.
The hearing follows the White House's announcement last week that it was deploying as many as 50 special operations forces to Syria and Secretary of State John Kerry's recent meetings in Vienna to chart a political transition to the conflict, which has killed 225,000 Syrians and caused more than 4 million to become refugees.
"Russia's military intervention has dangerously exacerbated an already complex environment," said Anne Patterson, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, adding that Russian airstrikes predominately have targeted areas where Islamic State militants are not present.
"Moscow has cynically tried to claim that its strikes are focused on terrorists, but so far, 85 to 90 percent of Syrian strikes have hit the moderate Syrian opposition and they have killed civilians in the process. ... We know that Russia's primary intent is to preserve the regime."
"So far, then, this has not been a Russian fight against terrorism so much as an effort to preserve the Assad regime," she said about Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Patterson said that so far, U.S. diplomatic efforts have not led to any agreement on the fate of Assad.
Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said Kerry is hoping that if the U.S. and others can "rope" Russia into the diplomatic effort, it will lead Moscow to seek a peaceful solution different than the military intervention they are engaged in today.
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Nuland said Russia is spending $2 million to $4 million a day on its air campaign in Syria at a time when Russians are hurting from an economic downturn.
"What would positive cooperation by Russia look like?" she asked. "First, Russia would turn its guns on IS and stop carnage in and around Syria's western cities. As the price of its support, Moscow would insist that Assad ground the helicopters and planes he uses to drop barrel bombs on innocents on a daily basis."
Moreover she said Russia also should work with the U.S. and its partners toward a ceasefire and political transition.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the committee, called Obama's policy "tepid" and "very ineffectual." He also said Russian cargo aircraft have been seen running Iranian weapons into Syria in violation of the U.N. arms embargo.
"A diplomatic solution is only possible with a strong, coherent moderate opposition that can serve as a bridge from Assad to a new, post-conflict government," Royce said. "Yet, the administration has done little to help the opposition. Its feeble train-and-equip program is now defunct. ... And no one believes Friday's announcement of 50 special forces will be decisive."
New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the failed effort to train and equip moderate Syrians to fight IS was too little, too late. He said the U.S. needs to learn from its past mistakes, look forward and focus on ways that Congress can work with the White House to strengthen the current policy.