The new U.S. commander of anti-Islamic State efforts said Monday he does not trust President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s plan to cooperate with Russia inside Syria.
“As a soldier, I’m fairly skeptical of the Russians,” Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told the Associated Press. Townsend continued, “I’m not sure how much I’m inclined to believe that we can cooperate with them.”
Townsend’s comments are a stunning rebuke of what the Obama administration touted as a new way forward for the U.S. in Syria. Obama’s proposed deal with Russia in Syria will entail cooperation between Russia and U.S. intelligence agencies and coordinated air strikes on Syrian rebels classified as terrorists.
Townsend’s comments represent widespread distrust of the deal from nearly all partners in the U.S. Anti-ISIS coalition, within the U.S. government, and from non-jihadist Syrian opposition groups fighting on the battlefield. Pentagon officials heavily objected to the deal after Russia went so far as to bomb a secret operating base for U.S. special operators inside Syria last month, ostensibly to increase the pressure on Obama and Kerry.
Kerry and his defenders say working with Russia is the only way to limit a U.S. expansionary role in Syria for years to come. Kerry indicated Monday talks between the U.S. and Russia on the specifics of military cooperation are “nearing the end.” Kerry told reporters the Syrian conflict had gone too long, and that the U.S. should work with Russia and Iran to bring a speedy end to the conflict.
Opponents of the deal point out that by cooperating with Russia, the U.S. will have to negotiate the very definition of “terrorist,” and could inadvertently bomb moderate rebels who only oppose the Assad regime. Russia has repeatedly painted any force that opposes the Assad regime as a terrorist organization. Obama and Kerry’s decision to work with Putin in Syria legitimizes Russia’s intervention and may remove any opposing force to Assad.
The deal will also create a joint-intelligence site on the Jordanian border housing both U.S. and Russian intelligence officials who will work to find targets inside Syria. Several opponents of the deal recognize a history of extensive Russian spying on U.S. institutions and believe sharing intelligence with Russia would endanger the integrity of U.S. intelligence networks.
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