WASHINGTON: The top U.S. military officer told a Senate committee on Thursday that he believes Russia bombed a humanitarian aid convoy in Syria on Monday, calling it an "unacceptable atrocity."
The statement from U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the first time a senior U.S. official publicly pointed the finger at Moscow. Russia's defense ministry quickly disputed Dunford's comments.
Under questioning from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dunford revealed for the first time that both Russian and Syrian aircraft were in the area at the time of the strike. And when pressed by senators for his own conclusion, he said he believed Russia was the one that launched the airstrike.
U.S. officials initially said the aircraft that dropped the bombs were Russian Su-24 fighter jets, but they weren't sure if the aircraft were piloted by Russian or Syrian government troops. The Obama administration has blamed Russia either way, because of Moscow's continued influence over the Syrian government in the war.
When first asked if Russia bombed the aid convoy, Dunford said it wasn't certain which aircraft dropped the bombs, killing 20 civilians. Under further questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on whether it was Russia, Dunford answered, "that hasn't been concluded, but my judgment would be that they did." He was later asked again if it was Russia, and he answered yes.
Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for Russia's defense ministry, called Dunford's testimony his "personal opinion" and contended that the U.S. fears having to acknowledge responsibility for the attack.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest heaped on further criticism for what it called Moscow's failure to ensure Syria lived up to its commitments under the cease-fire. "That creaking sound you hear is Russia's international credibility taking an additional hit," Earnest said.
During a wide-ranging hearing, Dunford also said the Obama administration is considering directly arming the Syrian Kurds whom the U.S. has been backing in the fight against the Islamic State.
"They are our most effective partner on the ground," Dunford said of the battle-hardened Kurds, who are senior partners in an opposition group the U.S. calls the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Dunford said it "is very difficult" to manage the balance between supporting the Kurds and dealing with the Turkish government's adamant opposition to that support. Turkey sees the Kurds as a long-term political threat.
Asked whether arming the Syrian Kurds is a viable military option, despite the Turkish government's opposition, Dunford said "reinforcing" the Syrian Democratic Forces' military capabilities "will increase the prospects of our success" in enabling the recapture of Raqqa, the defacto Islamic State capital in Syria.
Dunford and Defense Secretary Ash Carter faced Republicans angry that the Obama administration is not taking more aggressive steps to end the 5-year-old civil war in Syria. Sen. John McCain , R-Ariz., the committee chairman, accused Secretary of State John Kerry of being "intrepid but delusional" for trying to work with Russia to secure long-term peace in Syria.
A Sept. 9 temporary truce in Syria brokered by the U.S. and Russia has all but collapsed as the two countries blame each other for the latest failure. The cease-fire envisioned a military partnership between the two countries against the Islamic State and al-Qaida if violence was reduced and aid delivered over the course of seven continuous days. The Pentagon, however, voiced reservations about coordinating airstrikes and sharing intelligence with Russia.
Republicans are skeptical, even hostile, to the idea that Russia is a willing partner for peace and would work with the United States. Dunford told the committee he doesn't believe "it would be a good idea to share intelligence with the Russians."
Kerry called for all warplanes to halt flights over aid routes, and at a U.N. Security Council session, he raised "profound doubt" about the willingness of Russia and Syria to abide by the cease-fire.
Carter and Dunford both disagreed with a Kerry proposal to ground all warplanes. They told the committee the U.S. should not discontinue flying aircraft over Syria. Dunford said he sees "no reason to ground our aircraft" and that the U.S.-led coalition needs to maintain pressure on the Islamic State group.
Dunford also said during an exchange with Graham that Syrian President Bashar Assad "is in a much stronger place than he was a year ago."
Although Assad crossed a "red line" drawn by Obama by using chemical weapons three years ago, Dunford said, it's likely Assad will still be in power when Obama leaves office in January 2017.
"I don't see a path right now where Assad will not be in office," Dunford said.