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General Says Talk of More U.S.-Russia Cooperation Gives Him 'Pause'

22 Jul 2018 3:59 pm
By Dion Nissenbaum 

KABUL -- The U.S. general overseeing the fight against Islamic State expressed firm reservations about President Donald Trump's hopes of working more closely with Russia in Syria, where Moscow has played a central role in thwarting Washington's attempts to force President Bashar al-Assad from power.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal and ABC News while en route to Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Votel said Russia's actions in Syria gave him "pause" about building stronger military ties with Moscow.

"I've watched some of the things that Russia has done, it does give me some pause," said Gen. Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the fight against Islamic State and the war in Afghanistan.

"They have supported a regime that has pretty brutally attacked their people," Gen. Votel said Saturday. "They've actively worked to make sure that the Syrian regime wasn't held to full accountability for their use of chemicals."

"These are not things that give me great confidence that just by stepping over into the next level of coordination that things are going to be fine. I don't," Gen Votel continued. "It's Russia. Let's not forget that it's Russia."

Gen. Votel's comments were a reflection of simmering concerns among U.S. military officials about Mr. Trump's evolving efforts to work more closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Syria. Gen. Votel joined a growing number of U.S. officials who have expressed reservations about cooperation with Russia.

Mr. Trump has said little about his private two-hour meeting with Mr. Putin last week in Helsinki. The two leaders said they are looking to work more closely in Syria. Russian officials said they are preparing to set up a new working group with the U.S. that will focus on getting Syrian refugees back home.

On Sunday, the White House National Security Council made it clear that Mr. Trump cemented no deals with Mr. Putin on Syria.

"The two sides agreed that their national security council staffs will follow up on the presidents' meetings, and these discussions are under way," a National Security Council spokesman said. "During the two presidents' discussions, there were no commitments to undertake any action, beyond agreement that both sides should continue discussions."

Gen. Votel questioned any moves to deepen military ties in Syria, where Russian fighters have staged attacks on U.S. soldiers and carried out a punishing airstrike campaign that has killed countless civilians.

Russian military support has been vital to propping up Mr. Assad and in thwarting U.S. efforts to force the Syrian leader from power. But Mr. Trump hopes to work more closely with Mr. Putin as he seeks to pull all American troops out of Syria.

U.S. law, passed after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, restricts American military cooperation with Moscow. But Russian and American military officers talk regularly to try to prevent any accidental clashes between their fighters operating in Syria.

Anything more, Gen. Votel said, would be risky.

"I don't see anything that we ought to be doing militarily right now beyond what we are currently doing," he said.

Mr. Trump's meeting with Mr. Putin raised concerns among some U.S. officials that the American president would agree to pull all 2,000 American troops out of Syria, where they are working with local fighters to capture the remaining Islamic State strongholds.

Before the Helsinki summit, American officials said, Russia pushed the U.S. to shutter an American base in southern Syria where Iran is looking to open a corridor to shuttle weapons to its allies in Lebanon. It remained unclear if Mr. Trump had discussed closing the base in exchange for Mr. Putin's help in containing Iran's influence in Syria.

Gen. Votel said he is opposed closing the base, known as Al Tanf, which has been used to train Syrian militants battling Islamic State.

"I think Al Tanf is playing an important role for us in the campaign right now and so it's militarily necessary for us," he said. "As long as that's the case then I think we think we need to stay there."

While the U.S. isn't keeping the small base open to directly challenge Iran's efforts to transport weapons across the region, Gen. Votel said "if that's indirectly disrupting something, then so be it."

For now, Gen. Votel said he has received no new guidance to work with Russia. Doing so, he said, would first require Congress to change the law restricting U.S. military cooperation with Russia. Even if that happened, Russia would have to demonstrate that it's willing to play a productive role in Syria, he said.

"There would have to be a lot, I think, beyond just people saying we can do it, that would help me build confidence we can do it," he said. "I wouldn't want to step right in."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 22, 2018 11:59 ET (15:59 GMT)

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