The U.S. again Tuesday ruled out having the military airdrop relief supplies to civilians in northwestern Syria where Russia has carried out relentless airstrikes, the Pentagon's chief spokesman said Tuesday.
Moscow has not told the U.S., either directly or through third parties, to avoid sending relief flights into the airspace around Aleppo, but the U.S. was currently pursuing a "two-track" strategy in Syria that did not permit humanitarian airdrops, said Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook.
One track limited the U.S. military's role to supporting the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, in eastern Syria while the other diplomatic track overseen by the State Department focused on a "cessation of hostilities" -- at least in northwestern Syria -- that supposedly was to go into effect Friday.
"The situation on the ground is complicated," Cook said at a Pentagon news conference. "We are not involved in any plans for humanitarian assistance at this point," he said, echoing statements last week from spokesmen for U.S. commanders.
In California, where he was hosting Asian leaders, President Barack Obama said at a news conference, "This is not a contest between me and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin" in Syria.
He called on the Russians to "stop the bombing of schools and hospitals and innocent civilians" that he said threatened to derail the tentative agreement on a cessation of hostilities.
"If Russia continues indiscriminate bombing, you're not going to see a take up by the opposition" on a temporary halt to the fighting this Friday, Obama said. "We will see what happens over the next several days."
The U.S. did not dispute "this is a dire situation" for Syrian civilians caught in the crossfire between a range of rebel groups and the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, or hunkering down against relentless Russian airstrikes, Cook said.
"We agree with that. We support bringing in humanitarian aid" and the best way to do that was with aid convoys on the ground which thus far have been blocked by the fighting, he said. "We, the U.S. military, has not been asked to play a role in that at this particular point in time.
"There are humanitarian groups that are prepared to provide assistance at this time," Cook said. "It's up to, again, the Russians and others" to halt the fighting "so that that relief can come in.
"This is a terrible situation on the ground in Syria," he added. "Every effort should be made to try and bring some relief to those people."
In recent days, at least five different medical facilities, including a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, were hit by airstrikes in northern Syria, reportedly killing at least 50 civilians.
Two schools were also hit in rebel-held areas in Aleppo and Idlib provinces in northwestern Syria, according to the United Nations. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the bombings cast "doubt on Russia's willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime."
Russia has denied responsibility for the civilian deaths while U.S. military spokesmen have repeatedly said that American and coalition warplanes have not flown any missions near northwestern Syria.
In the latest of a series of scathing statements on Russia's actions and the intentions of Putin, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, "The intensification of Russian airstrikes in Syria over the past two days, including the bombing of schools and hospitals, is tragically unsurprising.
"After all, none of it violates the recent agreement for a cessation of hostilities, which permits Russian forces and its proxies to continue fighting for another week" with the supposed cessation to take place this Friday, McCain said.
"As expected, our adversaries in Syria are using that time to accelerate and conclude their siege on Aleppo," he said. "Once that is done, they will be able to continue bombing terrorist groups, which the Putin and Assad regimes insist is everyone. This is diplomacy in the service of military aggression, and unfortunately, the Obama administration is enabling it."
Using another acronymn for ISIS, McCain added, "The cost is not only the lives of many more innocent Syrians, but the continued empowerment of ISIL and diminishment of U.S. credibility and influence in the Middle East."
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
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