Dunford Blames Russia for Syrian Aid Convoy Bombing

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, right, accompanied by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, testifies on Capitol Hill on Sept. 22, 2016, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Andrew Harnik/AP
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, right, accompanied by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, testifies on Capitol Hill on Sept. 22, 2016, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Andrew Harnik/AP

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said Thursday that Russia was responsible for the Syrian aid convoy bombing, even if it was a Syrian government aircraft that dropped the munitions.

Dunford also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. military would not share intelligence with Russia if the cessation of hostilities could be revived, leading to a joint cooperation agreement with Russia on airstrikes.

"We don't have any intention of having an intelligence sharing operation with the Russians," Dunford said. "I don't believe it would be a good idea to share intelligence with the Russians."

In their testimony, both Dunford and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that Russia bore the ultimate responsibility for the bombing of the United Nations humanitarian aid convoy Monday near Aleppo that reportedly killed at least 20 aid workers.

Dunford said that two Russian aircraft were in the area when the convoy was attacked. It was his judgment that the Russian aircraft carried out the attack, but "it was either the Russians or the regime" of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, he said.

"There's no doubt in my mind the Russians are responsible," given the sway Russia has over Assad, Dunford said.

As he has previously, Carter denied that there was friction between the Pentagon and the State Department over the cessation of hostilities agreement that was to lead to coordination between Russia and the U.S. on airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the al-Qaida affiliate formerly known as the al-Nusra Front.

Carter commended Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to "ease the suffering of the Syrian people" and involve Russia in working for a peace settlement but "unfortunately the behavior we see from Russia and Syria over the last few days has been deeply problematic."

The Russian Defense Ministry has denied that its aircraft or those of the Syrian regime carried out the convoy attack. Russia has also charged that an American MQ-1 Predator drone was in the area at the time of the attack, an allegation denied by the U.S.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and the committee's chairman, charged that the crisis in Syria was symptomatic of the failures of the Obama administration's policies in the Mideast, which he called "an unmitigated disaster."

"But thanks to the tremendous talent and dedication of our men and women in uniform, we are making progress," McCain said. Using another acronym for ISIS, he said, "I have no doubt that ISIL will eventually be expelled from its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa. The day of liberation will come later than it should have, but it will come."

Earlier this week at the United Nations, President Barack Obama met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who said the fall of Mosul in northwestern Iraq could come within two months.

Carter said at the hearing that the timing of the final Mosul offensive, using the Qayyarah West airfield about 40 miles southeast of Mosul as a logistics hub, would be at Abadi's choosing.

However, Dunford said a major concern was that ISIS would use chemical weapons to blunt the Mosul offensive. Last week, the U.S. conducted a major airstrike to destroy what U.S. Central Command officials described as a pharmaceutical factory in Mosul that ISIS had converted into a chemical weapons production complex.

At the hearing, Dunford confirmed that examination of an artillery shell fired at Qayyarah, where U.S. troops have been prepping Iraqi troops for the Mosul offensive, appeared to show traces of the blistering agent mustard gas. There were no deaths or injuries in the incident.

"We assess it to be a sulfur-mustard blister agent," Dunford told the committee. "It wasn't particularly effective, but it was a concerning development."

Much of the hearing was taken up with partisan bickering over who was to blame for the budget impasse that will leave the Defense Department without a new spending blueprint for the eighth straight year.

Republicans and Democrats conceded that the fallback will be a continuing resolution to fund the department at current levels, although the length of the continuing resolution has yet to be worked out.

"We're now eight days away from the end of the fiscal year, but instead of stability, we're going into fiscal year 2017 with yet another continuing resolution," Carter said. "That's a deplorable state of affairs."

Republicans have charged that the Obama administration has blocked defense spending increases unless similar increases were made to domestic programs. Democrats have responded that the balance between domestic and defense spending was agreed to by the Republicans in a previous bipartisan budget arrangement.

Sen. Angus King, an Independent from Maine, said that the budget process was being held up by the attachment of questionable riders to the bill to score political points in an election year.

He singled out a rider in the House on whether the sage grouse should be declared an endangered species. King said he recognized that the sage grouse issue was a matter of concern to senators from Western states but said, "That should not be the thing that holds up" the budget.

"The sage grouse is what is stopping the National Defense Authorization Act," King said. "We ought to be clear that what the problem is here is that trying to load on a lot of political baggage to both the appropriations bill and the national defense bill is what has gotten us to this place."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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