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US Maintains Hands-Off Role in Aleppo Amid New Ceasefire

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, two Syrian soldiers pass by a tank where government forces have captured wide areas in eastern Aleppo, Syria, Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. (SANA via AP)
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, two Syrian soldiers pass by a tank where government forces have captured wide areas in eastern Aleppo, Syria, Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. (SANA via AP)

The top U.S. general for Syria and Iraq said Wednesday the U.S. will do nothing militarily or on a humanitarian basis to hinder the Russian and Syrian regime onslaught against Aleppo or ease the plight of civilians seeking to flee.

Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said it's not his job under current mandates to do anything about Aleppo, and nobody at the White House or in the Pentagon has told him otherwise.

"I've watched Aleppo on TV; it's horrible," Townsend said, "but Aleppo is not in our charter here," which is only to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, even as Russian and Syrian regime actions make the task more difficult.

"The complicator is we have a civil war right next to our war, even overlapping our war against ISIL, or Daesh," Townsend said, using two other acronyms for ISIS.

"But I'm not responsible for what's going on" in Aleppo or the alleged war crimes being committed there, Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon.

"The coalition's not doing that," Townsend said, and "I can't really comment on the withdrawal, or the end is near, or any of that" about Aleppo. "You probably know as much about that as I do.

Harsh Words at the U.N.

With the military sidelined, the U.S. had only words to fling at the Russians.

United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, author of a book on genocide, confronted her Russian counterpart at a U.N. Security Council meeting Tuesday night: "Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit?"

"To the Assad regime, Russia and Iran, your forces and proxies are carrying out these crimes" in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, Power said.

"Your barrel bombs and mortars and airstrikes have allowed the militia in Aleppo to encircle tens of thousands of civilians in your ever-tightening noose. It is your noose -- three member states of the U.N. contributing to a noose around civilians," she said.

As he has in the past when confronted by Power, Vitaly Churkin, Russia's urbane and caustic U.N. ambassador, responded with a mix of personal insults and relative ethics.

He said that Power was acting like "Mother Teresa" and echoed a charge leveled by President-elect Donald Trump against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the campaign -- that the Obama administration is responsible for creating ISIS.

"The weirdest speech to me was the one by the U.S. representative, which built her statement as if she is Mother Teresa herself," Churkin said. "Please, remember which country you represent. Please, remember the track record of your country."

"I wouldn't want to remind this Western trio [U.S, France, Britain] which called for today's meeting and carried it out in a raised voice, about your role in the creation of ISIS as a result of U.S. and U.K. intervention in Iraq," he said.

Disapproving Senators

At least two senior Republican senators said the U.S. had been shamed by indifference to what is happening in Aleppo.

"It did not have to be this way," Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of of the committee, said in a joint statement on Aleppo. "But this is the inevitable result of hollow words and inaction, red lines crossed without consequences, tarnished moral influence, 'leading from behind,' and a total lack of American leadership."

At a testy State Department briefing, chief spokesman John Kirby said there was no positive role for the U.S. military to play in alleviating what he called the "depravities" in Aleppo. He also dismissed the calls of critics like McCain and Graham, who have recommended such measures as a no-fly zone and the protection of "humanitarian corridors" for the evacuation of civilians.

"I'd like them to explain how this is going to end the war faster," Kirby said of the critics. "The only way to solve the war is through a political solution," which Secretary of State John Kerry continues to pursue, he said.

"Facts on the ground indicate that nearly all of Aleppo has been taken by the regime" of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Kirby said. "Everybody's enormously frustrated by where we are; nobody's happy."

Kirby rejected suggestions that what has happened in Aleppo amounts to a moral, diplomatic and military failure for the U.S. "What I disagree with is where the failure lies. Failure is in the belief that this war can be solved militarily. The failure is on the part of the regime and its backers," he said.

He also held out the possibility that international tribunals could pursue war crimes charges against Russia, Assad and Iran. Their actions in Aleppo "should be evaluated for the potential of it being war crimes," he said.

Briefing President Obama

In Aleppo on Wednesday, a temporary cease-fire worked out in Ankara by Russia and Turkey to allow for remaining rebels and civilians in the city's eastern sector to evacuate fell apart quickly. Opposition activists said that the barrel bombs of the Syrian regime and the cluster bombs of the Russians resumed falling.

Another ceasefire reportedly took effect later in the day, CNN reported.

At the White House on Tuesday, President Obama received a briefing from Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, on the situation in Aleppo and the progress of the anti-ISIS campaign. The briefing came in the course of a White House National Security Council meeting that likely was Obama's last on the Mideast and terror threats to the homeland.

A White House statement on the meeting said that Obama "received an update on the unfolding human tragedy inside Aleppo and the terrible violence carried out by the Assad regime with the backing of Russia and Iran."

"He directed his team to take all steps, in concert with allies and partners, to de-escalate the violence, push for humanitarian access, and for an opportunity for those trapped in the besieged city to be allowed a safe egress, if desired," the statement said.

At a later White House briefing, Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the global coalition against ISIS, said that Aleppo was "discussed briefly" at the meeting and pointed to "a very active effort going on to try to resolve this" on the diplomatic front.

McGurk defended the overall administration strategy that tries to avoid U.S. "boots on the ground" in Iraq and Syria and relies on training, advising and assisting local forces backed by U.S. and coalition airstrikes.

"And that's why I mentioned there's another model for doing this," McGurk said. "We can send in the 82nd Airborne [Division] to go in and do all this kind of stuff. We do not think that that would be a lasting, sustainable way to do it. We think what is sustainable, particularly in something as complex as Syria, is advising, assisting, enabling."

McGurk contrasted the U.S. strategy with that of Russia, citing the fall earlier this week of the historic town of Palmyra in eastern Syria after ISIS fighters routed Syrian regime forces backed by Russia as an example of the flawed approach taken by Moscow.

"The Russians have really had one counter-ISIL mission -- they claim to be fighting ISIL -- they've had one counter-ISIL mission and that was Palmyra, and they made a big deal about that," McGurk said. "And ISIL has now retaken Palmyra. In our operations, ISIL has not retaken a speck of ground that we have taken from them."

'Opportunities to Strike That Equipment'

At the Pentagon briefing, Townsend made similar comments about Palmyra while stating that U.S. airstrikes on Palmyra might be necessary unless the Syrian regime can take the town back. He said he was concerned that armor and artillery left behind by the Syrians as they fled could possibly be taken north to aid in the ISIS defense of their self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa.

"They've had a little bit of a victory there," Townsend said of the ISIS takeover of Palmyra. "I expect the Russians and the regime will address it."

If not, "I expect to have opportunities to strike that equipment" left behind by the Syrians, he said.

Townsend said that the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the U.S. and the Iraqi Security Forces with U.S. advice and assistance, are making incremental progress in the campaigns to take Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS, but he strongly suggested that ISIS will still be in control of both cities well into the Trump administration.

"They're still capable of fiercely defending the ground that they're holding; they're fighting hard," Townsend said. "I don't think that's going to get any easier."

In Mosul, the Iraqi Security Forces are running up against what Townsend called a "3D defense." By that, he meant snipers in tall buildings, suicide bombers on the ground, and ISIS fighters in a labyrinth of tunnels.

He said the ISF was taking heavy casualties in the eastern sector of Mosul and he expects the fighting to get tougher once the Iraqis reach the western sector across the Tigris River.

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