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Russia says U.S. support for Syrian rebels portends wider Mideast chaos

Russia says U.S. support for Syrian rebels portends wider Mideast chaos
This photo made available Monday by the opposition group Ariha Today shows the town of Ariha, in Idlib province, where at least 23 people were reported killed during aerial bombing in which a Syrian warplane is said to have crashed into the town. (Ariha Today / European Pressphoto Agency)

Russian officials warned Monday that the U.S. decision to back allied Syrian rebels with airstrikes threatens to unleash wider chaos and instability in Syria, now in its fifth year of civil war.

Moscow has "repeatedly underlined that help to the Syrian opposition, moreover financial and technical assistance, leads to further destabilization of the situation in the country," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

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Russia is the only European ally of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, and has staunchly opposed foreign involvement in the splintered, multi-front war to oust him that began in March 2011. The opposition forces are now fractured, with some Syrian militias fighting alongside Al Qaeda-aligned forces and others against religious extremists of the Islamic State that control nearly a third of the war-ravaged country.

President Obama announced Monday that U.S. air power had been authorized to protect Syrian rebel fighters who have been specially trained and equipped for the battle to degrade the Islamic State militants. The training program launched in May was envisioned to prepare 5,400 Syrians for the anti-Islamic State mission, but a dearth of volunteers free of extremist links has kept the number of recruits to a meager 60.

An editorial carried by the official Tass news agency quoted Russian political analysts as accusing Obama of authorizing air support for Syrian rebels to cover up the failure of the training mission, whose chief recruiter in Syria has reportedly been captured by Islamic State.

"Obama said the United States would provide defensive fire to support the Syrian opposition for the sole reason he would like to save face in the wake of the utter failure of the program for training Syrian rebels and the arrest of the recruiter," Middle East Institute chief Yevgeny Satanovsky told Tass.

Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs, echoed the Kremlin view that U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war portends a widening and intensifying of the conflict that the United Nations estimates has killed 250,000 Syrians.

"Instead of adopting constructive decisions to counter the threats the expansion of the Islamic State entails, the U.S. president has expressed a poorly hidden intention to send U.S. warplanes to bomb Bashar Assad's supporters," Malashenko said.

Nobody knows whether the U.S.-allied Syrian rebels would be able to take control in the country if Assad were to be ousted, the academic said, raising the likelihood that fulfillment of the U.S. aim to defeat the Assad government would result in an even "more ferocious" struggle for power in Damascus.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Adil Ahmad Jubayr in Doha, Qatar, on Monday in an effort to draft a joint strategy among the most powerful allies of parties to the Syrian conflict.

Malashenko expressed the hope that the senior diplomats meeting in Doha would be successful in identifying "a coordinated approach to suppressing the Islamic State, which is a common adversary for Moscow, Washington and Riyadh," the Saudi Arabian capital.

The United States had refrained from direct involvement in the Syrian conflict until its recently disclosed plan to partner with Turkey to clear Islamic State fighters from a strategic border area of northern Syria, then protect it with air power and allied Syrian rebel forces on the ground.

That plan has drawn criticism from Moscow as a thinly veiled mission to neutralize Assad's air force and air defenses in the hope of enabling the rebels to both contain Islamic State and drive Assad from power.

There are also critics within the U.S.-led coalition, which is waging airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq. The militants have proclaimed a transnational "caliphate" in portions of the two countries and imposed a medieval form of Islamic law.

Those opposed to more direct involvement of U.S. and other Western forces in Syria fear that U.S. warplanes that engage Syrian government forces could be shot down or their pilots captured, ratcheting up pressure on the administration to plunge deeper into the conflict.

Russia has been a key supplier of air defense weapons to Syria, raising the prospect of further damage to the former superpowers' strained relations in the event Russian military equipment is used against U.S. forces attacking Syrian targets.

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