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U.S. and Russia offer fierce words — but not relief — on Syria attacks

U.S. and Russia offer fierce words — but not relief — on Syria attacks
Syrian children run for cover following a reported airstrike on Kafr Batna, in the rebel-held eastern Ghouta area, on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, on Sept. 30, 2016. (Amer Almohibany / AFP/Getty Images)

The strained relationship between Washington and Moscow deteriorated further Saturday with new threats over Syria but no sign of relief to widespread bloodshed there.

As yet another hospital in the besieged city of Aleppo was reported bombed by Russian or Syrian government warplanes, a senior Russian official warned of “tectonic” consequences if the United States attacked forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The U.S., clearly frustrated and angry at what it describes as brutal, indiscriminate attacks on civilians by Syria and its Russian allies, warned this week it would end cooperation with Moscow over Syria if the violence continues.

Washington would end diplomatic negotiations with Russia over Syria and renege on an offer to share military intelligence if the attacks don’t stop, and would consider “all other options,” the State Department said.

So far, that has been an empty threat. Though portrayed as an urgent ultimatum delivered Wednesday, the Obama administration by midday Saturday had not changed course. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has spoken by telephone to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, nearly every day since.

Still, Moscow reacted angrily to the threat.

On Saturday, Russian news agencies quoted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as warning that U.S. military operations against the Syrian army would trigger "terrible, tectonic consequences" across the Middle East.

A State Department spokesman, John Kirby, had earlier warned that Russia's failure to secure a cease-fire in Aleppo and beyond would lead to Russians going home "in body bags."

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However, the quagmire that Obama administration officials predicted would suck in Russia when it entered the Syrian conflict a year ago has yet to materialize. Russia, which insists it is targeting only jihadist groups, has paid a price for its military involvement, but it has also succeeded in saving the Assad government from defeat, shifting the battlefield dynamic and reasserting its influence in the region.

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Also Saturday, reports from Syria indicated that what rebels called a major offensive was underway, with additional sorties by Russian warplanes attacking supply routes into Aleppo, while Iranian-backed Syrian government ground forces attacked rebel positions in the divided city.

A field hospital in the eastern, rebel-held Sakhour district was bombed and heavily damaged by Russian warplanes, the second such strike in a week, according to the London-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Despite the soaring death toll, including at least 100 children killed in the last week in Aleppo and surrounding areas, the Obama administration has continued to insist that diplomacy still may have a chance.

"If we do walk away from this diplomatic process, … moribund as it is," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday, "what are the options? … Many of them are not good options.

"I agree [diplomacy] is on life support, but it's not flat-lined yet."

Twitter: @TracyKWilkinson

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UPDATES:

12:40 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 5 a.m.

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