Russia has failed to use its influence with the Bashar al-Assad regime to end the ongoing war in Syria, acting instead as a destabilizing force to undercut the U.S. diplomatic mission there, the top American commander in the Middle East said Tuesday.
"Either Russia has to admit that it's not capable, or it doesn't want to play a role in ending the Syrian conflict," Army Gen. Joseph Votel testified before the House Armed Services Committee. "I'm being very serious when I say they play the role of both arsonist and fireman—fueling tensions and then trying to resolve them in their favor."
Votel accused Russia of "manipulating" various factions of the multi-faceted war, including pro-regime forces and Turkish troops, to preserve "their own influence and control over the outcome of the situation."
"I think there certainly has to be more accountability and pressure put onto Russia to do what they said they were going to do," he said.
Votel's comments arrived just hours after a Russian-ordered ceasefire in the besieged Syrian enclave of eastern Ghouta collapsed. President Vladimir Putin's call for a five-hour "humanitarian pause" went unanswered as government forces resumed bombings after a brief hiatus.
The Russian military is closely allied with Syrian government forces and has repeatedly accused the United States of supporting al Qaeda-affiliated militants in a surreptitious effort to oust Assad.
As the Islamic State faces inevitable defeat in Syria, Votel said Moscow deserves zero credit for toppling the militant group's territorial holdings. He said Russia's focus on destroying anti-regime forces has placed coalition progress against ISIS "at risk."
"I really view Russia as being at the heart of many of the issues here," Votel testified, later saying it's clear that Moscow's interests in Syria are "not necessarily the broader objectives of the international community."
When pressed about U.S. military efforts to counter Iranian influence in Syria, Votel said the coalition's sole mission remains the defeat of ISIS. Though he later noted the coalition's relationship with local players, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces, will help to "impede Iran's objectives of establishing lines of communication" from Tehran to Beirut.