US admits not targeting Nusra, blames Moscow for own failure to separate ‘moderates’ from terrorists

The US is not targeting al-Nusra terrorists in Syria because they have become too “intermingled” with moderates and civilians, the US State Department claimed, accusing Moscow of causing the mess which prevents Washington from separating the groups.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov once again stressed in an interview with the BBC on Friday that Washington never delivered on its obligation to separate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (known before the rebranding as al-Nusra Front) and other extremist groups from the so-called “moderate” rebels, to whom the US provides support.

However, this time Lavrov went a step further and implied that Washington has been sparing terrorists in Syria on purpose, should they ever come in handy in terms of potentially overthrowing the government of Bashar Assad.

“They still, in spite of many repeated promises and commitments ... are not able or not willing to do this and we have more and more reasons to believe that from the very beginning the plan was to spare al-Nusra and to keep it just in case for ‘Plan B’ ... when it would be time to change the regime,” the Russian minister said.

The US State Department has dismissed Lavrov’s statements as “absurd”, instead accusing Russia of driving the “moderate” opposition to intermingle with terrorist fighters on the battlefield against the Syrian government forces.

Claiming that the US exerted every possible effort to influence and separate moderates from terrorists, State Departments spokesman Mark Toner told reporters at a daily briefing on Friday, that the “moderate opposition” have been “driven more or less into the arms” and have no other choice but to “turn to Nusra, fight side by side.”

Toner admitted that the US had not targeted al-Nusra for months because its members had become “intermingled” with other groups and civilians.

“We did carry out strikes initially, back in 2014-2015, against Nusra. But absolutely, you’re correct in that, as they became intermingled and as they became intermingled in civilian areas, we’ve always sought to limit the possibility of civilian casualties in any of our airstrikes,” Toner said.

“We wanted to work in a very strategic fashion about how to take out senior Nusra leadership like we’ve done pretty effectively against ISIL. And that doesn’t include just laying waste to populated areas that may be under Nusra’s control,” Toner added.

The latest seven-day truce in Syria brokered by US and Russia expired two days after a US-led coalition airstrike on Syrian army positions near the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) frontline at Deir Ezzor killed over 60 soldiers and allowed for a major jihadist offensive.

On September 19, an aid convoy was attacked while heading to Aleppo. The US was quick to blame Russia and Syria for the attack, demanding that both countries’ air forces operating in the area be grounded immediately. Despite Russia’s demands that an investigation be conducted, according to Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that while a probe might take place, they already “know who did it, namely the Syrian Army or Russia, and that it was Russia's fault in any case.”

Since then, amid intensified military operations in Aleppo, the US has been threatening to cut ties with Moscow in seeking a political solution to the settlement. Bilateral ties are on “life support,” Toner said, adding that “it’s not flatlined yet,” as he urged Russia to end “horrific” strikes on Aleppo.

“If we do pronounce the diplomatic process dead, then what we don’t want to see is an escalation in the violence, and that could very well be the result,” Toner said.

As Russia plans to beef up its aircraft group in Syria, according to Izvestiya daily, CIA director John Brennan has called for further US actions against the Kremlin.

“I think that pushing back against a bully is appropriate,” Brennan told Reuters. “I think that is very different than rushing in and bombing the hell out of a place.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov spoke by telephone for a third straight day, trying to normalize the situation in Aleppo in spite of a diplomatic deadlock.

During the conversation, Lavrov recalled that the previous ceasefire has been “repeatedly violated” by militants in the eastern part Aleppo, which is controlled by al-Nusra, whose members “are preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid and threatening attacks on UN convoys.”

While reaffirming Russia’s readiness to continue to seek a diplomatic solution, Lavrov underscored that the “numerous 'periods of silence,' which have been declared in the past for two or three days, were used by al-Nusra to regroup.”

The “inaction” on behalf of US to separate the rebels, the FM stressed, allowed “Jabhat al-Nusra to take cover behind other armed opposition groups with which Washington collaborates.”