Al-Nusra 'not priority', State Department says as terror group shells civilians in Syria
US military efforts in Syria are not directed against Al-Nusra, the State Department said, acknowledging that the terrorist group is a “spoiler” in the efforts to establish a humanitarian ceasefire in Aleppo and beyond.
Acknowledging that Nusra was a designated terrorist organization not included in the cessation of hostilities agreement between the US and Russia, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the US-led coalition against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL or Daesh) has not hit Nusra targets apart from one or two occasions.
“Unilaterally, when we've had information that led us to take action, because of the plotting we knew that they were doing, we did that,” Kirby said.
The US strategy to deal with the group, however, was to establish a Joint Implementation Center with Russia under the terms of the September 9 cessation of hostilities agreement, “by which we would share information with the Russian military designed specifically to cooperate against Al-Nusra,” Kirby said.
This week, Russia paused its joint offensive with Syrian government troops on eastern Aleppo, which is held by an assortment of armed groups, including Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda offshoot. The goal is to allow people wishing to leave the city to do so, including both civilians and militants, who were offered separate corridors to leave Aleppo with their arms.
On Thursday, however, the militants opened fire on civilian evacuation routes, injuring three Russian officers at the El-Masharka government checkpoint, the Russian Center for Reconciliation said.
The State Department spokesman cautiously commended the humanitarian ceasefire arranged by Syria and Russia, calling it “a good sign, but it needs to be deeper and broader and needs to last longer period of time.”
Asked if Al-Nusra’s presence in East Aleppo was an obstacle to the cessation of hostilities, Kirby once again tried to shift the responsibility on Syria and Russia.
“The only thing that stands between where we are now and a permanent and enduring ceasefire in Syria is Bashar al-Assad and his supporters,” Kirby said. “We recognize Al-Nusra as a spoiler, we have concerns about co-mingling, I’ve talked about this ad nauseam.”
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told US Secretary John Kerry that Al-Nusra has been undermining evacuation efforts in Aleppo.
“Lavrov pointed out that not only civilians, but also members of illegal armed groups are given the opportunity to freely leave the city [of Aleppo], but militants violate the ceasefire and prevent the evacuation; [he] reiterated that the United States must fulfill its longstanding promise to separate moderate opposition from the terrorist groups,” the ministry said in a statement following a phone call between Lavrov and Kerry.
Moscow has blamed the failure of the ceasefire on Washington's inability or unwillingness to separate the so-called "moderate opposition" militants from Al-Nusra and other terrorist groups in Aleppo and elsewhere.
Kirby’s claim that the US wanted to set up the JIC to work with Russia against Al-Nusra contradicted his own words from September 16, when he said that the establishment of such a center would be contingent on humanitarian aid reaching Aleppo.
Meanwhile, the top US military official testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month said the Pentagon would not share intelligence with Moscow.
“We don't have any intention of having an intelligence sharing agreement with the Russians,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, told the lawmakers on September 20.