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US signals shift of approach to Syria conflict

September 18, 2015

The White House has confirmed that it will shift gears in its strategy towards the civil war in Syria. The Obama administration has expressed initial interest in proposed talks with Moscow over the matter.

Image: picture-alliance/landov/al-Halbi

The Obama administration has decided to overhaul its failed effort to train Syrian rebels to fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and "Islamic State" (IS) terrorists, officials said on Thursday. Instead of fighting IS in small independent units, the US-trained rebels will be embedded with established Kurdish and Arab forces already engaged against IS in northeastern Syria.

Gen. Lloyd Austin of US Central Command admitted to Congress on Wednesday that the previous approach of training rebel soldiers, for which the US was prepared to pay $500 million (438 million euros), resulted in under 100 troops being trained - and of which just "four or five" were still fighting. The Pentagon has hoped to train as many as 5,000 recruits.

Russia beefs up military aid

The US reassessment came as Moscow stepped-up its military assistance to the Syrian army. Russia has long supported Assad's regime during the civil war that has been tearing the country apart for over four years.

Syrian army officials confirmed on Thursday that they had started using new types of air and ground weapons supplied by Moscow. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that not only had Russia provided the arms, they had also trained Syrian troops in how to use them. He declined, however, to name the specific weapons systems the Russians had provided.

Al-Moallem told state television that Syria would be prepared to ask for Russia to send ground troops if needed. He added, however, that no Russian soldiers were currently involved in fighting in Syria.

On Wednesday, Moscow offered to meet with officials from Washington to discuss military operations that could help defeat "Islamic State" militants while also preventing potential clashes between Russia soldiers and US-trained troops.

After initial hesitation, the White House said Thursday it might be open to such a meeting. US Secretary of State John Kerry said the Obama administration was still evaluating the Russian proposal.

"The White House, the Defense Department and State Department are discussing next steps in order to determine the best way forward," he said.

Assad regime attacks Aleppo

On the ground in Syria on Thursday, Assad's forces continued their campaign against rebel-head areas of Aleppo with a non-stop, 24-hour barrage of barrel bombs. At leave 53 people were killed, 15 of them children and women, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The government in Damascus defended its actions to visiting UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura, saying they were fighting "terrorism."

De Mistura is set to meet with Assad on Friday.

es/sms (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)