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Top U.S. commander skeptical of military cooperation with Russia in Syria

An Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighter waves a flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014.

REUTERS

WASHINGTON D.C. -- The top U.S. commander for the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) said Monday that he is skeptical of any additional military cooperation with Russia in Syria, and that he believes he can get the mission done without it.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said that any decision to cooperate with Moscow is one for the Obama administration to make.

But, “as a soldier, I’m fairly skeptical of the Russians,” Townsend told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Baghdad. “I’m not sure how much I’m inclined to believe that we can cooperate with them.”

Townsend’s comments on Russia reflect a broader U.S. military reluctance to work more closely with Moscow on operations in Syria, despite requests from Russia to the U.S. to join forces against ISIS in Syria. The U.S. is reluctant to cooperate with Moscow because of its alliance with President Bashar Assad; the U.S. is backing rebels who are fighting ISIS but who are also in Assad’s sights.

Last week, U.S. aircraft scrambled twice to protect American commandos because Syrian government warplanes were bombing nearby.

The U.S. routinely speaks to the Russians in order to ensure safe flight operations over Syria and to prevent collisions. In the wake of the Syrian incidents, the U.S. sent its warning message to Syria through the Russians, who have an ongoing, closer relationship with the Syrians.

Townsend, who took command on Sunday, also said he plans to accelerate the pace and scope of the military operations in Iraq, to give the Iraqi forces the time and space to reset and prepare to retake the northern city of Mosul.

As part of that, he said he also will increase the training and equipping of Iraqi forces, including a new effort to provide combat training to Iraqi police. The police, he said, will likely face fighting as they follow Army forces into the cities and try to maintain control of the area and provide security for the citizens living there.

“In this kind of environment, even the police need some combat training like soldiers -- that’s something we haven’t done a lot of,” said Townsend, adding that the U.S. and some coalition allies will do that training.

In a wide-ranging interview, Townsend expressed optimism that ISIS militants will be defeated in their two main headquarters -- Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria -- over the next year. But acknowledging that the battles will be complicated and difficult, Townsend said it may well take the bulk of that year to meet his goals.

ISIS once controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria, and has used Raqqa as the de facto capital of the group’s self-styled caliphate. But the group has suffered a string of defeats in recent months by local forces aided and backed by the U.S.-led coalition.

Townsend said he wants to retake both main cities on his yearlong watch.

“I think we may have to use all that time but, look, I’m a combat commander and I have a mission,” he added. “And I don’t intend to turn this over to whoever has to come behind me. It’s my intent to get it done.”

Iraqi officials have suggested they plan to begin the effort to retake Mosul later this fall, and the fight for Raqqa could also start within that timeline. Townsend’s vow to have both retaken in the next year only underscores how difficult U.S. commanders believe it will be to drive ISIS insurgents from those larger, heavily populated strongholds.