NEW: The top diplomats for the U.S., Russia meet and say they want a negotiated peace in Syria
Russia has carried out airstrikes in support of a Syrian army advance on Aleppo
A top U.S. official accused Russia of helping ISIS with these strikes, by drawing other rebels to Aleppo
As battles continue to rage around the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo, so too does the war of words among two far-away countries involved in the fight – Russia and the United States.
The defense ministry for Russia, which has been lambasted for its own airstrikes in support of a Syrian government ground offensive around Aleppo, turned the tables Thursday with an accusation against the United States.
Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said no Russian warplanes were within 12.5 miles (20 kilometers) of Aleppo on Wednesday, but members of the American-led anti-ISIS coalition were.
“Yesterday, … two A-10 attack aircraft of the U.S. Air Force entered Syrian airspace from … Turkey and, reaching Aleppo by the shortest path, made strikes against objects in the city,” Konashenkov said.
Two U.S. officials, though, denied that any coalition aircraft were near Aleppo on Wednesday.
This kind of back-and-forth between the two global rivals over Syria is hardly new. While they essentially have the same military mission – to combat terrorists, specifically ISIS – Moscow and Washington have been sharply at odds over tactics and targets.
Aleppo, as Syria’s second largest city and an embodiment of the horrific toll of the Middle Eastern nation’s five-year long civil war, has been the most recent and most heated flashpoint.
U.S. envoy: Russia is helping ISIS
Russia boasted of flying more than 510 sorties against nearly 1,900 “terrorist facilities” in the last week alone, with Aleppo being a prime target.
“The terrorists are marching people towards the Turkish border, so that later they may hide among the locals,” Konashenkov said, according a Thursday story from state-run Sputnik news. “The terrorists put down their weapons and try to dissolve in the crowd – they know that Russian warplanes and the Syrian Army would never strike civilians.”
Yet the United States and its allies have characterized Russia as a major part of the problem in Aleppo, blaming Moscow’s assault for cutting off the city (and other towns) from desperately needed food and aid.
Beyond that, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the ongoing Russian strikes – which the United States and its allies claim have targeted not only ISIS, but other opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government despite assurances otherwise – have hurt efforts to “have a serious conversation” on peacefully resolving the conflict.
And on Wednesday, President Barack Obama’s envoy on ISIS accused Russia of helping ISIS. Brett McGurk said that Moscow’s airstrikes forced rebel fighters – who had been battling ISIS further east – to go to Aleppo instead, giving ISIS time to continue its onslaught while killing off some of its enemies in the process.
“What Russia is doing is effectively enabling ISIL,” McGurk testified to Congress, using the Obama administration’s preferred moniker for the Islamic State.
Top diplomats from Russia, U.S. talk Syria in Munich
Yet Russia and the United States both insist they are committed to obtaining peace in Syria. They’re apparently willing to at least try to achieve it by working together – as illustrated by their top diplomats’ meeting Thursday in Munich, Germany.
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were straight-faced as they shook hands upon arrival, before heading off together toward a meeting room.
There, in brief public comments, there was no face-to-face blaming or mentions of Aleppo, specifically.
“At some point in time, we want to make progress on the issues of humanitarian access and ceasefire,” Kerry said. “We’ll talk about all aspects.”
Similar talk came from the Russian side.
“All political issues must be resolved only by Syrians with international mediation,” Russia’s defense ministry tweeted. “Not in trenches, but at (the) negotiating table.”
That said, Russia’s military push in support of its Syrian government allies was blamed for the pre-emptive (and, officially, temporary) “pause” in peace talks earlier this month in Geneva. Syria’s so-called moderate opposition, known as the High Negotiations Committee, refused to even take part until there was an end to what it called a “massive acceleration of Russian and regime military aggression,” the former including “indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilian areas in northern Syria,” opposition representatives said.
Russian state media isn’t shying away from suggesting the offensive in Aleppo and elsewhere will make a difference, with Russia Today citing Middle East analyst Sharmine Narwani as saying the Syrian-Russian advance will change the agenda when talks resume in full later this month in Geneva.
“The shaping of post-conflict political landscapes,” Narwani said, “invariably falls to the victor – not the vanquished.”
CNN’s Alla Eshchenko reported from Moscow, and CNN’s Greg Botelho reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne contributed to this report.