The moves could allow Russia to control a large section of Syria's western border with Turkey
U.S. intelligence indicates the Afrin Kurds are working with the Russians to attack moderate opposition groups
The Russian military has used the time while Moscow and Washington hammered out a ceasefire in Syria in recent weeks to take key territory that could dramatically increasing Russia’s influence in the country, according to U.S. officials.
The moves could allow Russia to control a large section of Syria’s western border with Turkey, raising critical questions about how reliable allies the groups inside Syria that the U.S. is supporting remain, the officials said.
“The Russians have used the last three weeks to press their position,” a U.S. official said. This maneuvering is now leading to “general suspicion about Russia in the short term” and questions inside the administration about whether Moscow will fully back the ceasefire agreement.
A significant public indication of the concern came in a statement from the British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond before Parliament.
“What we have seen over the last weeks is very disturbing evidence of coordination between Syrian Kurdish forces, the Syrian regime and the Russian air force, which are making us distinctly uneasy about the Kurds’ role in all of this,” said Hammond.
U.S. officials said they are watching closely for signs the Russians are not only joining forces with Afrin Kurds in the west, but other Kurdish groups in eastern Syria that the U.S. supports for their fight against ISIS.
For now, that support is expected to continue as long as the Kurds fight ISIS.
U.S. intelligence indicates the Afrin Kurds are working with the Russians to attack moderate opposition groups that the U.S. is supporting, two additional U.S. officials told CNN.
As those Kurds push eastward, other Kurdish group are pushing west. The result is they are all close to being able to control the border in the coming weeks, officials said. While that could keep ISIS from coming into Syria from Turkey, it also cuts off a route from Aleppo for civilians currently under siege who might still be trying to escape north.
All of this has raised the question at the White House of what happens if the ceasefire fails due to lack of Russian support.
The U.S. won’t cut support for Kurds fighting ISIS or give up on trying to get Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of office. But there could be additional sanctions against Russia, as well as an effort to make more information public about Russia’s bombing of civilians.
Officials said one of the reasons a “Plan B” idea is already being discussed inside the administration is skepticism among the Pentagon leadership, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, that the Russians will quickly and fully comply.
Evidence of that, officials said, is the recent solidification of Russian military positions and influence in key towns like Qamishli along the eastern border with Turkey and other town southwest of Raqqa.
In the face of Russian maneuvering, U.S. officials are concerned other countries could be developing their own military options for helping moderate opposition groups.
In particular, officials said they are deeply opposed to the possibility of Persian Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia putting man-portable anti-aircraft missiles into the hands of the opposition because it will not only escalate hostilities, but those weapons could find their way across the border into Turkey, posing a threat to European aviation.