WASHINGTON Russian air strikes like the one that killed a top Syrian rebel leader last week send the wrong message to groups engaged in a political dialogue to end the conflict and complicate efforts to begin negotiations, the U.S. State Department said on Monday.
Syrian rebel chief Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaysh al Islam who commanded thousands of fighters in the Damascus suburbs, was killed on Friday in an air strike that rebel sources said was carried out by Russian warplanes.
Jaysh al Islam was a participant in the Riyadh conference where Syrian opposition groups agreed on common aims for proposed political negotiations to end the country's civil war and chose a former Syrian prime minister to represent them in the dialogue.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States did not provide support to Alloush's group and had concerns about its "behavior on the battlefield," but noted that Jaysh al Islam had fought Islamic State rebels and was participating in the political dialogue to end Syria's civil war.
"So the strike on Alloush and others in Jaysh al Islam and other opposition groups do in fact complicate efforts to bring about meaningful political negotiations and a nationwide ceasefire," Toner said in response to questions at a State Department briefing. "We need progress on both these efforts in the coming weeks."
"It doesn't send the most constructive message to carry out a strike like that," he added, noting that the United States hoped the attacks would not reverse progress toward negotiations.
Asked if Washington had raised the issue with Moscow, Toner said there had been conversations between the two sides but he was not certain whether that specific issue had been discussed directly.
The U.N. mediator for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, plans to convene representatives of the Syrian government and a broad spectrum of Syrian opposition groups for negotiations in Geneva on Jan. 25.
De Mistura's spokesman announced the timing for the meeting on Saturday, just a day after Alloush was killed. The statement urged participants not to be deterred by developments on the ground.
Toner said the United States would "encourage the opposition to fully participate in this process" and not to be swayed by the air strike that killed Alloush.
(Reporting by Arshad Mohamed and David Alexander; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)