• Republicans at a House hearing decry `ineffectual' responses
  • Russia exacerbating Syrian refugee crisis, officials say

U.S. lawmakers assailed the Obama administration for its response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertiveness abroad, calling for a more active role and a clearer strategy in Syria and Ukraine.

“Through it all, the administration’s response has been tepid” and “ineffectual,” Representative Ed Royce, the California Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a hearing of the panel on Wednesday.

Millions of Syrians have been driven from their homes since the civil war there began in 2011, and refugee flows have only increased since Russia’s intervention to help President Bashar al-Assad.

Lawmakers also renewed their questions about the U.S. decision not to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons to counter Russian-backed separatists in the face of what Republican Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama called overwhelming congressional support.

Ex-Official’s Criticism

The criticism came hours after a former Pentagon official, Evelyn Farkas, signaled that debate continues within the administration about how best to push back against Putin. Farkas, who left her post as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia last week, said she was among those advocating for the U.S. to send “lethal, defensive assistance to Ukraine, primarily anti-tank weapons.”

She told a breakfast gathering of defense writers that Russia could try to “counterbalance” the U.S. geopolitically in other parts of the globe and urged better efforts to understand Putin’s objectives. She also said Russia’s recent push to start diplomatic efforts on Syria may reflect its concern about its involvement turning into a quagmire.

Lavrov’s Plea

In Moscow on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged world powers to identify which Syrian groups would be invited to proposed talks brokered by the United Nations and which would be excluded as terrorists.

Russia and Iran, both backers of Assad, participated in an Oct. 30 meeting in Vienna where world powers issued a communique setting out steps toward a political settlement of the conflict. Russia has agreed to a general framework that calls for a ceasefire, constitutional reform and elections, Assistant Secretary Anne Patterson, the State Department’s lead official on the Middle East, told the House hearing.

At that stage, the U.S. and its allies want to see Assad go, Patterson and Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, told the lawmakers. Nuland said Kerry speaks with Lavrov almost every day in an effort to further the efforts for an accord.

Patterson said any final agreement would “absolutely not” allow Assad to stay. “But it might entail some negotiation on a timetable for his departure,” she said.

Nuland said Russia is spending an estimated $2 million to $4 million a day on its Syria campaign despite the country’s economic difficulties. “In a country like Russia where there’s only one prime decision maker, if Russia chooses to make this a priority over the welfare of its people, it could go on,” she said of Putin.

The officials said the U.S. will continue airstrikes with the coalition of more than 60 countries fighting Islamic State, which controls a swath of Syria and Iraq.

Asked about press reports that half of Syria is now under the militant group’s control, up from one-third a year ago, Patterson said, “They may control more land territory, but certainly there have been successes.” She said Islamic State is “now cut off from all but 68 miles of the nearly 600-mile border between Syria and Turkey.”

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