MOSCOW – Russian officials accused the U.S. on Thursday of siding with "terrorists" in Syria, in a sign of escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington amid the battle for Aleppo.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby's warning that the collapse of U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria could lead to a rise in extremism and potential attacks against Russia drew Moscow's anger.
The Russian Foreign and Defense Ministries both cast it as U.S. encouragement of terror attacks on Russia.
"We can't assess those statements as anything else but a call, a directive for action," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a briefing.
Defense Ministry spokeswoman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Kirby's statement amounted to "the most frank confession by the U.S. side so far that the whole 'opposition' ostensibly fighting a 'civil war' in Syria is a U.S.-controlled international terrorist alliance."
"What makes Kirby's statement particularly shocking is that the scale of direct U.S. influence on terrorists' activity is global and reaches as far as Russia."
The remarks by Russian officials have shown a degree of mistrust and strain between Moscow and Washington after the collapse of the U.S.-Russia-brokered truce and the Syrian army onslaught on Aleppo backed by Russian warplanes. The growing friction makes it increasingly unlikely that the cease-fire could be revived.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry threatened Wednesday to cut all cooperation with Moscow on Syria unless an onslaught on Aleppo ends.
Kirby, asked what the consequences would be for Russia if cooperation with the U.S. in Syria collapsed, said "that extremists and extremists groups will continue to exploit the vacuums that are there ... which will include, no question, attacks against Russian interests, perhaps even Russian cities, and Russia will continue to send troops home in body bags."
Konashenkov interpreted Kirby's statement as a direct threat to the Russian military in Syria. He said that Russia remains open for dialogue with Washington on Syria, but added that the U.S. needs to "exclude even a hint at threatening our military and Russian citizens."
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Moscow still wants to cooperate with Washington on the Syrian crisis, but blamed the U.S. for a failure to deliver on its pledge under the Sept. 9 agreement to encourage moderate opposition to sever ties with al-Qaida's branch in Syria.
"Our colleagues from Washington have tried to cover up their inability to fulfill their own obligations with verbal attacks on Russia," he said.