WASHINGTON – Terrorists, criminals and foreign fighters are part of the daily refugee flow into Europe, heightening the potential for an attack, the top NATO commander in Europe told lawmakers Tuesday.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove said the Islamic State extremist group is “spreading like a cancer” within this mix, “taking advantage of paths of least resistance, threatening European nations — and our own.”
Breedlove said Russia’s actions in Syria have “wildly exacerbated the problem.” Despite its public pronouncements, Russia has done little to counter the Islamic State but has bolstered Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Russia and Assad, Breedlove said, are using migration as a weapon to overwhelm European support structures and break European resolve. He cited the use of barrel bombs, which are unguided weapons and have no military value, against civilians in Syria.
The only purpose of these indiscriminate attacks is to terrorize Syrian citizens and “get them on the road,” Breedlove said.
In addition to the dangers posed by terrorists in the refugee mix, Breedlove warned that opposition from local nationalists in Europe to the large influx of refugees could lead to violence.
Breedlove warned US lawmakers that Russia is helping Assad turn the refugee crisis into a “weapon” against the West.
Breedlove, the supreme allied commander in Europe for the 28-member military alliance who also heads the U.S. military’s European Command, said the massive flow of migrants from war-torn Syria has had a destabilizing effect on European countries they are fleeing to, and that worked to Moscow’s advantage.
“Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve,” Breedlove told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Speaking of Russia’s six-month air campaign in support of Assad, and the Syrian leader’s use of barrel bombs in civilian areas, Breedlove said Moscow and Damascus are deliberately fueling the mass displacement of Syrians.
“These indiscriminate weapons used by both Bashar al-Assad, and the nonprecision use of weapons by the Russian forces, I can’t find any other reason for them other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else’s problem,” Breedlove said.
Breedlove, who was due to brief Pentagon reporters later Tuesday, is in Washington partly to drum up support for a proposed sharp increase in money available to U.S. forces in Europe.
The coming year’s budget includes $3.4 billion — quadruple last year’s amount — for the so-called European Reassurance Initiative.
The four-star general also accused Russia of posing a growing threat to the United States itself.
“Russia has chosen to be an adversary and poses a long-term existential threat to the United States and to our European allies and partners,” Breedlove said.
“Russia is eager to exert unquestioned influence over its neighboring states in its buffer zone … so has used military force to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, Georgia and others, like Moldova.”
He said that in the last week, the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine had gotten reports of 450 attacks along the front lines in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels oppose Kiev’s pro-Western leadership.
“The report from the ambassador is there are several disturbing trends in those attacks and that is that some of them are now happening in places that were heretofore quiet,” Breedlove said.
“Russia will dial up and down the pressure along the line of contact, to keep Kiev under pressure.”
More than 9,000 people have died during the Ukrainian government’s 22-month war against pro-Russian insurgents in the former Soviet state’s industrial east.