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White House Cautious on 'Fragile' Syrian Cease-Fire

Syrian refugees walk after a failed attempt to reach the Greek island of Lesbos on Thursday. (Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House is playing a long game in Syria amid a fragile cease-fire, but critics say its patient approach is emboldening Russia.  

Obama administration officials are both pleased with and cautious about a six-day-old cessation of violence agreement in the civil war-torn country.  

They are encouraged that the Syrian government and Russian militaries have allowed convoys to deliver humanitarian assistance to citizens. But they are not yet convinced that Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin’s forces are fully abiding by the pact. There is evidence of “significant changes in the level of violence” there, said a senior administration official, who added things are going “better than most would have expected.”  

Yet, the senior official called the partial ceasefire “far from perfect.”  

Under terms of the pact, brokered by the United States and Russia, opposition forces and those controlled by Assad and Putin agreed to stop fighting one another. The agreement, however, does allow U.S., Syrian and Russian forces to continue attacking the Islamic State and other violent extremist groups.  

Administration officials who briefed reporters this week acknowledged that could allow Syrian and Russian forces to take some shots at opposition targets while claiming they intended to hit ISIS. They say there already have been “some” violations of the pact.  

That’s why, the officials said, U.S. and other leaders must keep up “pressure” on the Assad regime and Moscow to live up to the terms to which both sides agreed.  

The White House is trying to manage expectations about what is possible in Syria, with one official telling reporters it “may be the most complicated” cessation of violence ever attempted.  

Staffan de Mistura of the United Nations, speaking at a meeting of a global group formed to find a political solution for Syria’s civil war, called the partial cease-fire “fragile.”  

"In general, the cessation has been holding," he said. “Unfortunately, we have to admit, like in every cessation of hostilities or ceasefire — and in particular this one — there are still a number of places where fighting has continued, including parts of Hama, Homs, Latakia and Damascus, but they have been contained.”  

But the Obama administration’s Republican critics on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail see the partial cease-fire as playing into Putin’s hand.  

“We know why Mr. Putin agreed to a cessation of hostilities when he did and it's no accident that he violated that agreement when he did,” Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said this week.  

“This is the same movie we've been watching in Ukraine for two years,” McCain said. “Russia presses its advantage militarily, creates new factions on the ground, uses the denial and delivery of humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip, negotiates an agreement to lock in the spoils of war, and then chooses when and where to resume fighting.”  

He dubbed the administration’s approach “diplomacy in the service of military aggression” that means “Putin has been learning that military adventurism pays.”  

GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump has said he would consider inserting ground troops in Syria to fight ISIS. He also has talked about doing something else the administration, so far, has avoided: creating a “safe zone” inside the country for Syrian residents displaced by the civil conflict.  

“The Gulf states who are not spending any money and they are as rich as can be, they should build a safe zone,” Trump said in late November.  

If elected, Trump said he would “take a big piece of land in Syria -- and they have plenty of land, believe me -- build a safe zone for all these people because I have a heart.”  

But there is discord among Republicans about how to deal with ISIS and the situation in Syria.  

For instance, Trump has advocated allowing the violent extremist group to oust Assad. But in a highly touted speech in which he declared the billionaire real estate mogul unfit for the White House on Thursday, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney harshly criticized Trump’s Syria plan.  

Romney said it "has to go down as the most ridiculous and dangerous idea of the campaign season.”  

"Think about that: Let the most dangerous terror organization the world has ever known take over a country?” Romney said. “This is recklessness in the extreme."  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT. Related: Saudi, UAE Forces Likely Too 'Stretched' to Fight Islamic State See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.