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Published on September 19th, 2016 | by Derek Davison

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Wayward Airstrike Puts Syrian Ceasefire on Brink

by Derek Davison

A ceasefire that went into effect throughout Syria on September 12 may now be on the verge of collapse. On Saturday, a U.S. airstrike near the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor struck Syrian government forces, reportedly killing 62 soldiers, injuring 100 more, and allowing Islamic State (ISIS or IS) forces to make territorial gains (those gains have since apparently been reversed). This marked the first time since the Syrian civil war began in 2011 that U.S. forces had struck the Syrian army, though Washington has long called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s removal from office. A press release issued by U.S. Central Command said that “coalition forces” had intended to strike at IS, not the Syrian army, and that “the coalition airstrike was halted immediately when coalition officials were informed by Russian officials that it was possible the personnel and vehicles targeted were part of the Syrian military.”

Washington expressed regret for what it termed an “unintentional loss of life of Syrian forces” and said that it would “consider” making condolence payments to the families of those who were caught in the strike. But that sentiment seems to have done little to appease Assad’s government or his Russian patrons. Syria’s state-run SAMA TV station commented that “these attacks confirmed that the U.S. clearly supports the terrorism of Daesh,” using IS’s Arabic acronym, while Moscow called for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council on Saturday evening. That call drew a sharp reaction from Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the UN:

Power angrily denounced the Russian call for the UN meeting as a stunt.

Power said “even by Russia’s standards, tonight’s stunt — a stunt replete with moralism and grandstanding — is uniquely cynical and hypocritical.”

If US-led coalition airstrikes did hit Syrian forces Saturday, it was unintentional and Washington regrets any loss of life, she said before proceeding to list atrocities she said the Syrian regime has perpetuated during the five-year civil war.

“Since 2011, the Assad regime has been intentionally striking civilian targets with horrifying, predictable regularity. They have besieged civilian areas, prevented life-saving aid from reaching people who are starving to death, and dying of illnesses that could be treated with basic medicine.”

Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, called Power’s remarks “demagoguery of the highest order” and appeared to suggest that the U.S. strike had deliberately targeted the Syrian army in order to scuttle the ceasefire:

“It is quite significant, and frankly suspicious, that the United States chose to conduct this particular airstrike at this time,” Churkin said. “I would suggest it is not accidental that it happened just two days before the Russia-American arrangement was supposed to come into force.”

Churkin was referring to the next step in the ceasefire agreement, which calls for the U.S. and Russia to set up a “Joint Implementation Center” (JIC) to coordinate airstrikes against IS and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). The JIC may have been—and may still be—established this week, but Saturday’s airstrike, and the angry exchange between Washington and Moscow, now calls into question whether it will ever be established.

Regardless of what happens with the JIC, however, there have been signs from the beginning that this ceasefire was likely to fall apart. The deal was negotiated between Russia and the U.S. with no input, and very little initial buy-in, from either the Assad government or rebel forces opposed to it. Since being implemented last week, the ceasefire has reduced overall violence, but there have been numerous reported violations—which have been another source of U.S.-Russian tension—and on Sunday Assad’s air force dropped barrel bombs onto four residential neighborhoods in rebel-held eastern Aleppo.

More importantly, there has been little evidence that any progress had been made toward implementing two other key provisions of the U.S.-Russia deal. As of Monday, the Assad government had still refused to allow humanitarian assistance to pass through its siege of eastern Aleppo to reach beleaguered civilians. Despite Russian assurances that the Syrian leader “has been told” to allow the aid in, the UN has yet to receive Assad’s permission to begin bringing aid into the city:

“I am pained and disappointed that a United Nations convoy has yet to cross into Syria from Turkey, and safely reach eastern Aleppo,” U.N. Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien said in a statement…

The convoy was to be the first of two shipments that would feed 185,000 people for a month. A total of 275,000 people are trapped without adequate food, water, shelter and medical care in the rebel-held part of the city, the statement said.

“The United Nations continues to call for unconditional, unimpeded and sustained access to the millions of Syrian men, women and children in hard-to-reach and besieged locations,” he added.

Late last week Moscow said that Assad’s forces were withdrawing from the Castello Road, the main artery into the rebel-held enclave, but rebel forces reported that they’d seen no sign of any withdrawal. That Assad’s forces began bombing the city again on Sunday suggests that he won’t ultimately let in aid and calls into question the degree to which Russia can guarantee compliance with the deal by Damascus.

On the other hand, the U.S. also may not be able to secure buy-in from its would-be rebel proxies. Those rebels have shown little interest in separating themselves from JFS, as they must do in order to avoid Russian and U.S. air strikes, and they appear to have little regard for the United States in general. This was highlighted by an incident that took place last week in the northern Syrian town of Al-Rai:

Video footage appears to show US commandos fleeing a Syrian town under a barrage of abuse and insults hurled at them by fighters from the American-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel group…

The fighters scream anti-American chants as a column of pick-up trucks carrying US commandos drives away from them.

“Christians and Americans have no place among us,” shouts one man in the video. “They want to wage a crusader war to occupy Syria.”

Another man calls out: “The collaborators of America are dogs and pigs. They wage a crusader war against Syria and Islam.”

The FSA fighters working with Turkey in northern Syria, the same rebels that Washington must convince to adhere to the terms of the ceasefire, are angry at the level of U.S. support for the Kurdish YPG militia in northeastern Syria. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that on Sunday Russia began accusing Syrian rebels of “regrouping” in preparation for an offensive in Syria’s Hama province. Such an offensive would certainly doom the ceasefire, though at this rate the ceasefire seems likely to collapse no matter what. There may be a chance to salvage the ceasefire through bilateral talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting this week in New York. But without a new development on that front the chances for an extended cessation of hostilities and for the delivery of humanitarian aid to eastern Aleppo seem slim.

UPDATE: A short time ago, the Syrian army reportedly declared the ceasefire “over.” Although this declaration may genuinely spell the end of the ceasefire, the Syrian government wasn’t involved in negotiating the ceasefire agreement in the first place. Assad’s Russian partners, while blaming the U.S. for the deal’s struggles, have not yet gone so far as to declare its failure.

Photo: Samantha Power, courtesy of U.S. embassy in Ukraine via Flickr.


About the Author

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Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.



4 Responses to Wayward Airstrike Puts Syrian Ceasefire on Brink

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  1. avatar James Canning says:

    I think the attack on Syrian gov’t forces was a terrible blunder.

  2. avatar edding says:

    I not only agree with Mr. Canning, but would suggest that there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that it may well have been intentional – certainly, it was ‘grossly negligent’, to use a term applied to another high profile matter.

    Furthermore, Samantha Power’s response was so outrageous, that one wonders how anyone could have authorized her comments, or the way in which she delivered them with such a lack, and/or ignorance, of the most basic diplomatic protocol. And, if her comments were authorized, what in heaven’s name were her handlers at the State Department or White House thinking?

    More important, why was there no coordination with Russia before this attack? And why was it ordered in this way and at this time, with such a risk of collateral damage, both during the ceasefire test period, and the beginning of the annual UN General Assembly meetings with world leaders.

    I would also suggest that the headline of this article- namely the use of the word ‘wayward’ is a thoughtless, if not disingenuous way, to minimize the responsibility of the coalition for its air strike.

    Finally, I would remind the author that the Russians have had in place a Syrian Reconciliation Center, which, since February, 2016, has not only been helping to coordinate ceasefire and reconciliation agreements between the Government and many villages in which the opposition had been in control, but also in monitoring and documenting any cease fire violations. (And, supposedly a joint coordination center was to have been set up with the United States.)

    So, it would also have been instructive to have mentioned that during this cease-fire test period, some of the terrorist and so-called moderate groups had not only publicly disowned the cease fire agreement, but had violated it at least 300 times.

    I would also note that Kerry waited too long to weigh on this, and now that he has, is blaming the Assad regime, which had stood down during the ceasefire, of violating it. Is that the way to ensure trust with one’s negotiating partners, and lead to a sufficient cessation of hostilities that political negotiations can take place and ultimately succeed? I wonder.

  3. avatar Morteza Jalalvand says:

    The so called moderate rebels have no presence in the Deir Ez-zor (or even more than 100km from it). And after all these years US-led coalition starts to carry out airstrikes in an ISIS – SAA battlefront in favour of SAA and “unintentionally” it attacks SAA positions instead. Positions that SAA has controlled for a long time. And after hearing from Russia that they’re hitting SAA they just return back to base instead of redirecting their fire at now attcking ISIS forces.

    Only a fool would believe this was unintentional.

  4. avatar James Canning says:

    Samantha Power’s denunciation of Russia, in wake of the unfortunate attack on Syrian gov’t forces, was unwise and ill-considered.

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