A recent U.S. airstrike on positions of Syrian government forces was either a mistake – or a deliberate attempt to end the ceasefire almost before it started. In either scenario, the new Syrian ceasefire agreement appears to be over.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, sits with United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during the International Syria Support Group meeting in New York on Sept. 20. Photo: AP
On Sept. 17 two American F-16 jets and two attack planes bombed the positions of the Syrian Arab Army, the forces of the Syrian President Bashar Assad in the eastern part of the country, in the city of Deir ez-Zor. Later it was revealed that a number of Australian, British and Danish jets, engaged in the coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), also participated in those air strikes.
The incident claimed the lives of about 62 people and left hundreds of Syrian soldiers injured, according to the report from the officials of Russia’s Defense Ministry. Meanwhile, ISIS militants strengthened their positions in eastern Syria.
Initially, the U.S. denied that the air strikes took place; however, afterwards, they admitted that the incident was an unintentional mistake. The U.S. had already conducted air strikes against the Syrian army in December 2015, which allowed ISIS to regain the positions held by Assad’s forces.
The U.S. strike against the Syrian troops is a very important event, given the fact that the U.S.-Russia Syrian ceasefire agreement came into force on Sept. 12. According to this deal, the opposition and the official government forces were supposed to stop the violence within the country.
Under the new deal, Russia and the U.S. were supposed to shift their focus to the fight with radical terrorists, including the supporters of Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, a Sunni Islamist militia fighting against Syrian government forces in the Syrian civil war. Moreover, Moscow and Washington were supposed to exchange intelligence information, divide the spheres of their responsibilities and together conduct strikes against the radicals.
However, the U.S. attack in eastern Syria reveals some inconvenient facts: the lack of coordination between Moscow and Washington, as well as their serious differences over their ceasefire deal. If it were a provocation, its goal would be to pressure Russia and show that its influence in Syria could be limited. It would imply that, if Washington started supporting the opposition by bombing the Syrian forces, it might change the course of the civil war.
In addition, the Deir ez-Zor incident could be a good reason for the U.S. to withdraw from the Syria ceasefire deal with Russia. After all, Washington might be interested in that course of action, given the fact that the agreement didn’t resolve the contradictions over the list of the Syrian opposition groups that should be deemed as terrorist organizations. The link between radical Islamists and Syria’s moderate opposition might be a weak point of the U.S. in this regard.
However, one should keep in mind that the city of Deir ez-Zor, which was attacked by the U.S., is a sort of enclave and a strategically important point, because it is located at the crossroads of Iraq and Syria.
Because the Assad army primarily occupies the city, it disrupts the normal connection between two parts of the territories in Iraq and Syria that are controlled by terrorists. In fact, the city brings together thousands of Islamists, who are fighting against the Moscow-supported Assad army, the Washington-backed Kurdish forces, moderate opposition and Iraqi troops.
In addition, Deir ez-Zor is the place, where there is a lack of clarity regarding the responsibilities of the U.S. and Russia: It is the point where the Syrian Kurds and Iraqi forces meet. Moreover, the eastern part of Syria is the region that the Americans use to train the so-called New Syrian Army, which was recently defeated by ISIS.
By attacking the eastern part of Syria, the U.S. might seek to take the Syrian-Iraqi borders and prevent Syria from restoring territorial integrity, said Tarek Akhmad, the spokesperson for the so-called secular opposition group, Khmeimim, which agreed to reconcile with the Assad regime under Moscow’s mediation.
Russian and U.S. ambassadors exchanged mutual accusations during the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council called by Moscow. Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin accused Washington of aiding ISIS and shared the details of the U.S.-Russia agreement on Syria – details that were not planned to be disclosed as they could hamper the implementation of the agreement.
According to the consensus reached, Washington would target Jaish al-Fateh (an al-Nusra-led conglomerate of moderate and jihadist groups), separate al-Nusra’s and ISIS territories and, most significantly, coordinate the airstrikes of the U.S.-Russia joint group that was supposed to start working together on Sept. 18.
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“So, if the U.S. wanted to strike Jabhat al-Nusra, they could have waited just two days more and coordinated their actions with our military,” said Churkin.
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power called this a “trick” and a “lie.” So, this barely looks like the basis for effective cooperation. What happened rather illustrates the threat posed to the U.S.-Russia compromise on Syria.
Therefore, there were no grounds to speak about real cooperation and a ceasefire. The separation of al-Nusra from the al-Fateh moderate groups influenced by the U.S. did not happen. American aviation strikes in the zone of the Russian coalition responsibility means that Washington is not ready to recognize already existing zones of responsibility in Syria or considers a “joint operation” against ISIS and al-Nusra to provide it the right to hit any position within the country.
Andrei Koshkin, a military expert and head of the Department of Political Analysis and Sociology at the Russian Economic University, argues that the main reason for the U.S. strike in Deir ez-Zor is Washington’s unwillingness to fulfill the conditions of the agreement.
Moreover, there are reports that militants surrounded in Aleppo are getting ready for a new offensive. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported on airstrikes carried out for the first time since the start of the ceasefire.
Syrian or Russian air forces are most likely to be responsible for these attacks. Even though there was no official confirmation from the Russian military, this is a clear sign that Moscow can also refuse to implement the agreement after the American airstrike and the inability of both sides to separate the moderate and radical opposition groups.
Russian planes have carried out such maneuvers in the past, for example this summer, when they hit the secret supply base of U.S. Special Forces in eastern Syria. So, the Russian military is capable of hampering the U.S. and its allies’ activities on the ground.
“The situation is very difficult and the Russia-U.S. deal on Syria is hanging by a thread. We are not yet ready to admit the failure – everything depends on what the American reaction to the Russian position will be,” says Andrey Kortunov, general director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).
Meanwhile, Koshkin thinks that if Washington – with all its military and political weight – continues to act against the already fragile agreement, the ceasefire will not bring any results.
Rick Francona, U.S. military expert and retired lieutenant colonel, spoke to CNN and said that even though it is not yet clear what has actually happened in Deir Ez-Zor, it may put the implementation of the Russia-U.S. agreement at risk.
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Kortunov also points out that the stakes are extremely high and it makes no sense to achieve one’s interests so irresponsibly. However, it does not mean that this can’t happen as there was the lack of trust between the parties before. As Elena Suponina, advisor to the director of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, noted just a day after the agreement was reached, there was still a great deal of mistrust between Moscow and Washington that needed to be overcome.
If Moscow and Washington fail to come up with a document that would clarify the terms of coordinating airstrikes and the list of groups that can be attacked, the situation will be dire. This will mean that the second ceasefire has ended with no result and that Washington has used the airstrike to exit the ceasefire when it became clear that it had nothing to gain from it.