- Activists say first strike on city since Sept. 12 cease-fire
- U.S.-Russia efforts in crisis after mistaken Coalition attack
Warplanes hit the Syrian city of Aleppo for the first time since last week’s cease-fire, further straining the fragile truce following a mistaken air strike by U.S.-led coalition forces that killed 62 government troops.
Unidentified planes fired four missiles at targets in Aleppo on Sunday, causing injuries with no immediate reports of deaths, the U.K.-based opposition monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mail. Russian and Syrian warplanes had been striking rebel positions in and around the city in the run-up to the cessation of hostilities agreed to by Moscow and Washington on Sept. 9.
The reports of renewed air strikes in Aleppo came as Russia accused the U.S. of “criminal negligence” or even direct support for Islamic State after coalition aircraft bombed a military base in the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor besieged by the terrorist group on Saturday. As tensions mounted, Russia also warned the U.S. that the cease-fire agreement was at risk unless it pressures rebel groups to respect it.
Russia intervened with an air campaign in 2015 in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom rebel groups backed by the U.S. are trying to dislodge from power.
Russian officials have blamed the Obama administration for not stopping cease-fire violations by insurgent groups, and the U.S. accused the Syrian government of blocking humanitarian supplies. Washington and Moscow are due to start coordinating strikes against Islamic State and an al-Qaeda wing in Syria if the agreement holds for seven days.
The defense ministry in Moscow said U.S.-led coalition aircraft, two F-16 and two A-10 warplanes, entered Syrian airspace from Iraq and struck the air base four times, also wounding 100 soldiers. The coalition carried out an air strike south of Deir Ezzor, targeting an Islamic State position it had been tracking for some time, according to U.S. Central Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. As soon as Russia informed the U.S. that the attack may have hit the Syrian military, the strike was halted.
The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting in New York on Saturday at Russia’s request. Moscow demanded U.S. explanations for the first attack by the coalition on Syrian government forces in that nation’s civil war.
“Syria is a complex situation with various military forces and militias in close proximity, but coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known Syrian military unit,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement. “The coalition will review this strike and the circumstances surrounding it to see if any lessons can be learned.”
Australian planes were among a number of international aircraft taking part in the coalition operation, the Defense Force said in an e-mailed statement.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power told reporters outside the Security Council meeting that the U.S. regrets the attack and is investigating. She called the emergency meeting a “grandstanding” stunt by Russia. Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, walked out of the meeting, saying he was leaving in protest at Power’s comments.
Russian warplanes intervened to help Syrian forces repel advances by Islamic State fighters outside of Deir Ezzor after the U.S.-led attack, Russia’s defense ministry said.
Deir Ezzor is about 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Raqqa, the capital of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, which is the target of a U.S. military campaign with the involvement of Kurdish-led ground forces.
Even before the incident the U.S. and Russia were at loggerheads. President Vladimir Putin said the U.S. side can’t distinguish between terrorists and the moderate opposition and this is a dangerous path, adding that extremists are using the truce to regroup and maintain their military readiness. A senior Russian military official, Lieutenant General Viktor Poznikhir, complained that the Syrian government has done everything required from its side, warning that the U.S. will “carry the responsibility” if the truce collapses.
The UN has criticized the Syrian authorities for withholding permission for an aid convoy to the besieged rebel-held part of the city of Aleppo, where some 300,000 civilians are trapped. Russian officials say the insurgents haven’t complied with an agreement to withdraw from the main artery into Aleppo, meaning Syrian army forces haven’t been able to pull back either.
The cease-fire is the latest effort by Russia and the U.S. to ease the 5 1/2-year conflict in Syria. They agreed in Geneva on Sept. 9 that the truce should lead to the establishment of a joint coordination center to fight terrorist groups in the Middle East country, a resumption of peace talks, and provision of humanitarian aid. The war has killed at least 280,000 people and caused millions to flee, provoking the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II and helping to create a haven for Islamic State to conduct a global terror campaign.