Kerry Calls Out Russia in Bid to Salvage Syria Cease-Fire Deal

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Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a Security Council meeting on Sept. 21, 2016, at the United Nations in New York.

Photographer: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
  • ‘What kind of credibility do you have?’ top U.S. diplomat asks
  • Kerry seeks grounding of aircraft in humanitarian corridors

An exasperated John Kerry called out Russia for its support of Syria’s regime amid the collapse of a cease-fire, accusing Moscow of enabling President Bashar al-Assad to violate the truce intended to let in humanitarian relief and lead to negotiations in the civil war.

Wagging his finger at Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov across the horseshoe-shaped table at the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. secretary of state Wednesday urged Russia to ensure Syria’s compliance with the cease-fire, which the pair hammered out in Geneva two weeks ago.

Kerry demanded that planes be grounded immediately over areas where humanitarian aid would be delivered as a way “to restore credibility to the process” -- a lecture directed at Russia and Syria, the nations flying over those areas.

“How can people go sit at a table with a regime that bombs hospital and drops chlorine gas again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and acts with impunity?” Kerry told a Security Council meeting, setting aside his prepared remarks and his usual dogged optimism in the power of diplomacy. “Are we supposed to sit there and have happy talk in Geneva when you’ve signed up to a cease-fire and you don’t adhere to it? What kind of credibility do you have?”

Russia’s Suspicious Too

Kerry’s remarks highlight a growing U.S. frustration with Russian leaders who have insisted they want the cease-fire to work yet haven’t ensured Assad’s compliance with it. But Russia is similarly distrustful of the U.S., saying it’s protecting Islamic extremist groups allied with moderate opposition forces in the country. Suspicions between the two sides only grew after U.S.-led coalition jets killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers in a strike over the weekend that the Pentagon called an accident and the U.S. said Russia was ultimately to blame for an attack on an aid convoy on Monday.

The unraveling of the cease-fire, the latest effort to halt a humanitarian disaster in the country’s 5 1/2-year civil war, highlighted the difficulties of waging diplomacy in a conflict when so few of the governments involved have any interest in peace. It also demonstrates how the Middle East has moved on from an era where the Cold War powers hold sway over actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, regional rivals much closer to the current conflict.

“The notion that external parties operating with different agenda will somehow be able to impose their will strikes me as, and has always struck me as -- long odds is an understatement,” said Aaron David Miller, vice president for New Initiatives at the Wilson Center and a former adviser at the State Department.

For a QuickTake on Syria’s civil war, click here

Russia’s Defense Ministry responded late Tuesday to allegations that it attacked the aid convoy by releasing drone video that spokesman Igor Konashenkov said “clearly shows terrorists in a pickup truck” with a large-caliber mortar gun accompanied the vehicles in an area near Aleppo controlled by rebels. It’s “unclear” from the footage what happened to the militants later, he said in an e-mailed statement.

Lavrov was more muted in his speech before the Security Council but nonetheless directed his own share of criticism at the U.S., faulting it for not ensuring opposition compliance with the cease-fire and saying it did no good to cast blame for the aid convoy attack without a “thorough and impartial” investigation.

“Russia has always been in favor of a purely peaceful solution to this crisis,” Lavrov said.

Since street protests broke out in 2011 during the “Arab spring,” Syria’s cities and deserts have turned into a battlefield filled with Islamic State terrorists, Kurdish fighters, armed opposition groups of various stripes and military forces from Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the U.S.

For Iran, Assad has offered Syria as a crucial transit route to fund its Hezbollah proxies and serves as a bulwark against the sort of Sunni Islam propagated by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has funded rebel groups and insists that Assad must step down.

Seven Quiet Days

In its current form, the U.S.-Russia deal is supposed to bring seven days of quiet and allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to trapped civilians. Russia and the U.S. would then share intelligence to coordinate air strikes against Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

That plan, which the Pentagon has been wary of, exposes a fundamental flaw of the deal: U.S. promises of cooperation with Russia have raised suspicion among the opposition, which sees Washington as no longer acting in its interests.

Rebel Positions

“The problem with the deal, the reason why it’s viewed suspiciously inside Syria is that it’s seen as favorable to the regime and Russians,” said Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The American role in the Syrian conflict has become toxic” as far as the opposition is concerned, he added.

It was almost exactly a year ago that Russia entered the Syria conflict, deploying its jets to bomb rebel positions. Once on the defensive and losing ground, Assad’s forces now have gained back territory from the rebels, while Russia has won use of an Iranian air field to launch attacks, bolstering its claim to influence in the Middle East.

“This has been a tremendous success for Russia across the board -- I don’t see why they would want to bring this to a close,” said David Schenker, the director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute. “Not only in fighting terrorism, killing Russian jihadis, and reestablishing a role in Middle East, but sticking a finger in the eye of Washington.”

‘Red Line’

Turkish forces are also now pushing deeper into Syria, to create what they call a “safe zone” the size of the Grand Canyon, where rebels can be sheltered and trained. It now controls a 900 square-kilometer (350 square-mile) area inside Syria. That may just be the start, judging by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments this week.

The U.S. has struggled to implement a sustained policy in Syria since the conflict emerged. Initial efforts to arm and train “moderate” rebels cost millions of dollars with little to show for it. President Barack Obama’s declaration of a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces was abandoned in return for a Russian-led deal to remove them from the country, which didn’t stop the regime from allegedly deploying chlorine bombs. And five years after Obama said it was time for Assad to step aside, the administration now only mentions his departure as part of a broader, open-ended political transition.

Kerry’s Legacy

The success or failure of the cease-fire will be tied to Kerry’s legacy. Kerry, whose website touts the 1.3 million miles and 89 countries he has traveled to since 2013, has been a proponent of sustaining talks and making deals, even when the likelihood of success is at best a long shot. In Syria, that hasn’t panned out.

“He really does believe that diplomacy or perhaps the force of his personality is sufficient to create even some political space to improve the situation,” Miller said. “What is lacking in Syria is the ownership by the parties themselves to assume responsibility to care enough about this to take the risks required in order to create that political space.”

Throughout the cease-fire negotiations, Kerry acknowledged that the deal was imperfect but said his motivation for continuing is that the alternatives are worse. He insisted even Wednesday that the cease-fire remained the only way forward.

“When this cease-fire first began a few weeks ago, guess what -- it worked,” Kerry said at the Security Council. “The United States continues to believe there is a way forward. Our shared task here is to find a way to use the tools of diplomacy to make that happen.”

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