Kerry Seeks War-Crimes Probe as U.S.-Russian Ties Crumble

Updated on
  • Strikes part of a campaign to terrorize civilians, Kerry says
  • Security Council meeting fails to reach deal on Aleppo

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry demanded a war-crimes investigation of Russia and Syria for what he called a deliberate campaign to terrorize civilians in the Syrian civil war, in a further sign that already strained ties between the Cold War foes continue to deteriorate.

Kerry said Russia and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad “owe the world more than an explanation” for attacks made to “terrorize civilians and to kill anybody and everybody who is in the way of their military objectives.” He cited a recent attack on a hospital, one of several that has taken place since a cease-fire deal reached Sept. 9 collapsed, killing 20.

“These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes and those who commit these would and should be held accountable for these actions,” Kerry said in Washington on Friday alongside French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. “They’re beyond the accidental now, way beyond, years beyond the accidental.”

Russia immediately rejected the allegations, with the head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament saying no evidence of wrongdoing has been shown.

‘Information War’

“It’s another move in a very aggressive information war that the Americans are conducting against Russia,” lawmaker Konstantin Kosachyov said in a phone interview. “Before you make such serious allegations, some evidence must be presented at least. There is no such evidence.”

Asked for details about the attack that Kerry cited, State Department spokesman John Kirby said he had looked into it and believed it may have been a strike on a field hospital outside Damascus, though he wasn’t sure. Kirby also said the call for a war-crimes probe didn’t mark a change in position and was a reference to a pattern of deliberate attacks against civilians.

“The broader point that he was trying to make is that the Russians and the Syrian regime continue this onslaught on Aleppo,” Kirby said. “This isn’t the first time he’s talked about the fact that these are violations of international law.”

The developments accelerated an erosion in ties between Moscow and Washington that had been under strain since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and seem poised to outlast the end of President Barack Obama’s term in January. A United Nations Security Council meeting Friday failed to reach agreement on a way forward in the Syria crisis. Russia suspended a 16-year-old treaty meant to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation, and Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said the military is revisiting a 2001 decision to close bases in Cuba and Vietnam, nations Washington has been reaching out to.

In an interview with a Danish broadcaster aired on Thursday, Assad also denied authorizing attacks on hospitals and said mistakes are committed in any war. “Giving orders to destroy hospitals or schools or kill civilians, this is against our interests,” Assad said.

Security Council

Ayrault, the French foreign minister, was in Washington after visiting Moscow Thursday as part of a renewed effort to secure a cease-fire in the Syrian conflict. While Friday’s UN Security Council meeting deadlocked, France called for a follow-up meeting on Saturday. French Ambassador Francois Delattre said it’s urgent to stop the “bloodbath in Aleppo,” but his proposal for a grounding of aircraft over Syria was immediately rejected by Russia, which could veto the resolution.

“They’re still pretty far apart and there’s very little trust on top of it, so the prospects of a cease-fire being implemented are slim,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Sept. 9 cease-fire brokered by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov fell apart within days and led to a stepped-up bombing campaign in Aleppo as Assad’s government seeks new gains against rebel groups that occupy the city’s east. European leaders have raised the possibility of new sanctions to punish President Vladimir Putin’s government for the assault on Aleppo.

To date, the 5 1/2 year war in Syria has killed more than 280,000 people and sent millions fleeing to neighboring countries and Europe.

“Civilians are killed every hour,” Delattre said.

Middle East Ties

The Syrian conflict has given Russia, which intervened on Assad’s behalf about a year ago, an opportunity to deepen its commitment to the regime and expand its role in the Middle East. Earlier Friday, Russia’s parliament ratified a treaty that allows Russian forces to remain at an air base in they Syrian region of Latakia for as long as needed, and the country has also been allowed use of an Iranian military facility.

Despite persistent tensions, the U.S. and Russia had been able to cooperate to help restrict Iran’s nuclear program and search for ways to toughen sanctions on North Korea, as well as fight the joint threat of terrorism. The rhetoric this week raised doubts about how long that could go on.

‘Hotbeds of Terrorism’

“Making these accusations in public indicates the Americans don’t intend to cooperate with Russia and they’ll now do anything to create problems for Russia in our efforts to extinguish hotbeds of terrorism,” said Kosachyov, the Russian lawmaker. He added that the failure to continue talks raised the risk of conflict between the U.S. and Russia in Syria, where both have active military operations.

“It has all turned into a full confrontation, with hints of a military dimension,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a research group that advises the Kremlin. “It seems that the Americans are deeply disappointed by what is happening in Syria and do not know what to do.”