Kerry Seeks to Keep Syria Truce Alive After Renewed Bombing

  • Humanitarian aid only just started flowing, Kerry says
  • Syria’s military blames opposition groups for failed truce

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday it was too early to declare a one-week-old Syrian cease-fire deal dead even as reports emerged that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched fresh attacks on the city of Aleppo and targeted humanitarian aid convoys in the wake of a U.S.-led bombing that killed scores of his troops.

Kerry, who announced the latest accord with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva Sept. 9, said the onus was on Moscow to rein in Assad’s forces. The cease-fire deal went into force last week and was supposed to pave the way for the U.S. and Russia to cooperate on targeting Islamic extremist groups in the country.

“We need to see what the Russians say, but the point, the important thing is the Russians need to control Assad who evidently is indiscriminately bombing, including of humanitarian convoys,” Kerry said in New York before a meeting with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef. “We need to see where we are and then we’ll make a judgment but we don’t have all the facts at this point."

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The remarks suggested a more downbeat outlook after Kerry had insisted earlier in the day that the cease-fire was holding and humanitarian goods had begun to flow into the Aleppo area after days of delay. In the subsequent hours, Syrian state television cited the country’s military as saying the cease-fire had ended, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian or Russian jets had targeted Aleppo more than 35 times, including by hitting aid convoys.

After sporadic violations in recent days, the deal suffered a grievous blow over the weekend when U.S.-led coalition planes struck a Syrian army base, killing 62 soldiers and wounding more than 100 more. Russia then called the deal “meaningless” because the U.S. had been unable to influence moderate opposition groups in the country.

The U.S. and Russian accord had sought to bring seven days of calm and fresh relief to civilians in the besieged city of Aleppo. After that, their goal was for Moscow and Washington to begin an unprecedented joint effort to coordinate air strikes on Islamic extremist groups in Syria while grounding Assad’s air force in those areas.

Serious Blow

In a call with reporters on Monday night, two senior Obama administration officials put the blame for the attack on the aid convoys on Russia even if it had no direct role, saying Moscow’s job as part of the deal was to ensure Syrian compliance.

The officials, who asked not to be identified discussing matters of national security, said the attacks dealt a serious blow to U.S. efforts to achieve peace in Syria. They said the U.S. would consult with regional allies and Russia and added it was up to Russia to salvage the deal.

For the agreement to enter the next phase, which includes military coordination between the U.S. and Russia, State Department spokesman John Kirby said that humanitarian aid flows must increase and the cease-fire must hold for seven days. He said the U.S. was willing to extend the cease-fire despite the statement from Assad’s government.

Previous Efforts

As the Obama administration has acknowledged, the deal was always going to be hard to implement. Numerous previous attempts to halt the violence -- including a partial cease-fire struck in February -- have broken down. On multiple key issues, including whether Assad should even remain as head of state, the U.S. and Russia don’t agree.

The U.S. says Russia, by carrying out air strikes for Assad’s government, is deliberately targeting moderate opposition groups. Russia, on the other hand, accuses the U.S. of protecting terrorist groups that are mingled in with the moderate opposition, such as al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

The strike on the Syrian government forces in Deir Ezzor on Saturday revealed just how little trust remains between the two sides. While the U.S. said the strike was an accident, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said it was evidence the U.S. was ready to back even Islamic State to further its goal of regime change in Syria. Russia intervened with an air campaign in 2015 in support of Assad, whom rebel groups backed by the U.S. are trying to dislodge from power.

Citing Syria’s armed forces, the state-run SANA news agency said Monday the cease-fire was supposed to provide a real chance for peace but terror groups “blew up the agreement.” The report said the groups used the truce to mobilize their forces, and the military had made “unremitting efforts” to implement the deal even though the opposition violated it 300 times.

Kerry showed clear exasperation with the statement on Monday morning when he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“We have not had seven days of calm and of delivery of humanitarian goods,” Kerry said. “It would be good if they didn’t talk first to the press but if they talked to the people who are actually negotiating this.”

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