U.S. and Russia Play Blame Game Over Syria Cease-Fire Breaches

U.S. and Russia Play Blame Game Over Syria Cease-Fire Breaches

In an uncharacteristically testy speech before the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry blamed Russia for wrecking an already shaky cease-fire in Syria by launching airstrikes Monday at a U.N. convoy and then suggesting that either the aid trucks had “spontaneously combusted” or been attacked by rebels.

“This attack has dealt a very heavy blow to our efforts to bring peace to Syria, and it raises a profound doubt about whether Russia and [Bashar al-Assad’s] regime can or will live up to the obligations that they agreed to” in order to implement the cease-fire, Kerry said, sitting across the table from his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, during a high-level Security Council debate.

The session, hosted by the Security Council’s current president, John Key of New Zealand, was initially intended to address the deepening humanitarian crisis in Syria. But it quickly devolved into a big-power brawl between Kerry and Lavrov over who should bear the blame for the apparent collapse of a Sept. 9 cease-fire.

Lavrov said the Syrian opposition violated the terms of the cease-fire at least 300 times, and he said opposition units failed to withdraw their forces from a vital road leading into besieged Aleppo. He called the accidental U.S.-led coalition bombing Saturday of Syrian troops a “clear violation” of the cease-fire. Lavrov also said Syrian and Russian forces would not silence their guns until the opposition did the same.

“There won’t be any unilateral pauses,” the Russian diplomat said.

Kerry fired back, saying that Lavrov’s account of the breakdown in the cease-fire was far-fetched.

“I listened to my colleague from Russia, and I sort of felt a little bit like they’re sort of in a parallel universe here,” Kerry said.

But whatever doubts he may harbor about the trustworthiness of his diplomatic sparring partner, Kerry made one thing crystal clear: Russia remains essential to any American hopes of seeing an ease in the violence in Syria before President Barack Obama leaves office next January.

“The cease-fire, as troubled as it is, gives us the best chance available to bring relief to the people of Syria,” Kerry said. “I emphasize this to Russia: The United States continues to believe there is a way forward that, although rocky and difficult and uncertain, can provide the most viable path out of the carnage.”

Kerry asserted that there is still time to salvage the agreement but that Syria and Russia need to halt flying in areas where the cease-fire is intended to take effect. “I believe that to restore credibility to the process, we must move forward to try to immediately ground all aircraft flying in those key areas in order to … give a chance for humanitarian assistance to flow unimpeded,” he said.

Following Kerry’s remarks, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the main Saudi-backed coalition of Syrian opposition groups, welcomed his call to ground the Syrian air force but said the demand needs to be backed up with the threat of military force.

“The only way to ensure that Russia and the Assad regime halt their brutality is through a clear, public guarantee that indiscriminate killing of civilians will trigger limited retaliation against Syrian regime targets — a no-bomb zone,” said Bassma Kodmani, an HNC spokeswoman, in a statement. “Such a guarantee must apply not just to certain areas in Syria, but all of Syria.”

The Obama administration has not supported punitive strikes against the Assad regime for its atrocities against civilians, which would amount to a major U.S. escalation in the conflict.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who at Wednesday’s debate called the attack on the U.N. convoy an “outrage,” also backed the U.S.-Russian cease-fire accord as the best opportunity to calm the violence in Syria. He instructed the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to restart stalled political transition talks between the Syrian government and opposition “as soon as possible.”

In his tongue-lashing of the Russians, Kerry noted that there is powerful evidence implicating Russia in Monday’s attack on the aid convoy, and he urged Moscow to assume responsibility.

One eyewitness, Kerry said, saw warplanes in the sky just as the trucks came under attack. “That’s an eyewitness report — the place turned into hell, and fighter jets were in the sky,” he said. Kerry also cited another incident Tuesday night, in which a medical facility near Aleppo was hit by airstrikes, killing four aid workers. “There are only two countries that have airplanes that are flying during the night or flying at all in that particular area: Russia and Syria,” he said.

Kerry pressed Russia to assume responsibility for the attack, noting that the United States had owned up immediately to its role in the mistaken strike on Syrian forces. “We said, yeah, it’s a terrible thing, it happened. Defense Department apologized, and we tried to find out how that happened,” he said. “I really want the key here to be an acceptance of responsibility to change this equation by everybody here.”

Diplomats gathered at the U.N. are still trying to conjure up a brokered political solution to the conflict, which has dragged on for more than five years, cost more than 400,000 lives, and displaced millions of people.

During the Security Council meeting, de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy, outlined a five-point “draft framework” for a political transition that he hopes to present to the warring parties, with the ultimate goal of coaxing them into their first direct talks since the war began in March 2011. Any viable plan, he said, would require that all parties agree to a genuine power-sharing arrangement. The government, he added, must accept a “genuine devolution of power and not just the absorption of the opposition into the government as it currently exists.” For its part, the opposition would have to accept that Assad will not likely step down before the transition is complete.

Despite the horrors, he is “pleasantly surprised” by the degree of convergence so far on basic “governing principles” for a future Syrian government, he told the gathering of prime ministers, presidents, and ministers in the U.N. Security Council. “I know,” he conceded, “it sounds like a dream, but that’s the plan.”

Kerry said the best way to stem the suffering is for the cease-fire to take hold and for the warring parties to sit at the peace table with de Mistura. But he expressed concern that may be impossible if the violence doesn’t stop.

“How can people go sit at a table with a regime that bombs hospitals and drops chlorine gas again and again and again and again and again and again and acts with impunity?” he asked. “Are you supposed to sit there and have happy talk in Geneva?”

FP senior reporter John Hudson contributed to this report.

Photo credit:FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images