ISTANBUL — The city of Aleppo has been one of the most important symbols of the five-year-long uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. For that reason, it is no surprise the Syrian government has been mounting an air and ground assault on Aleppo for the past two weeks in the hope of winning it back. What’s much harder to understand is why the United States has been sending out ambiguous signals about its view of the offensive on the city.
The United States and Russia agreed to a cease-fire in Aleppo on Wednesday, which was supposed to last for 48 hours. While violence has decreased in the aftermath of the agreement, it seems likely to have only delayed the larger struggle for control of the city.
The Obama administration has chosen not to spotlight what by most definitions are widespread and systematic war crimes. On occasion, it blames the Syrian Air Force for bombing hospitals and other civilian targets but rarely discusses Russian violations. It doesn’t even share with the public the rampant infractions of the cease-fire it is overseeing. That’s all classified.
Instead, U.S. officials have repeatedly focused attention on al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. In a series of inaccurate or loosely worded statements, officials have implied Nusra Front has a major presence in Aleppo — assertions that the Russian and Syrian governments could interpret, or exploit, as an invitation to carry on with the bombardment.
The tally of missile, bomb, and artillery attacks on the city suggests that the primary target is civilians, not moderate rebel forces supported by the United States, and certainly not Nusra Front, whose presence in the city by most estimates is modest.
Syrian Civil Defense, the white-helmeted volunteers who say they have saved more than 40,000 people from the rubble after government attacks, published a daily listing of cease-fire violations until April 26, when its own training center in Atarib, west of Aleppo, was the target of a coordinated attack of two air-to-ground missiles and one surface-to surface missile, which killed five rescue workers.
But the group continues its rescue work and monitoring. Between April 24 and May 1, Syrian Civil Defense documented the following attacks in Aleppo: 260 airstrikes, 110 artillery bombardments, 18 surface-to-surface missiles, and 68 suspected barrel bombs.
Three medical centers were bombed out of service in that horrific week: al-Quds hospital, al-Marja Medical Center, and Bustan al-Qasr Medical Center, the group said. Altogether, 189 civilians were killed, including 40 children, and 394 civilians wounded, including 96 children.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group, said that 279 civilians had been killed in Aleppo between April 22 and May 3 — 155 of them in opposition-held areas and 124 in government-held districts.
The Aleppo City Council said Sunday that 65 died at al-Quds hospital; a bakery, a medicines depot, a water facility, three mosques, ambulances, and multiple residential neighborhoods were also hit.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, laid the blame for the escalation at the feet of the Syrian government. “While all sides have contributed to the violence the military escalation was attributable largely to the actions of a singular party: the Assad regime,” she said this week.
But Osama Taljo, a member of the Aleppo council, told Foreign Policy that one of the rebel fighting groups, Tajamu Fastaqim, claimed that the warplane that bombed the hospital was Russian, based on the reports of plane-spotters stationed by rebels near regime and Russian air bases.
The only party that knows for sure the extent of Russian involvement is the U.S. government. But it won’t share its intelligence. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the Russians “are clear that they were not engaged or flying at that time” and said the Syrian government had a track record of bombing rescuers and health care workers. But he didn’t say what the U.S. government has determined from its own intelligence — nor does his spokesman when asked at daily briefings.
“We just continue to not find it helpful to read out every single violation,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on April 28, when asked why the United States didn’t list recorded breaches of the cessation of hostilities. Asked specifically about the prospect that Russian airstrikes were breaching the partial cease-fire the following day, Kirby said that the current period amounted to “a test for the Russians” of their seriousness of adhering to the agreement.
With U.S. aircraft crossing Syrian airspace every day on bombing runs against the Islamic State, “I am 100 percent certain we know who is flying where,” said Christopher Kozak of the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “The fact we don’t want to talk about it is very distressing.”
A senior administration official told FP the information about which air force is bombing which target is classified to protect “sources and methods” of collection. Making it public “would also set a precedent of the U.S. reporting on foreign military activity. Where do you draw the line?”
The U.S. attempts to work with Russia amid the ongoing offensive, however, has damaged its credibility among opposition members.
“How can the international community accept that Russia is one of the countries who monitor the cease-fire while Russia is bombing? How can the criminal become a cease-fire keeper?” Taljo asked.
But there is logic to the silence. The administration “want[s] to work as brokers in the peace process,” setting up local cease-fire arrangements and mediating between the warring parties, said Kozak.
Kozak criticized the U.S government for becoming dependent on the good intentions of Moscow, long one of the Syrian regime’s most important international backers. “It feels very much as if we’ve pinned a lot of hopes on a great power political settlement of the conflict in which we are willing to believe the lies the Russians tell us to our faces in order to make it easier to believe in a settlement,” he said.
The senior U.S. official did not share that negative view of Russian behavior but acknowledged that much of U.S. policy was focused on working with Moscow. “A lot of what we’re trying to do is de-escalation and refocus on positive counter-ISIL actions the Russians could be taking,” the official said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
The Obama administration even appears to have backed off its tentative warnings that it would consider using military force if the cessation of hostilities failed and it determined Russia was insincere in its diplomatic efforts. In February, Kerry referred multiple times to a “Plan B” if peace talks failed, saying the war “could get a lot uglier” for Russia in that event.
But with diplomatic efforts now in tatters and violence in Syria surging back to its previous highs, U.S. officials are denying that they ever had any intention to escalate the use of force. Kirby, the State Department spokesman, last week shot down any thoughts of an alternative to the current track, deriding what he described as a “mythical plan B.”
“Look, what I’m saying is our focus is on the political process,” Kirby told reporters.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, after writer Jeffrey Goldberg revealed in the Atlantic that Kerry repeatedly advised President Barack Obama to stage a show of force in Syria — until Obama announced at a meeting of the National Security Council last December that no one except the secretary of defense should bring him proposals for military action.
American policy baffles allies in the Sunni Muslim world. Turkish officials say Russia’s intervention in Syria upended the battlefield by shifting the balance of power in the Assad regime’s favor, and it has to be righted before there can be a political solution.
But the Obama administration views Russian intervention from a more benign perspective.
There was real concern in Russia “about a potential catastrophic success” by rebel forces in mid-2015, “where Assad collapses, but so do all the Syrian state institutions, and you have even more of a failed state,” the senior administration official told FP. “What Russia has done is return it to the stalemate.”
That perspective, coupled with the U.S. refusal to contemplate the use of force, sets the context for a series of wrong or ambiguous U.S. statements about the role of Nusra Front in Syria.
The first to raise a furor was by Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. Voicing concern that the Assad regime with Russian support was concentrating forces around Aleppo, he added: “That said, it’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, al-Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities. So it’s complicated. We’re watching it.”
Asked by FP to double-check his information, Warren replied that his statement was wrong.
“I was incorrect when I said Nusra holds Aleppo,” he said in an email. “Turns out that our current read is that Nusra controls the northwest suburbs” and other groups control the center.
His remarks, however, had already spread around the world, including on the BBC, Fox News, and Iran’s Press TV.
Humanitarian aid officials in Turkey, who have to negotiate with all the armed groups, were stunned.
“I can find no one who thinks that Nusra is in control, aside from the U.S. spokesperson,” said a top official of one international group that sends food and medical supplies to northern Syria. “Totally inaccurate. They’re the faction with the least presence,” said an aid official, who is in touch with the factions on the ground and the aid organizations providing assistance. He added that Nusra Front had recently set up five checkpoints within the city.
In fact, according to Aleppo officials and rebel sources, moderate rebels, many of them recipients of U.S.-approved covert support, control some 80 percent of Aleppo.
After receiving protests, the State Department issued a disclaimer one week later. “The government of the United States knows that the city of Aleppo is not under the exclusive control of Jabhat al-Nusra, rather it is controlled by diverse groups of the armed opposition,” it said in a statement. “We have good relations with many of these groups, and we support them through different means.” But the statement was issued only in Arabic and made no reference to Warren’s briefing.
But it wasn’t only the Defense Department that highlighted Nusra Front’s role on the ground in Aleppo. Two days after Warren’s statement, the New York Times reported that Kerry told its editorial board Russia might be moving on Aleppo because members of Nusra Front were mixed throughout the region with other groups that oppose the Assad regime. “That has proven harder to separate them than we thought,” he said.
Other State Department officials, in a series of sound bites and imprecise statements, have also suggested that Nusra Front is an important player in Aleppo.
“There is a Nusra presence in Aleppo; nobody’s saying that there isn’t,” a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on April 29. “Our point has always been … [that] neither Nusra nor Daesh, of course, can avail themselves of any of the protections that exist under the cessation.” Daesh is a pejorative Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
To many in the anti-Assad opposition, however, these statements amount to U.S. acquiescence to the destruction of Aleppo. They believe that U.S. officials have repeatedly overstated Nusra Front’s role, emphasizing it to justify the offensive on the city.
According to Taljo of the Aleppo City Council, “Nusra has no weight in Aleppo. To say that Nusra exists in Aleppo is only a pretext to bomb civilians. Nusra is there in the form of small groups, not even military groups, rather they are elements of Nusra who fight in the south of Aleppo and live in Aleppo.”
“For some reason, [the Americans] agree somehow with the Russians that here is Nusra somewhere and the regime is clearing the area of Jabhat al-Nusra,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat, who now serves as a political advisor to the head of the Syrian opposition’s negotiating committee in Geneva.
Whether intended or not, the raging war in Aleppo is convincing some observers that the United States has abandoned the anti-Assad cause.
“The U.S. is almost complicit in what Russia is doing,” said Kozak.
Mousab Alhamadee contributed reporting from Gaziantep, Turkey.
Photo credit: KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images