Washington Scrambles to Save Syria Cease-Fire Amid Escalating Violence

Damascus tore up the cease-fire, but Washington can’t let go of its last chance to try to do something good in Syria.

NEW YORK, NY. - SEPTEMBER 19: U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry delivers a speech during the Economic and Social Council Chamber high-level meeting within UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants at the United Nations General Assembly headquarters in Manhattan, New York, USA on September 19, 2016. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY. - SEPTEMBER 19: U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry delivers a speech during the Economic and Social Council Chamber high-level meeting within UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants at the United Nations General Assembly headquarters in Manhattan, New York, USA on September 19, 2016. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The United States fought on Monday to salvage a troubled Syria cease-fire pact it brokered just a week ago with Russia, as Syria’s warring parties accused one another of violating key provisions of the accord and broached the possibility of a return to the battlefield.

The U.S. effort came against a backdrop of increased violence in Syria, with Damascus, for its part, declaring the cease-fire virtually dead. The Syrian military said it planned to end the truce, citing what it claimed were 300 cease-fire violations by armed “terrorist groups,” Reuters reported. The Syrian army, according to the report, vowed to “continue fulfilling its national duties in fighting terrorism in order to bring back security and stability.”

Syrian government jets allegedly launched dozens of airstrikes in and around the city of Aleppo on Monday, including a deadly attack on a convoy of Red Crescent aid trucks, according to a Syrian monitoring group.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed Syria’s rejection of the cease-fire, saying Russia had an obligation to bring its client into compliance with the deal it struck with the United States. In New York, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States was not prepared to give up on the cease-fire agreement and said Washington is seeking clarification from Moscow on the position of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“We are prepared to extend the cessation of hostilities while working to strengthen it and expand deliveries of assistance,” Kirby said in a statement. “We will be consulting with our Russian counterparts to continue to urge them to use their influence on Assad to these ends.”

However, a senior U.S. official conceded that the increased violence in the country, in particular, the attack on the aid trucks, “raises very serious questions” about whether the Russians can be a reliable partner for a ceasefire in the war-torn country.

“The burden is on the Russians to demonstrate quickly … they are committed to this process,” said the official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.

Bassma Kodmani, a senior member of the Syrian opposition’s negotiating team, said the cease-fire had “no value.”

“Assad never complied with it,” she told Foreign Policy in a telephone interview. “The humanitarian aid never reached any of the areas. This week was supposed to bring some humanitarian aid, but what happened instead was the displacement of populations.”

The breakdown in the cease-fire is the latest in a long trail of American diplomatic initiatives that have failed to stem the killing in a civil war that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead and drawn criticism that Washington has ceded a key pillar of its Middle East policy to Moscow. It also threatens to undercut what is likely to be President Barack Obama’s last-ditch effort to do some good in Syria before his term ends.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged the United States and Russia to salvage the cease-fire deal, calling the shaky diplomatic settlement the only hope of easing the violence around Aleppo and beyond.

“In the interest of peace, we must seize on what Kerry has built with the Russians, even though it is very fragile,” Ayrault told reporters at a breakfast at the French mission to the United Nations. Otherwise, he warned, the war will restart, and “we will enter an even worse spiral of violence.”

The latest American diplomatic push comes just days after what Washington called a tragic accident caused a major headache for its Syria policy. The U.S.-backed coalition killed 62 Syrian soldiers in an airstrike Saturday in an attack south of Deir Ezzor, blasting apart months of painstaking U.S. and Russian talks aimed at easing the humanitarian plight of besieged civilians in eastern Aleppo and coordinating the fight against Syria-based terrorist groups.

The mishap drew a sharp rebuke from Russia, which suggested the U.S. Defense Department had intentionally targeted Syrian troops in an effort to undermine a commitment by the White House and State Department to share battlefield intelligence on terrorist groups and moderate opposition forces. American officials fired back, accusing Moscow of cynically and hypocritically voicing outrage to deflect attention from Syria’s own violations of the cease-fire.

Syria’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Hussam Eddin Ala, took a different approach Monday, calling the U.S. strike “deliberate and preplanned.” Ala said the strike “aimed to pave the way for the ISIS terrorists to attack and take control” over the site, from which the Syrian troops had been fighting Islamic State attackers.

The details of the U.S.-Russian cease-fire deal have not been made public at the request of the United States. But the terms would require the warring parties, including Syria, to silence their guns for seven days and permit unimpeded access to U.N. convoys delivering badly need food and supplies to needy Syrians in eastern Aleppo. If the cease-fire were to hold for a full week, the United States and Russia would begin to coordinate military strikes against Syrian terrorist groups, including the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, which has renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and is still considered affiliated with al Qaeda.

In the end, bombs have kept falling, and the humanitarian corridors have stayed largely shut.

The International Committee of the Red Cross announced that some 45 trucks from the Red Cross, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and the U.N. delivered aid to the besieged town of Talbiseh in central Homs — the first time the town has been reached by an aid convoy since July. But U.N. efforts to deliver life-saving flour and other food supplies into eastern Aleppo for the first time since July 7, when government forces stepped up attacks on opposition targets, remain stalled.

The U.N. chief emergency relief coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, issued a statement Monday expressing disappointment that a 20-truck U.N. convoy with enough food to feed 185,000 desperate people for a month has yet to even cross the Syrian border, let alone make it to Aleppo, “where up to 275,000 people remain trapped without food, water, proper shelter or medical care.”

Kodmani, the Syrian opposition negotiator, disliked the secrecy of the U.S.-Russia pact but had remained hopeful it could finally bring some relief to those who need it most.

“The Syrian opposition, both political and military, were hoping that the deal would alleviate the sieges and provide safety for civilians, hospitals, and schools. None of that happened,” she said.

After meeting with a top Saudi official, Kerry put the onus on the Russians to rein in Assad’s army. “The Russians need to control Assad,” he said, “who evidently is indiscriminately bombing, including of humanitarian convoys.”

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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