- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
In his first public comments since the State Department announced it was ending talks with Russia over restarting the failed ceasefire in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry lambasted Moscow for enabling the chemical weapons attacks the regime of Bashir al Assad has unleashed on Syrian civilians.
Despite that, Washington’s efforts to come to a ceasefire agreement with Russia aren’t over, Kerry insisted Tuesday. But he put the onus squarely on the shoulders of Moscow about whether — or even if — the talks might start again.
In the meantime, Russia has moved to shore up its military position inside Syria, dispatching advanced air-defense systems over the weekend that are of little use against opposition forces or terror groups, but which offer a potential shield against any further U.S. intervention there.
The showdown in Syria comes as broader tensions between the U.S. and Russia have reached levels not seen since the Cold War, including several close calls where Russian warplanes have buzzed American warships and reconnaissance planes operating in international waters in the Black Sea, and amid allegations of Russian hacks on Democratic party servers and voter registration Web sites in over a dozen states.
“People who are serious about making peace behave differently than the Russians have chosen to behave,” he told an audience in Brussels before a series of meetings with European Council allies about Afghanistan.
“Russia and the regime know exactly what they need to do to live up to international law,” Kerry said. He added that Syria’s five-year civil war “has been made worse by the utter depravity of the regime, that doesn’t hesitate to still use gas, chlorine, mixed with other ingredients to kill its citizens, that drops barrel bombs on hospitals and children and women.”
Just this week, regime forces apparently used a bunker-busting bomb to attack a civilian hospital dug deep underground near Homs, and U.S. officials believe Russian and Syrian jets shot up a U.N aid convoy headed into Aleppo last month.
Moscow has “turned a blind eye” to these tactics, Kerry said, which has left “broken bodies, bombed out hospitals, and traumatized children” in their wake.
Kerry called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to prop up the Assad regime by unleashing its own bombing campaign last year “irresponsible and profoundly ill-advised,” insisting that “Russia knows exactly what it needs to do in order to get that [ceasefire] implemented and in a fair and reasonable way.”
The decision to call off the Syria talks comes amid reports that the Obama administration is considering taking military action against the Assad regime. On Monday Russian officials confirmed they had deployed the sophisticated, S-300 anti-aircraft system to protect its naval base at Tartus — but its range of 150 miles puts inland targets well within range, too. Last week, Moscow also sent more warplanes to its air base in Latakia, and confirmed that its sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is heading for the eastern Mediterranean later this year to begin flying sorties over Syria.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Tuesday that the S-300 is strictly a defensive weapon, which led to some in the Pentagon to question who it is meant to defend against.
“Last I checked the Russians said that their primary goal was to fight extremism,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said. “ISIL and Nusra [now known as Jaish Fateh al-Sham] neither one has an air force, so I would question just what the purpose of the system is,” he said, in reference to the Islamic State and to the al Qaeda branch in Syria.
Konashenkov also blamed the United States for the failure of the ceasefire, doubling down on prior claims that Western-backed opposition forces are mixed up with terrorists.
“It’s time for our American partners to publicly recognize that practically all Syrian ‘opposition’ nurtured and controlled by them is an inalienable part of the al Qaeda,” Konashenkov said.
It’s a charge that Russia has lodged for months, and may have been partially answered Monday, when the Pentagon announced an airstrike that took out Jaish Fateh al-Sham leader Abu al-Farai al-Masri in Syria. Under the terms of the scuttled deal with Russia, the U.S. would have coordinated strikes against the radical group, but the Americans now look to be going it alone.
Photo Credit: Halil Fidan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images