An errant attack by US warplanes in Deir ez-Zor on Sept. 17 that killed 62 Syrian soldiers marked the beginning of the end of a short-lived US-Russia agreement to provide humanitarian relief to Syrians, jump-start political talks and coordinate targeting against terrorist groups.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that he found it “very hard to believe” that the United States could make such a mistake in Deir ez-Zor, where Syrian forces were battling Islamic State (IS) militants, adding that he had, however, conveyed an apology on behalf of the United States to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
On Sept. 19, two days after the Deir ez-Zor incident, a statement by the Syrian General Command of the Army and Armed Forces declared an end to the truce. The United States blamed Russia for a deadly attack on a United Nations aid convoy that night in Aleppo that killed 12. UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien, while not accusing Russia, said that if the attack on the convoy was deliberate it would constitute a war crime.
On Sept. 22, Syrian military forces, backed by Russia and Iran, unleashed a furious assault to retake those areas of Aleppo primarily held by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Conquest of Syria Front), previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, and aligned groups including Ahrar al-Sham.
The collapse of the agreement and renewed fighting dashed the hopes of Syrians longing for peace. The United States and Russia had hoped to gain some diplomatic traction for the deal during “leaders' week” at the UN General Assembly in New York. The deal had depended on the until-now remarkable efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov. At times, they seemed a party of two, perhaps three, if you included UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, in their determination to win a reprieve for the Syrian people and strengthen cooperation against terrorists. Many in Washington and Moscow made known their pessimism, if not opposition, to the deal, and it is a fair question whether the regional parties on either side of the Syria war did anything to back up the US-Russian effort. Our guess here is probably not, or if so, not much.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for his part, seems in no mood to give the US-Russia deal a second chance, at least for now. He was never an enthusiast. On Sept. 12, hours before the US-Russia agreement went into effect, Assad had declared that he would retake “every area from the terrorists and to rebuild.” The Syrian president accused the United States of collusion with the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in the attack on Syrian troops in Deir ez-Zor.
After setting the pace for Syria diplomacy for much of the year, Kerry’s last-ditch efforts to seek a prohibition on aircraft in Syria, and his emphasis on “no military solution,” were now out of step with the turn of events. Lavrov said a unilateral prohibition on Russian and Syrian air forces “would not be taken seriously by us anymore,” adding that unless the United States and its coalition partners take steps to separate moderate armed groups from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, “our suspicions that this all is being done to take the heat off Jabhat all-Nusra will strengthen.”
In anticipating the next steps in Syria, the key player to watch is Iran, which is fully on board in backing Assad’s offensive in Aleppo. The first stop for discussions on the future of Syria, after Damascus, is Tehran. As we wrote in our second column back in December 2012, Iran’s “influence in Syria surpasses that of Russia. There is no closer relationship, and no country with more vital interests in Syria.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in an interview on NBC, also rejected the notion of grounding Syrian and Russian aircraft. “If you ground all planes, that would mean that [IS] can continue its savage killings with more vigor. … So if you ground all airplanes, then it would benefit the terrorists 100%, the [IS] terrorists. So to move in that direction would mean a move toward benefiting terrorism.”
Ali Hashem writes that Iran “is assessing the situation in accordance with its agenda and interests, which may not necessarily be fully congruent with those of Russia — but both countries are nevertheless trying to make use of their common interests in Syria to solidify their front. Their main objectives include keeping a defiant Assad in power, preserving the structure of governance in Syria and combating terrorism. One of the main requests the Iranians made during the many negotiations over Syria was the designation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, previously Jabhat al-Nusra, as a terrorist entity, just like IS; this request was fulfilled in the US-Russia agreement. This step was enough for Tehran to at this stage abide by the deal despite all the concerns, as the latter alone could be seen as a blow to its regional rivals, who saw the rebranding of Jabhat al-Nusra as a way to place it along with other Syrian opposition factions on the other side of the negotiating table. Ultimately, to Iran, the collapse of the US-Russia agreement — as the deal itself — will not change anything in its only plan on the table, which involves supporting Assad until he survives the tide. Indeed, the visit by Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Jaber Ansari to Damascus on Sept. 19 reflected this stance. After meeting with Assad, Ansari said, “Iran is determined to provide Syria with all the facilities it needs in its critical fight against terrorism."