US gives up on working with Russia on Syria

The United States announced Oct. 3 it was suspending bilateral engagement with Russia on Syria, saying there was nothing more to talk about as Russia intensified its air attacks on Aleppo.

al-monitor A man inspects damage near a hole in the ground after airstrikes on the rebel held al-Ansari neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Oct. 2, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail.

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us-russian relations, syrian conflict, russian influence in syria, john kerry, jabhat fatah al-sham, cease-fire, aleppo, airstrikes

Oct 3, 2016

WASHINGTON — Saying its patience with Russia has run out, the United States formally announced Oct. 3 it was suspending its bilateral engagement with Russia on Syria, a decision the United States said it did not take lightly. While the United States was withdrawing its personnel from Geneva and Amman, Jordan, where they had been sent to oversee a partial Syria cease-fire deal reached in March, the United States will continue to talk to Russia in multilateral settings, and de-confliction channels would continue to operate, it said. 

“The United States spared no effort in negotiating and attempting to implement an arrangement with Russia aimed at reducing violence,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement announcing the decision Oct. 3.

“Unfortunately, Russia failed to live up to its own commitments … and was also either unwilling or unable to ensure Syrian regime adherence,” Kirby said. “Rather, Russia and the Syrian regime have chosen to pursue a military course … as demonstrated by their intensified attacks against civilian areas.”

The US decision came after American and Russian officials held talks all weekend in Geneva on ideas for reviving the Syria cease-fire, which collapsed last month, and as US Secretary of State John Kerry held multiple phone calls with his Russian counterpart in recent days. The deal’s failure has been followed by a punishing, unrelenting Syrian regime and Russian air assault on eastern Aleppo that has leveled hospitals, bakeries and apartment buildings, and killed and wounded hundreds of civilians in the enclave that is home to an estimated 250,000 people, shocking many in the West with its savagery.

“It is outrageous,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said of a reported air attack with bunker buster munitions that leveled east Aleppo’s M10 hospital Oct. 3. “It is unconscionable, an outrage.”

There is "nothing more for the US and Russia to talk about" in Syria, Earnest said. "Everybody's patience with Russia has run out.”

“We felt we came to a point with Russia where we were not reaching the same goal,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau told journalists at the State Department press briefing Oct. 3.

Russian officials, apparently anticipating the coming US announcement, lashed out at Washington on Oct. 3, saying the Syria cease-fire had collapsed because the United States had not fulfilled its obligation to separate the Syrian moderate opposition from al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra (now named Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) in the seven days before a truce collapsed Sept. 19, after suspected Russian or Syrian strikes on a UN aid convoy.

But Trudeau said the United States had been working hard to talk to opposition groups about the importance of separating themselves (or “demarbling”) from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, but knew that such a separation was not going to occur overnight — and not under bombardment.

“The US continued to have detailed ongoing discussions with members of the opposition emphasizing our view on the importance of ‘demarbling,’” Trudeau said. “Our view on that is that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is al-Qaeda, a terrorist group. As we said, it was never going to be fast and we were working hard on that goal.”

The US view is that if opposition groups were attacked, they have a right to defend themselves, Trudeau added.

Separately, the Defense Department said Oct. 3 that it had conducted a drone attack targeting a senior Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and al-Qaeda figure in Syria and was assessing the result. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham confirmed the death of Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk (Abu al-Faraj al-Masri) in a US airstrike in Idlib on Oct. 3, Syria expert Charles Lister said.

Acknowledging the Pentagon strike targeting the leader, the White House’s Earnest expressed a sense of bitterness as he jibed at Russia for “lamely claiming credit” for successful US operations to take extremists off the battlefield. “Over the last seven months, Russia does not have a single counter [Islamic State] objective they have been achieving,” he added.

The suspension of US efforts to work with Russia to try to end the Syrian civil war comes as US-Russian relations seem to be deteriorating on multiple fronts, amid US suspicions that Russia has been behind high-profile cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee and other US electoral entities, and as Russia’s recent bombing against heavily populated areas in Syria has shocked many in the West with its utter disregard for international humanitarian law.

Russia in turn railed at Washington for what it said was threatening behavior.

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree Oct. 3 withdrawing from a US-Russian arms control accord on decommissioning weapons-grade plutonium, accusing the United States of “unfriendly acts.”

"Unfortunately, recently the United States has taken a number of unfriendly steps toward Russia,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Oct. 3. “In particular, on far-fetched pretexts Washington imposed economic and other sanctions on Russia. NATO and the United States started military buildup near Russian borders. The United States and its allies openly — without holding back — are talking about adopting a ‘containing’ policy toward Russia. They even threaten Russian cities with terror attacks," Lavrov added.

“I think we are entering a period of heavy brinkmanship,” a former Russian diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor by email Oct. 3.

“The suspension of [the plutonium] agreement as such is not immediately threatening, but there is a lot of ire in Moscow and pressure to make them feel the heat,” the former Russian envoy said. “I am afraid we would continue to observe crescendo on both sides."

He added, “Yet I am not expecting a sudden eruption of all-out war."

Washington, too, is under pressure to react to perceived Russian provocations, former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said.

“The administration seems to think there is no damage to US credibility worldwide in constantly being rebuffed, publicly and aggressively, by Moscow,” Ford, now a fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Al-Monitor Oct. 2, before the United States announced the decision to suspend Russian engagement.

“It has no plan B or C or D for Syria, even as the media images keep haunting the waning hours of the administration,” Ford said. “Thus, the administration has no incentive to stop knocking, however forlornly, on Moscow’s door.”

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