News of the US air strikes on the Syrian military positions near the besieged eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor comes as Russian criticism of the US failure to abide by the terms of last Sunday’s Lavrov – Kerry agreement is intensifying.
The first point to make about this attack is that though the US immediately backed off after receiving a Russian warning, the US claim that the attack was a mistake stretches credulity to breaking point.
The US says the situation in Syria is complicated, which is true, and says that this is the reason for the attack, which it insists was a mistake. The key point however is that though the situation may be complicated in other parts of Syria, it is not complicated in Deir Ezzor at all.
There are only two parties fighting each other in this part of Syria: the Syrian army and ISIS. Other Jihadi groups in this part of Syria have either been driven out by ISIS or have been absorbed by ISIS, which is the only military force fighting the Syrian army in this area.
It is just possible that the US confused Syrian troops with ISIS troops, and attacked them by mistake in this area. However given the comprehensive surveillance means the US has at its disposal, that hardly seems likely.
Besides it is not clear why the US is carrying out air strikes against ISIS in the area of Deir Ezzor at all, when the only force which is fighting ISIS in this area is not any one of the US’s allies or supposed allies but the Syrian army.
As it happens, the Russians and the Syrians say the attack was made near a Syrian air force base which ISIS was attacking, enabling ISIS to capture a defence line near the base. If so, it is all but inconceivable the US didn’t know this, and didn’t know who it was attacking.
The second point to make about this attack is that it appears to have been followed almost immediately by an ISIS attack on the Syrian troops who were targeted by the air strike.
On the face of it that makes it look like a US military air strike carried out to provide air support to an attack on the Syrian army carried out by ISIS troops.
Though that would be shocking if it were true, it is not the first time that there has been an air attack by US led coalition aircraft on Syrian troops fighting ISIS in this area. Exactly the same thing happened in this same area on 6th December 2015.
On that occasion the Russians did not disclose the nationality of the aircraft that attacked the Syrian army positions near Deir Ezzor on 6th December 2015, though they made it fairly clear that they knew who they were. They did however say that the aircraft belonged to the US led coalition. The US denied carrying out the strike, and claimed that the Russians had carried out the strike by mistake themselves.
On this latest occasion the Russians have publicly identified the attacking aircraft as American. It seems four aircraft were involved: two F16s and two A10s. Moreover the US on this occasion has admitted carrying out the strike.
What is going on?
It is very difficult to see this as anything else other than as an intended warning by the US to the Russians. The events of the last few days leading up to the strike show why such a warning might have been given.
In the last few days, and in the last few hours especially, the Russians have been stepping up their criticism that the US is not abiding by the terms of the Lavrov – Kerry agreement that was reached on 9th September 2016.
The Russian military has publicly complained that only the Syrian army is abiding by the cessation of hostilities that was agreed by Lavrov and Kerry last Sunday. RT reports a senior Russian General Staff official, Viktor Poznikhir, saying the following at a briefing in Moscow.
“After five days of the ceasefire, it has to be noted that only the Russian and Syrian sides have been fully implementing their commitments. On its own initiative, Russia prolonged the cessation of hostilities for 48 hours, and yesterday it was extended for another 72 hours. The US and the so-called moderate groups under their control didn’t fulfil a single commitment undertaken in the framework of the Geneva arrangements. The main priority of the Russian-American agreements of September was the division of territories controlled by IS (Islamic State, formerly ISIS/ISIL), Jabhat al-Nusra, and the areas controlled by the ‘moderate opposition,’ as well the separation of the ‘moderate opposition’ from Jabhat al-Nusra. [Such a division is essential for the implementation of the ceasefire in Syria because] without it, the hands of the government forces are tied. They can’t fight the terrorists without knowing which of them joined the truce and who didn’t.
[Numerous Russian appeals to the American side remain unanswered, which] raises doubts over the US’s ability to influence opposition groups under their control and their willingness to further ensure the implementation of the Geneva agreements. Russia is making every possible effort to hold off government troops from the use of force in return [to opposition attacks]. If the US does not implement the necessary measures to fulfill their obligations under the September 9 agreements, the responsibility for the failure of the ceasefire will be solely America’s.
Tensions are rising in Syria, especially in the provinces of Aleppo and Hama, where opposition groups are using the cessation of hostilities to regroup forces, refill their stocks of ammunition and weapons and are preparing an offensive in order to capture new territories. In the past 24 hours, the number of attacks has increased drastically. The positions of government troops, the people’s militia, and civilians were fired at on 55 occasions”.
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Lavrov and Kerry spoke on the telephone on Saturday to discuss the deteriorating situation. Putin himself then added to the growing sense of crisis by weighing in. In answer to journalists’ questions at the CIS Council of Heads of State in Bishkek he is reported by Russia’s Presidential website to have said
“We agreed that Jabhat al-Nusra and others of their ilk have to be separated and it has been shown where they are and where these so-called “healthy” forces are. What do we see now? We see no separation of terrorists from this “healthy” part of the opposition, instead we see these terrorists making attempts to regroup, replace one set of signboards with another, replace one name with another and preserve their military potential. This is what we see.”
(note the use of quotation marks qualifying the word “healthy” is in the original text published by Russia’s Presidential website and was presumably authorised by Putin himself)
However the single thing that may have infuriated the US most is that the Russians have been publicly supporting the mounting demands from around the world – including from some of the US’s allies like France – to have the full text of the Lavrov – Kerry agreement published.
During his press conference in Bishkek Putin not only confirmed that it was the US that had insisted that the text of the agreement be kept secret, but also dropped heavy hints as to why this might be so
“Our US partners have always stood for openness and transparency. There is nothing surprising for me that in this case they proceed from their postulate. I can tell you why: this has to do with the difficulties that the United States is facing on the Syrian track. The difficulty is that they can in no way separate the so-called “healthy” part of the opposition from the semi-criminal and terrorist elements.
In my opinion, this is dictated by the desire to preserve the military potential in the fight against the lawful government of President Assad. However, this is a slippery slope; we have often spoken about this. Our US partners seem to be again falling into the same trap they have fallen into so many times. This is a dangerous scenario.”
It is very easy to see how the US might construe comments like this as a threat by the Russians to publish the Lavrov – Kerry agreement unless the US complies with it.
What may have made the US particularly angry is that on Friday the Russians attempted to use a joint US – Russian presentation at the UN Security Council as a device to get the text of the agreement published. The US flatly rejected this, and the presentation and joint discussion that had been scheduled to take place at the UN Security Council had to be called off.
Behind the US refusal to publish the text of the agreement is doubtless US embarrassment that the agreement effectively requires the evacuation of Jihadi fighters from eastern Aleppo.
It is universally accepted by all objective observers of the Syrian conflict that the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo belong either to Jabhat Al-Nusra or to groups closely affiliated with it. the Lavrov – Kerry agreement, which requires that Syrian opposition fighters separate themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra, whom the agreement brands terrorists, is therefore tantamount to US agreement that the Jabhat al-Nusra fighters occupying eastern Aleppo withdraw from the city. It is very likely the Lavrov – Kerry agreement or one of its annexes or protocols spells this out.
Since that is tantamount to an agreement that eastern Aleppo be surrendered to the Syrian government, it is not surprising the US is reacting fiercely to demands the text of the agreement be made public.
This is probably what is behind the air strike in Deir Eizzor. It looks like a threat to the Russians by the US – or at any rate by the hardliners in Washington – that any move by Moscow to blame the US for the failure of the agreement or to publish its terms will result in an immediate escalation of US military action on behalf of the Jihadis in eastern Syria. That this means aligning the US with ISIS – as Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova is rightly pointing out – is a price that some people in Washington seem prepared to pay.
As of the time of writing the US is desperately rowing back. It seems the US underestimated the strength of the Russian reaction to the Deir Ezzor attack, and did not anticipate that the Russians would complain about it to the UN Security Council, which is what the Russians have done.
Since the attack the Russians are saying that the ceasefire now hangs by a thread. Even before the attack there were reports of Syrian troops returning – apparently with Russian agreement – to their previous positions on Aleppo’s Castello road.
The US of course knows that with the Jihadi offensive on south west Aleppo defeated, and with the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo surrounded, the result of the collapse of the ceasefire would be the eventual defeat of the Jihadi force in eastern Aleppo. It was this knowledge which caused the US to agree to the Lavrov – Kerry agreement in the first place.
The US action in Deir Ezzor however shows how unreconciled to this reality powerful sections of the US bureaucracy – including especially Ashton Carter’s Pentagon – are. It seems that there are some people in Washington who are prepared to go to almost any lengths to undermine the Lavrov – Kerry agreement in order to avoid surrendering eastern Aleppo and so as to prevent what many in Washington obviously see as the ultimate humiliation of a joint military campaign with the Russians against ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra.
The prospects for the Lavrov – Kerry agreement depend on the realists in Washington facing down the hardliners. Despite the apologies and regrets currently pouring out of Washington, after the attack on Deir Ezzor the prospects for them succeeding don’t look good.