Events in northern Syria have taken a dramatic turn in recent days, beginning with an unprecedented US airstrike on Syrian army positions in Deir ez-Zor. US officials have said they were aiming for ISIS targets but struck Syrian army positions accidentally, killing 62 soldiers and exposing the remaining survivors to an Islamic State offensive.
In the days prior, the New York Times reported on a public disagreement between Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter over the terms of the proposed ceasefire being negotiated with Russia.
Carter was said to have ‘deep reservations’ over plans for American and Russian forces to share information and jointly target terrorist organisations as made conditional in the ceasefire proposal. Defense Department officials publicly refused to affirm whether they would implement the agreement.
The subsequent attacks on a UN relief convoy saw US officials strongly imply responsibility on Moscow. Reuters and others carried claims by anonymous US officials identifying Russia as the perpetrator, while mention of the recent US strike in Deir ez-Zor was omitted from most dispatches.
The Syrian and the Russian militaries have since publicly and categorically denied striking the convoy. UN officials initially described the attack as an ‘airstrike’, implicitly pinning the blame on Russian or Syrian aircraft, but have since conceded to lacking conclusive evidence about what had happened.
Top US military officials admitted they were unsure who attacked the convoy, though Defense Secretary Carter maintains that
“Russians are responsible for this strike whether they conducted it or not.”
Through the words and actions of US officials, one can draw the conclusion that the US military establishment would not allow the Kerry-Lavrov ceasefire to succeed.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hinted as much, telling Russian media that
“[the US] military may not be obeying their supreme commander,”
in reference to the increasingly apparent divisions within the Obama administration pertaining to policy on Syria.
In collapsing the ceasefire, the Pentagon is rejecting cooperation with Russia and refusing to enforce the separation of US-allied rebel groups from Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist organisations, likely on the basis that jihadists can act as the most effective bulwark against the Syrian army’s retaking of Aleppo.
The collapse of the ceasefire has coincided with a full-scale offensive to retake Aleppo by Syrian and Russian forces, supported by Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies. Reuters reports
“The fall of Aleppo would restore Assad’s rule over western Syria’s most important city and deal a devastating blow to the rebels,”
The strategic and symbolic significance of the liberation of Aleppo is apparent, and now the immediate focus of the US and Gulf powers that support the armed groups is to hinder the advance of Syrian forces and their allies as they consolidate control over Castello road (the last remaining rebel supply route) and surround areas of eastern Aleppo held by insurgents.
The torrent of war-crime accusations and scathing denunciations of Moscow and Damascus in recent days is not authentically motivated by human rights, but rather is a means of using adverse global opinion to pressure Russia into easing the Syrian army’s offensive, which may otherwise soon defeat the remaining rebel forces in Aleppo.
Dismal human rights violations have undoubtedly occurred since the collapse of the ceasefire, perpetuated by both sides. That being said, it is crucial to acknowledge that when similar rights violations are committed by Israel in its suppression of Palestinians, by Saudi Arabia in its illegal war in Yemen, or by US-backed forces fighting in Syria, the moral indignation of the international community is dramatically subdued.
The difference is that Syria is enforcing its legal right to territorial sovereignty against insurgents armed by hostile states, a predicament that any state would meet with lethal force. The furious vilification of the Syrian and Russian militaries is entirely political, and a telling indication that Western and Gulf powers see themselves on the losing side of the conflict.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has gone as far as threatening countries with complicity in war crimes should they not support an upcoming security council resolution imposing a ceasefire in Aleppo, which could only be an overtly politicised document filled with untenable concessions designed to be vetoed by Russia.
During his farewell address to the UN General Assembly, the supine and ever-obsequious Ban Ki-moon singled out the government of Syria as being the party most guilty of human rights violations. Is it not one of the great scandals of the Syrian conflict that the Secretary-General has placed the government of a UN member state on a lower moral tier than terrorist organisations like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State?
Ban’s statement reflects the deep ideological distortions of the Syrian narrative pushed by Western and Gulf powers to support toppling the government of Bashar al-Assad. One cannot talk seriously of human rights violators without apportioning blame for the bloodshed on the parties who have flooded Syria with armed mercenaries for their geopolitical pursuits, all of whom the Secretary-General has never meaningfully taken to task.
In the face of the Syrian army closing in around Aleppo, the US has indicated that it intends to halt diplomacy with Russia and escalate its use of force. Reuters reports:
“The U.S. officials said the failure of diplomacy in Syria has left the Obama administration no choice but to consider alternatives, most of which involve some use of force… the list of options is narrowing to supporting rebel counter attacks elsewhere with additional weaponry or even air strikes, which ‘might not reverse the tide of battle, but might cause the Russians to stop and think.
The most dramatic option under consideration – but considered less likely – would be a U.S. air strike on a Syrian air base far from the fighting between Assad’s troops and rebel forces in the north, officials said.”
Though the Obama administration has exercised a decreasing measure of restraint when directly engaging Syrian government targets, there are growing indications that the administration believes the objectives of Western and Gulf policy cannot be met without exerting greater force. Should the US president not show an appetite for escalation in his final months in office, his successor will.
Nile Bowie is an independent writer and current affairs commentator based in Singapore. He may be reached by email at [email protected].