US-led coalition delivered air strikes against a Syrian military base in Deir ez-Zor on September 17. As a result, it killed dozens of Syrian soldiers enabling Islamic State fighters to advance. The attack marked the first known direct American strike on President Bashar Assad's forces to endanger the US-Russian brokered cessation of hostilities which came into force on September 12. The agreement is widely believed to be the last chance for peace in Syria.
A senior Obama administration official, who requested anonymity, told Fox News the United States has «relayed regret» for the unintentional loss of life of Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State group.
According to him, the notification was sent through Russia.
The US military said it was targeting Islamic State (IS) militants and if it hit Syrian troops, it was an accident. The Central Command halted its air raid against the Islamic State terror group in eastern Syria after learning it struck the Syrian military.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) immediately held an emergency meeting at Russia's request to discuss the strike. Samantha Power, US ambassador to the United Nations, lashed out at Russia for requesting an emergency UNSC, calling the request a «stunt». Washington has refused to make public the text of the agreement reached with Russia on Syria, including the members of the Security Council. Moscow will not release it unilaterally. It creates hurdles on the way of adopting a UN resolution as the UNSC cannot vote for something it has not studied in detail.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said if the coalition (Australia also participated in the strikes) attack was launched by mistake; the reason for it was a «stubborn reluctance by the American side to coordinate its action against terrorist groups in Syria with Russia».
The agreement has been violated many times by the forces the US is responsible for. The Syria’s ceasefire «will not hold out», a senior rebel official in Aleppo warned on September 17, as air strikes and shelling continued.
Russia’s defence ministry said conditions in Syria were worsening, adding that rebels had breached the ceasefire 199 times as of September 17.
According to it, the United States would be responsible if the deal failed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he remained positive over the ceasefire, but claimed that it was being used by rebels to regroup.
According to him, Washington’s refusal to make public the agreement on Syria could be motivated by the desire to preserve the combat potential of the US-supported forces of the Syrian opposition in the fight against the legitimate authorities of the country.
US airstrikes at the Syrian army lead to the conclusion that Washington defends the Islamic State group, Russian Foreign Ministry’s official spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told Rossiya 24 TV channel on September 18.
Perhaps, the strike was a failure of US military intelligence. In theory, it would be logical to surmise that it could also be an attempt by military brass hats to frustrate the Russia-US deal they don’t approve.
After all, the proposed level of US-Russian interaction has upset several leading national security officials in Washington, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter and National Intelligence Director James Clapper.
As one can see, the implementation of the Russia-US agreement won’t be a bed of roses. It will face many tests before coming close to reality. But the unique opportunity should not be missed as it is the only chance to stop the bloodshed. Everyone, but jihadis, will win.
The agreement provides a basis for preventing incidents and coordinating activities with Russia. It certainly serves the interests of the US incumbent administration paving the way for an offensive to capture Raqqa, the informal Islamic State (IS) capital, without being opposed by Russia-supported Syrian forces and their allies.
After all, IS holds territory and is a relatively easy target. But fighting the Islamic State group is senseless without striking Jabhat al Nusra, the former Al Qaeda branch recently renamed into Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. The group is the Salafi-jihadi movement which is the main fighting arm of the non-IS rebel movement. It has been in the forefront of all major rebel offensives.
No peace has a chance while al Nusra is not routed. The fight against it, however, is far more complex, as it is embedded in rebel-held areas and has fought with a range of other rebel organizations on several fronts. The most difficult part of the Russia-US deal is to define the zones controlled by the extremist group and overcome disagreements on who is and who isn't an ally or member of al Nusra – the group not included into the cessation of hostilities agreement.
Many opposition figures see the Russia-US deal and whatever comes from it as a conspiracy against them. It’s hard to change this mindset. Besides, they may not be able to kick out al Nusra forces even if they wanted to. The group is too strong in military terms to be forced to pull out. The US is to exert enough pressure to make the rebels sever the ties with the extremist group, according to the agreement.
«Going after Nusra is not a concession to anybody», US State Secretary John Kerry said. According to him, «It is profoundly in the interests of the United States».
Indeed, the deal is achieved at the time President Obama badly needs a success in Syria before he leaves office.
There are lots of different ways this agreement could fail on the ground due to its complexity. With so many different parties, there is no simple way to create the conditions for a durable truce. But that is the best plan the two powers have formulated yet. So long as the opposition and Assad continue to fight over the future of Syria, it will be nearly impossible to marshal a ground force that could stamp out al Nusra and IS groups.
With the fighting stopped and extremist groups sidelined, the government and the main rebel factions might be able to come to terms and make it a major foreign policy achievement by the Obama administration. By holding up its end of the bargain, the US does no favors to Russia or anybody else. President Obama cannot afford to disrupt the media’s perception and the electorate’s belief that the United States has made significant progress in resolving the Syrian conflict. The foreign policy is not a feather in the hat of Hillary Clinton – the Democrats’ presidential candidate.
The Democrats badly need a foreign policy success before the voting in November. The news about progress in Syria hitting headlines would be a boon for Clinton and an important legacy left by President Obama. The next administration may prolong his party’s reign in the White House, but it will not vindicate him if the region continues to crumble and suffer at the hands of Islamic State.
The GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for cooperation between Russia and the US in Syria. If the deal is scuttled, he will use it to his advantage in the election campaign. The best thing for the US administration is to comply with the agreement and make it work against all the odds, even if the military and intelligence top officials oppose it.
Peace in Syria is the way to boost the chances of the Democratic Party at the elections and help the world to settle the crisis that negatively affects so many countries. This is a wrong moment for the US to stymie the hard-won deal and let all the efforts go down the drain dashing all the hopes. Be it a mistake or an intended action committed by the military, the gross violation of the agreement hurts the US more than anybody else.