True, the prospects to revive the all but dead Syria cease-fire in Syria have become dim. The seven-day truce brokered by the US and Russia collapsed on September 19. A rare calm didn't last. The hopes almost vanished as the US-led coalition apologized for killing more than 60 Syrian soldiers on September 17 in an air strike on a Syrian government base near Deir Ez-Zor. The Pentagon soon acknowledged what it called a mistake in targeting, but the damage had been done. The Syrian government said it saw no reason to observe the cessation of hostilities deal anymore.
In Aleppo, an aid convoy was attacked on September 19 hours after the ceasefire ended. The US accused Russia of the strike, although the evidence of an air attack was slender. The city of Aleppo is on fire now as the fighting has intensified recently. Many media outlets across the world have concluded that this is the end of Russia-US peace effort.
True, the diplomatic failure has underscored a rapid plunge in Russia-US cooperation on Syria. The parties have dug into seemingly intractable positions. Washington wants Russian and Syrian air forces grounded. Russia and Syria say the deal serves no purpose until US-backed forces separate from agreed terrorist groups like the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front – a provision of the deal the United States has failed to comply with. Blaming rebels for the renewed violence, Russia has rejected the additional demands. But it’s not all doom and gloom as yet – neither Russia, not the United States is backing out from the agreement despite the violations and the resumption of combat activities. Neither side has signed off on the deal.
It’s crucial to avoid the collapse of the US-Russia agreements on Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on September 23 during the general debate at the 71st Regular Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The minister emphasized that «it’s essential to fulfill the UN Security Council demand to dissociate the so-called moderate opposition from the terrorists. Here, special responsibility rests with the US and the members of their coalition». He also told Russian TV on September 24 that the cessation of hostilities should be revived «on a collective basis». According to him, a fresh truce could not be based on «Russia's unilateral concessions».
According to the Russian FM, it is also «unacceptable to delay the start of intra-Syrian negotiations without any preconditions», as envisaged by resolution No. 2254 of the UN Security Council.
The agreement still has a chance if the parties manage to overcome the main obstacle on the way – the opposition of the US Defense Department and the entire defense establishment to the administration’s plans to enter into high-profile military cooperation with Russia in Syria.
In open defiance of the US official policy, Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter has openly objected to the idea of creating Joint Centre and sharing intelligence with the Russian military.
Other Pentagon officials have also opposed the creation of the Joint Implementation Centre if the ceasefire held for seven days.
Lt Gen Jeffrey L Harrigian, commander of the United States Air Forces Central Command, told reporters, «I’m not saying yes or no».
According to him, «It would be premature to say that we’re going to jump right into it».
The outspoken opposition is pitting US top defense officials on active duty against the political leadership of the country to challenge the civilian control of the military.
It is logical to surmise that the air attack on Syrian troops was a clear message that the US military leadership is trying to undermine any cooperation with Russia on Syria until the hopes come true and Hillary Clinton is elected president. The attack on Syrian government forces took place only 48 hours before the decision was to be made on whether to go ahead with the Joint Implementation Centre.
Could be a coincidence? Everything is possible but it’s hard to get rid of the impression that it was a provocation staged by the military on purpose. At least, nobody managed to explain what made the US military commanders so confident that a target so close to Syrian forces military facility was a formation of Islamic State militants. After all, the order to strike the Syrian forces was to be approved by Gen Harrigian, the head of Central Command responsible for Syria, who had refused to confirm that his command would comply with the president’s order and cooperate with Russia. It should be noted that the US military planners are well familiar with the area around Deir Ez-Zor. The United States Air Force normally carries out an average of 20 such strikes a week there.
If the agreement with Russia works, it’ll be much easier for Donald Trump to cooperate with Russia in Syria if he comes to power. In July, the Republican presidential candidate said he would consider an alliance with Russia in Syria.
It could lead to cooperation in other areas as part of Russia-US rapprochement. Exacerbating the situation in Syria is the way to prevent this scenario.
Hillary Clinton stands for taking a tough stand on Russia. The Democratic candidate wants more robust intervention in Syria. The Russia-US agreement in force and complied with does not meet her goals.
President Obama is a lame duck. If Hillary Clinton wins, the people who obstructed his policy on Syria will be in favor with the new commander-in-chief.
A success in Syria is important for President Obama. If the agreement works, it’ll be a legacy the president will be remembered for. It will allow the US to avoid plunging into a new conflict – the only alternative left if the deal is stymied. Nothing prevents the lame duck president to order a thorough investigation to find out who was responsible for the Deir Ez-Zor attack. No doubt he can order the military to comply with the agreement and separate the Syrian opposition groups from the Jabhat al Nusra (Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham) extremists.
He may not like Russia and its president, but the continuing conflict in Syria does not meet the interests of the US either. Cooperation with Russia is the only way to stop the violence and launch a UN-brokered peace process. The benefits of a still possible diplomatic breakthrough clearly outweigh any concerns of the US military commanders related to intelligence sharing with Russia.
The Russia-US agreement is not dead as yet and peace has a chance. There is still a hope that wisdom will prevail. The US administration can act and rectify the situation if it is sincere saying its stated goal is achieving peace in Syria.