- Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry threatened to suspend negotiations with Russia over Syria unless the Russian and Syrian aerial bombardment of the city of Aleppo ends, The Associated Press reported Wednesday.
Kerry told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in a phone call that the US was preparing to “suspend US-Russia bilateral engagement on Syria … unless Russia takes immediate steps to end the assault on Aleppo” and restore a cease-fire.
The State Department issued a statement about the call, saying “the secretary made clear the United States and its partners hold Russia responsible for this situation, including the use of incendiary and bunker buster bombs in an urban environment, a drastic escalation that puts civilians at great risk.”
Hundreds of people have died over the past week in the worst bombings on the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo since the war began in 2011.
Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina issued a statement that appeared to mock Kerry’s attempts to intimidate Russia:
“Finally, a real power move in American diplomacy. Secretary of State John ‘Not Delusional’ Kerry has made the one threat the Russians feared most – the suspension of U.S.-Russia bilateral talks about Syria. No more lakeside tête-à-têtes at five-star hotels in Geneva. No more joint press conferences in Moscow. We can only imagine that having heard the news, Vladimir Putin has called off his bear hunt and is rushing back to the Kremlin to call off Russian airstrikes on hospitals, schools, and humanitarian aid convoys around Aleppo.”
“After all, butchering the Syrian people to save the Assad regime is an important Russian goal,” the statement continued. “But not if it comes at the unthinkable price of dialogue with Secretary Kerry.”
The bombings, which have also targeted rescue services in the city, punctuated the collapse of a fragile cease-fire brokered between the US and Russia earlier this month.
The cease-fire was part of a deal between the US and Russia to coordinate their military operations in Syria and share intelligence about terrorist positions. That deal has been jeopardized by the latest scorched-earth offensive on Aleppo, however, with American and Russian diplomats exchanging diplomatic jabs Sunday night and into Monday.
“What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counterterrorism – it is barbarism,” Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, told member nations at a UN Security Council meeting on Sunday.
Even so, most analysts who have been monitoring the conflict agree that, absent deliberate US action, only Russia can end the war.
“The end of the war in Syria will not be just, and it’s unlikely to be peaceful,” said Emma Beals, an independent journalist and specialist on Syria. “But it will be the Russians who end the war – at this stage, they are the only ones who can.”
The problem, however, is that they have no incentive to do so.
‘A bloody chess game’
Kerry’s willingness to walk away from the partnership is unlikely to sway Russia’s determination to wipe out any and all opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s most important battleground – especially since Washington has no known plans of intervening in the conflict directly or significantly ramping up its support for moderate rebels.
“Ambassador Power’s rhetoric is entirely hollow,” Russian affairs expert Mark Kramer, the program director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard, told Business Insider earlier this week. “The only thing that can change Russia’s behavior now, in Syria and elsewhere, is forceful action. Rightly or wrongly, the Obama administration has no intention of taking any action vis-a-vis Syria, and thus Power’s accusations amount to mere huffing and puffing.”
- Thomson Reuters
Ulrich Speck, an independent foreign-policy analyst, presented a similar assessment on Wednesday of the fundamental dilemma facing Washington’s efforts to negotiate with Moscow: Russia has no incentive to end the war, and the US has no leverage.
“Russia has no incentive to end the war in Syria as long as the rebels fail to win massive Western support,” Speck wrote for Carnegie on Wednesday. “The military alliance between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Russia has managed to make constant progress and appears set to regain control over the whole of Syria.”
In fact, walking away from the deal at this point may serve as a signal to Russia that the US is washing its hands of the conflict, decisively forfeiting the country to Moscow as a Russian sphere of influence.
“The absence of the United States from the field leaves most of the shots available to the Kremlin,” Gianni Riotta of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote for Carnegie on Wednesday.
“The shouting match at the UN Security Council on September 25 between the US and Russian ambassadors matched the worst episodes of the Cold War, with the violent exchange leaving other diplomats aghast,” Riotta continued. “So do not expect Putin to stop bombing Aleppo – civilians or rebels. He is playing a bloody chess game, and Syria is just a pawn.”
‘No intention of pressuring Assad’
Many experts doubted how effective the joint plan would be to begin with, given the hugely disparate objectives Russia and the US have for the country and the region.
“It is obvious by now that US-Russian cooperation over Syria is impractical because the objectives of the two sides are fundamentally divergent,” Kramer of Harvard said. “Temporary cease-fires have proved to be mostly illusory because Russia has no intention of pressuring Assad to make concessions.”
“Russian officials are not going to change what they are doing simply because the United States decries it,” Kramer added. “In the 1990s, the Russian government cared what Western governments thought, but that era is long over.”
- REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Indeed, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the language used at the UN Security Council meeting by the US “unacceptable.” At the meeting itself, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, doubled down on an oft-repeated talking point: Russian airstrikes are targeting only terrorists.
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which was known as Jabhat al-Nusra before it formally severed ties with Al Qaeda, has a presence in the city. It was an instrumental part of the military alliance of several rebel brigades known as Jaysh al Fateh that helped the mainstream Free Syrian Army regain control over a significant portion of Aleppo early last month.
But the Russian and Syrian bombs are being dropped indiscriminately on the opposition-controlled east, where more than 250,000 civilians are under siege.
Even if Russia decided it wanted to end the war – which is unlikely, given the leverage it offers Moscow over Washington – the consequences would be devastating at best.
“If Russia decided to end the conflict, it would probably do so in the way it assaulted Grozny in 1999-2000,” Marc Pierini of Carnegie Europe wrote on Wednesday.
That is, “by razing anything that still stands and by mercilessly targeting fighters, civilians, humanitarian workers, hospitals, and ambulances alike – as it does on a daily basis in Aleppo now.”