Almost 100 Syrian government soldiers have died in an American attack. At the same time, a ceasefire was reached after discussions with the Russians. Moscow now poses two pointed questions.
Washington speaks of the attack as an oversight, and conveyed its regret to the government in Damascus. The American airstrike on Syrian government troops near the metropolis Deir al-Zour in the eastern part of the country, however, has probably torpedoed the most recent, and at the same time, extremely unstable ceasefire in the Syrian civil war, which has been going on for five years. First and foremost, the bloody attack in which nearly 100 Syrian soldiers are believed to have been killed sharpens the tensions between the U.S. and Russia on the evening of the United Nations General Assembly.
Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin questions Washington’s account that the attack was actually supposed to have been against terrorist armies of the Islamic State. To be sure, the suspicion insinuated by Churkin and openly expressed by the Syrian government, that the U.S. wanted to leverage the ceasefire that had just taken effect last Monday, does not stand under closer scrutiny. At the same time, the attack gives the impression of an irritating mistake made by the military based on faulty intelligence from the only world superpower.
The incident took place near the mountain al-Tharda outside the gates of Deir al-Zour in the province of the same name. According to the U.S. account, U.S. fighter planes, claimed by the Russians to number four, attacked a military convoy that they had already been watching for days. In the convoy, for about 20 minutes, there was at least one tank that was attributed to the Islamic State group forces.
In the course of the attack, as reported by The New York Times, which referred to a source in the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, “dozens of people in the open desert” (presumed to be Syrian soldiers who were fleeing), were gunned down. When Russian officials informed the U.S. Command in Qatar that the targets were Syrian government troops, the attack was immediately halted.
A ceasefire did not go into effect until Sept. 12 after 10 months of negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. If nothing more, the ceasefire was supposed to stop the airstrikes of Syrian President Bashar Assad on opposition group members and make humanitarian help possible for Aleppo and other embattled cities.
Syrian Government Troops Never Previously Attacked by United States Military
The fighters of the Islamic State group and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front) are not part of the ceasefire and may therefore continue to be attacked. If the agreement had been complied with for a week, the exchange of intelligence information between the U.S. and Russia, as well as the coordination of their attacks against terrorist organizations, would have begun this Monday, Sept. 19. That has now become questionable.
From the beginning, the agreement gave Russia and the allied Syrian regime more advantages than it gave to the U.S. and which the rebel groups classified as moderate. The suspension of all remaining combat operations and the coordination of attacks on the Islamic State group and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham would have eased the burden on the Syrian government troops. The U.S., on the other hand, which has been calling for the end of the Assad regime since the beginning of the now five-year-long civil war, would have had to forgo helping the rebel groups classified as moderate. The U.S. military had never attacked Syrian government troops – until the current incident.
At a press appearance in front of the U.N., Churkin posed two pointed questions: Why did the U.S., as it claims, want to attack the Islamic State group in Deir al-Zour despite the fact that in doing so it was giving direct assistance to the Russian-supported Syrian military? In the past the U.S. did not do this. If it had indeed decided to do this, why not wait until this Monday and the beginning of the exchange of intelligence information in order to gain a better picture? While Russia, through its presence in Syria and partnership with the Assad regime, has information from human sources, or so-called HUMINT, at its disposal, the U.S. is almost exclusively dependent on electronic reconnaissance.
The United States on the Defensive
Yet Churkin’s indirect accusation is not convincing. If the U.S. had really not wanted the ceasefire, they could have thwarted the negotiations behind closed doors on some pretext or another, perhaps with a demand for sharper restrictions for operations of the Syrian military. The airstrike, however, makes the U.S. stand before the eyes of the global public as either having defaulted on the agreement or as military failures, which pulverizes the region’s already minimal trust in Washington’s noble intentions.
The U.S. can have no interest in that. Already the emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council called for by Russia, against which the U.S. lodged its veto because it did not want to publicize the details of the ceasefire agreement, puts the U.S. on the defensive and plays into the hands of Moscow.
It can be more easily established that all involved sides have lost control over their operations, to a certain extent, because too many conflicting interests are involved. The Alawite regime of Assad is supported by Shiite Iran and Russia; the U.S. does not want to directly involve itself and instead supports rebel groups that it views as moderate, although these “moderate” rebel groups work closely with jihadi groups. These are in turn supported by the Gulf States, primarily Saudi Arabia. The Kurds in the north are fighting against the Islamic State group and are themselves attacked by Turkey, while Turkey, on the other hand, is in agreement with the Kurds in their goal of wanting to topple Assad.
The tragedy of the renewed escalation lies in the anticipated continuation of the Syrian civil war, to which hundreds of thousands, including women and children, have fallen victim and which has driven several million Syrians to flee, many of them with Europe as a goal.