U.S., Russia poised for new battle over Syria

Matthew Lee
Associated Press

New York — The United States and Russia are taking their differences over the conflict in Syria to new heights, after trading ferocious allegations of duplicity and malfeasance at the United Nations Security Council.

After a fractious meeting of the council on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were set to duel again at a gathering of foreign ministers from the roughly 20 nations that have interests in Syria. Thursday’s meeting of the International Syria Support Group comes after the two blamed each other for spoiling the country’s cease-fire that they had agreed to only two weeks before.

Amid deep pessimism over whether the truce could be resurrected, the group was to consider a U.S. call for all warplanes to halt flights over aid routes following an attack on a humanitarian convoy near the besieged city of Aleppo and a Russian suggestion for a three-day pause in fighting to get the so-called “cessation of hostilities” back on track. However, diplomats said prospects for the success of either idea were unclear.

The meeting also comes after Syrian President Bashar Assad blamed the U.S. for the collapse of the cease-fire in an interview with The Associated Press in Damascus. Assad said the U.S. lacked “the will” to join forces with Russia in fighting extremists and rejected Washington’s claim that airstrikes last week on Syrian troops were accidental.

The diametrically opposed views of Washington and Moscow were underscored at the Security Council meeting that had originally been called to enshrine the Sept. 9 truce. Instead, members rued the possibility of a darker phase in the conflict amid increased attacks on humanitarian workers. And, in unusually blunt language, they illustrated why they’ve been unable for more than five years to stop Syria’s civil war.

“Supposedly we all want the same goal. I’ve heard that again and again,” a visibly angry Kerry told the council. “Everybody sits there and says we want a united Syria, secular, respecting the rights of all people, in which the people of Syria can choose their leadership. But we are proving woefully inadequate in our ability to be able to get to the table and have that conversation and make it happen.”

While the U.S. and Russia have previously butted heads over several proposed resolutions critical of the Syrian government, Wednesday’s agenda didn’t even include a suggested course of action. Instead, the two-hour discussion served as a warm-up act for Thursday’s meeting.

Kerry blamed Russia, lambasting what he portrayed as a cynical response to an airstrike on a humanitarian aid convoy this week that killed 20 civilians and raised “profound doubt” about Russia’s and Syria’s willingness to abide by the cease-fire. The U.S. believes that a Russian-piloted aircraft carried out the strike, said a senior American official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

Russia has denied U.S. claims that it was responsible, but Kerry focused on its shifting explanation of what might have happened.

First, Kerry said, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary described the attack as a “necessary response” to an alleged offensive by al-Qaida-linked militants elsewhere in the country. Then, a Russian ambassador said forces were targeting another area.

Russia’s Defense Ministry followed by saying the aid convoy was accompanied by militants in a pickup truck with a mortar, Kerry said, adding that no such evidence exists. Then, the ministry denied any Russian or Syrian involvement as its spokesman suggested, in Kerry’s words, that “the food and the medicine just spontaneously combusted.”

“This is not a joke,” Kerry exclaimed, urging all to stop the “word games that duck responsibility or avoid the choices … with respect to war and peace, life and death.” His pleas crossed paths with another statement by Russia’s government, this time suggesting a U.S. coalition Predator drone was operating nearby when the convoy attack occurred. The Pentagon said no drone was in the area at the time.

It was one of Kerry’s most bitter exchanges with Moscow as secretary of state, laced with invective and outrage.

But he also offered one concrete suggestion to revive diplomatic hopes: to ground all aircraft in key areas, focused on protecting aid routes in northern Syria.

Kerry spoke immediately after Lavrov, whose comments underscored a breakdown in trust since the pair sealed the cease-fire agreement and potential U.S.-Russian military partnership against the Islamic State and al-Qaida 12 days ago. Much of the international community hailed that outcome, only to watch it unravel amid an upsurge in violence that included an accidental U.S. strike that killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers.

Lavrov said the U.S. bore the biggest responsibility for peace by separating opposition forces from terrorists. He called for the U.N. to expand its terrorism list to include groups at the fringes of a U.S.-backed rebel umbrella group and called Washington’s errant strike an “outrageous violation.”

The Russian also cited a series of truce violations by U.S.-backed rebel groups near the northern city of Aleppo. And in a not-so-subtle jab at Washington, he called Syria’s conflict, as well as those in Iraq and Libya, the “direct consequence” of foreign military interventions and “political engineering.”