September 18, 2016

The US-Russia deal to bring peace to Syria appeared to be hanging by a thread at the weekend after Moscow denounced an American air strike that killed dozens of Syrian soldiers.

Although the US said the air strike had been a mistake, Russia suggested that the incident was designed to undermine the truce that is the central part of the peace agreement outlined a week ago.

In an extraordinary exchange at the United Nations, the Russian ambassador accused the US of “demagoguery” and the US ambassador said Russia was “hypocritical”.

The stand-off comes days before a crucial deadline in the new peace deal when the US and Russian militaries need to decide whether they will begin to co-operate over air strikes against extremists. It also comes as world leaders assemble in New York for the United Nations General Assembly where the Syrian conflict will be one of the principle subjects of discussion.

US Central Command said on Saturday that an air strike near Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria was halted after Russian officials informed the US-led coalition that the target was Syrian military personnel and not Isis militants. The air strike was now under review, a US official said, adding that the US had alerted Russia about the upcoming air strike.

The Russian defence ministry said on Saturday that four military aircraft and one unmanned aerial vehicle from the US-led anti-Isis coalition had hit Syrian army units south of Deir Ezzor air base, killing 62 Syrian soldiers. Russian officials said the US had not provided plans about the intended air strike — a claim that the US military denied.

Russia called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Saturday evening to denounce the air strike. “It is quite significant, and frankly suspicious, that the United States chose to conduct this particular air strike at this time,” said Vitaly Churkin, Russian ambassador to the UN. “I would suggest it is not accidental that it happened just two days before the Russia-American arrangement was supposed to come into force.”

Accusing the US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power of “demagoguery of the highest order”, he said that in 40 years as a diplomat he had not seen “such an extraordinary display of American heavy-handedness as we are witnessing today.”

Ms Power described the Russian decision to call an emergency session about an air strike the US was already investigating as “a stunt replete with moralism and grandstanding”. Russia had never expressed outrage over the countless atrocities committed by the Assad regime, she said, including the use of chemical weapons and the “savagery” of extensive torture that had been documented in “meticulous detail”.

If the latest ceasefire holds until Tuesday, under the new US-Russian agreement the two militaries will set up a joint intelligence centre to co-ordinate air strikes against extremists in Syria.

Russian government and military officials say they believe the Pentagon has been resisting implementation of the deal, which was negotiated by US secretary of state John Kerry but about which US military officials have publicly raised questions.

“We believe that this incident with great human losses became possible because of the lack of understanding of the situation on the American side and the unwillingness of the American side to co-ordinate with Russia its actions against terrorist groups on the territory of Syria,” said Lt Gen Sergei Rudskoi, an official at the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces.

Mr Churkin added: “Who is in charge in Washington? Is it the White House or the Pentagon?”

A US official said that the coalition would “never strike a known unit of the Syrian military intentionally”.

Despite achieving markedly lower levels of violence, the ceasefire has been rocked by deep-seated distrust between the US and Russia. Moscow has accused Washington of violating the deal by failing to separate moderate opposition fighters from terrorist groups such as the former Jabhat al-Nusra.

The US state department on Friday called on Russia to ensure that humanitarian aid could reach Aleppo and other besieged areas of Syria — another central component of the new agreement. John Kirby, state department spokesman, said that the military co-operation unit with Russia would not be established unless “the agreed terms for humanitarian access are met”.

Both rebel groups and the Syrian regime say that ceasefire violations are escalating. “The ceasefire is looking harder and harder to sustain, I don’t know if we will make it through Monday,” said one rebel commander who declined to be named.

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