Errant U.S.-led Bombing in Syria a Gift to Assad and Russia

The Russians will use the mistake at Deir al-Zour to play down their own bombings in which they've killed thousands of civilians.

A bombed-out street in Aleppo, Syria, September 18, 2016.
AFP / Karam Al-Masri

Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, was in a hurry. His bosses told him to hold an impromptu press conference where, contrary to the agreements signed by Moscow and Washington, he revealed a few of the “secrets” in the Syrian cease-fire deal.

Nothing he said was new, certainly not the details on the separation of forces. Still, those details are interesting. There’s the separation between the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, or its new name, the Front for the Conquest of Syria. There’s also the separation between the Nusra Front and the rebel forces.

There’s no reason not to believe what Churkin said, especially because the United States is always going on explaining the reasons for its secrecy. An agreement to separate forces in the Aleppo area, the main battleground between government forces and the rebels, means the rebels must give up areas, or at least divide them up, with the Nusra Front.

This is particularly important because the rebels are cooperating with the Nusra Front in the fight for Aleppo. For the air forces of Russia, the United States and Syria to attack the likes of the Nusra Front, those factions must be separated from the rebels.

So far, Washington has rejected the demand for such a separation of forces; it could be it doesn’t want the details of the agreement published for fear its consent to divide the rebel forces will be seen as treason.

The Russians have claimed that the section on separating the rebel forces “is still not completely clear.” But they haven’t said where’s the disagreement, which could bring down the entire cease-fire.

It’s doubtful the rebels, at least in Aleppo, will agree to carry out a separation of forces with the Nusra Front, which holds strategic areas around the city. After all, such a separation could impede the cooperation between Nusra and the rebels in other areas of Syria such as Daraa and the Damascus suburbs.

The Nusra Front’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, has condemned the Russian-American agreement. He has proposed establishing a joint rebel force to fight the Syrian regime, and in doing so end what he calls the Russian-American conspiracy to keep Bashar Assad in power.

This proposal may not have been rejected out of hand by the rebel groups, but as long as the Nusra Front is considered out of bounds for any diplomatic process, the rebel groups will probably prefer to continue their military cooperation with Nusra without a merger of forces.

From this we see that a collapse of the cease-fire won’t actually hinge on the coalition bombing at Deir al-Zour, where dozens of people, including civilians and Assad troops, were killed. Rather, it will depend on Washington’s ability to preserve the sections of the agreement concerning the separation of the forces.

The bombing at Deir al-Zour may have been a gift from heaven for the Russians, who rushed to accuse the United States of violating the agreement. At the very least, it will serve as proof that the Americans aren’t coordinating their operations as agreed with Moscow.

But the Russians won’t violate the cease-fire over that. In any case, the Russians and Assad’s forces are continuing to attack in “agreed on” areas; they’re attacking both the Islamic State and the Nusra Front.

In addition, the American-led bombing gives the Russians PR cover that it can use to play down their own bombings in which they’ve killed thousands of civilians. The U.S. miscue is also a good excuse to convene the UN Security Council and use it to taunt Washington.

When the cease-fire is put to the test every day, or more accurately every hour, a few PR points take on great importance. After all, the two sides might trade accusations if the cease-fire collapses.

Forcing Washington into the corner of apologizing and justifying itself will become especially important in the run-up to the Geneva conference, for which a date still needs to be set. There, the parties are supposed to revive the negotiations for a diplomatic solution in Syria.

The cease-fire agreement states that after the two extensions, which ended over the weekend, the cease-fire will enter a permanent stage in which the diplomatic talks begin. The fate of these meetings is not clear; for example, the Syrian army has already declared the initial cease-fire over. But there’s no doubt the side seen guilty of violating the truce will have a hard time achieving its goals.

In this stormy dispute, at least there’s agreement on coordinating the war against the Islamic State. For the first time, Russia and the United States are acting in a single front against the terror group. That’s rare military coordination, and countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Israel are taking part.