WASHINGTON — The United States’ accidental bombing of Syrian troops over the weekend has put it on the defensive, undercutting American efforts to reduce violence in the civil war and open paths for humanitarian relief.
The United States had thought that if a deal to ease hostilities in Syria, struck by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart in Geneva nine days ago, fell apart, it would reveal Russia’s duplicity in the war, in which Moscow has supported the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Instead, the mistaken bombing — American pilots thought they were aiming at Islamic State jihadists but instead killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers, according to the Russian military — again exposed the White House’s struggle to put together a coherent strategy in a multisided war. The United States has conflicting aims in the war, from defeating the Islamic State to ultimately easing Mr. Assad out of office.
Nearly a year after Mr. Kerry began a diplomatic process to reduce the violence, and then a political accord for a transition in power, he appears no closer to that goal than when he started. The early American calls for Mr. Assad to leave office have been muted because of fears that a power vacuum in Damascus would be exploited by jihadists.
The errant bombing, for which the administration apologized to Mr. Assad, also gave both the Russians and the Syrian government a propaganda bonanza: Russia suggested it was a result of an American reluctance to share intelligence, and the Assad government said, contrary to all other evidence, that the United States was trying to protect the Islamic State.
The attempt to achieve seven consecutive days of a “reduction of hostilities” — the first step in a series of events envisioned in the deal between the United States and Russia — is not dead. The clock can start anew. But American officials said it was clear that the effort could fall apart, as did a cease-fire agreement in February.
American officials accused Russia of not pressing the Assad government to stop military activity and allow in humanitarian aid. Mr. Kerry, appearing on CNN on Sunday morning, called on Russia to stop “grandstanding” and to push the Assad government to honor the Geneva agreement, including allowing the delivery of aid to besieged areas.
“The biggest judgment they need to make is to stop Assad from bombing people indiscriminately, which he continues to do,” Mr. Kerry said. “To allow him to continue to go after opposition, pretending that they are Nusra, is in and of itself a huge challenge to this effort.”
The new plan to reduce violence was designed to prevent Syrian forces from bombing American-backed opposition groups while claiming the groups were embedded with Nusra forces, which until recently were officially linked to Al Qaeda.
The situation in Syria on Sunday showed that the cease-fire that began last Monday was fraying. Fighter jets fired at least four missiles at opposition neighborhoods in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, while Syrian government helicopters dropped improvised barrel bombs on a village in the country’s south, killing at least nine people, a conflict monitor said.
Many American officials believe that the Russians were never serious about the deal that was sealed in Geneva. The officials argue that the Russians were looking for an excuse that would derail it and keep a status quo in which they have more control over events in Syria than any other power, with the possible exception of Iran. If so, the accidental bombing made that process easier.
Mr. Kerry faced many skeptics in Washington that the arrangement he worked out with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, would ever work. Chief among them was Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, the only senior member of the administration to vocally oppose the deal on the night Mr. Kerry reached it in Geneva. Mr. Carter feared that the accord would reveal too much to the Russians about American targeting intelligence, and argued that Moscow was cynically dragging out the process in President Obama’s final months in office.
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Mr. Kerry had argued that it was worth testing the Russians on their willingness to act. But on Sunday, whatever optimism he once had seemed gone.
“The humanitarian assistance is supposed to be flowing,” Mr. Kerry said. “The regime once again is blocking it. So Russia’s client, Russia’s supported friend, is the single biggest blockade to the ability to move forward here.”
But the deadly bombing underscored how difficult it has been to ensure that the American and Russian militaries do not become entangled on Syria’s complicated battlefield, much less to coordinate their targeting.
Under the current system, terse phone calls between the Russian military and the American command post in Qatar are supposed to allow each side to notify the other about the movement of its jets — sometimes giving only minutes of warning.
This occurred on Saturday, when an American officer in Qatar called his Russian counterpart to tell him of the impending strike, according to a Central Command official. The American strikes began, and an urgent call came 20 minutes later, in which the Russians notified the Americans in Qatar that they were slaughtering Syrian troops.
“What is paradoxical here is that Centcom says it informed the Russian military it would be striking the area, which they had struck many times previously,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You would think the Russians, as Assad’s chief international ally, would have passed on the message.”
On Saturday, Mr. Kerry also called Mr. Lavrov to reiterate the need for the Syrian military to stop its bombings and for humanitarian aid to start flowing. As of Sunday morning, the situation had not improved, a State Department official said.
With world leaders and foreign ministers headed to New York for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Kerry will assemble a meeting Tuesday of the International Syria Support Group, the multinational body that has designed the plans for a reduction in violence and a political solution for Syria. That group includes the United States, Russia, China, Turkey, and European and Arab nations — each with different interests in the conflict.
Even after the quick admission by the United States that it had accidentally killed Syrian troops and regretted the loss of life, Russian and Syrian officials seized on the bombing to argue that it was the United States, and the opposition forces it backs, that were undermining the agreement. They said that the Syrians who had been killed had been fighting Islamic State jihadists, and that the bombing was far from an accident.
“The actions of coalition pilots — if they, as we hope, were not taken on an order from Washington — are on the boundary between criminal negligence and connivance with Islamic State terrorists,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, Reuters reported.
“We strongly urge Washington to exert the needed pressure on the illegal armed groups under its patronage to implement the cease-fire plan unconditionally,” the ministry said. “Otherwise, the implementation of the entire package of the U.S.-Russian accords reached in Geneva on Sept. 9 may be jeopardized.”
Sunday’s airstrikes in Aleppo, which is divided between government and opposition forces, were the first to hit the city since the agreement went into effect last Monday. It was unclear whether the strikes had been launched by Syrian or Russian jets, both of which frequently bomb the opposition.
It was also unclear whether the Aleppo strikes had killed anyone. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict from Britain, said four missiles had struck the city, but it did not report any deaths; medics in the city posted photos online of children they said had been wounded and killed in the strikes. The Observatory also reported nine dead in the barrel bomb attacks in southern Syria, as well as scattered shelling by government forces elsewhere in the country.
(via NY Times)