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- 09/19/16--05:23: _Syria ceasefire 'pr...
- 09/19/16--06:24: _Kerry says humanita...
- 09/19/16--13:57: _International aid t...
- 09/20/16--06:25: _UN suspends all con...
- 09/20/16--07:41: _'Sickening' airstri...
- 09/20/16--07:52: _US says Syria cease...
- 09/20/16--08:10: _Here’s how Skittles...
- 09/20/16--13:48: _US: Only Russia or ...
- 09/20/16--15:01: _Amal Clooney wants ...
- 09/21/16--08:04: _Kerry to Syria, Rus...
- 09/21/16--08:05: _Russia is sending i...
- 09/21/16--08:53: _Scarborough grills ...
- 09/21/16--10:05: _A Syrian warplane i...
- 09/21/16--14:01: _Secretary of US Air...
- 09/22/16--06:51: _Syrian President As...
- 09/22/16--12:11: _Here's the full tex...
- 09/22/16--20:08: _It's becoming clear...
- 09/23/16--02:02: _The Syrian army has...
- 09/23/16--06:44: _The fiercest airstr...
- 09/23/16--16:30: _This is how Europe ...
- 09/19/16--05:23: Syria ceasefire 'practically dead and has ended'
- 09/19/16--06:24: Kerry says humanitarian aid trucks will reach 8 locations in Aleppo
- 09/20/16--07:52: US says Syria ceasefire isn't dead, but others are skeptical
- 09/20/16--13:48: US: Only Russia or Syria could have bombed the UN aid convoy
- 09/20/16--15:01: Amal Clooney wants to prosecute Syria's president for war crimes
- 09/21/16--08:05: Russia is sending its flagship aircraft carrier to Syria's coast
- 09/22/16--12:11: Here's the full text of the collapsed secret Syrian ceasefire deal
- 09/22/16--20:08: It's becoming clear that the West cannot restrain Russia
- 09/23/16--02:02: The Syrian army has begun a new assault on rebel-held Aleppo
- 09/23/16--16:30: This is how Europe fights back against Russian disinformation
FA Syrian ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia was in deep trouble on Monday as a rebel official said it had practically failed and signaled insurgents were preparing for a full resumption of fighting.
Already widely violated since it took effect a week ago, the ceasefire came under added strain at the weekend when Russia said jets from the US-led coalition against Islamic State killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers in eastern Syria.
The US-Russian agreement marks the second ceasefire negotiated by Washington and Moscow this year in the hope of advancing a political solution towards ending the war, now in its sixth year, that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
But while the agreement has led to a significant reduction in fighting over the past week, violence has been increasing in recent days, and a planned delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged rebel-held districts of eastern Aleppo - one of the first steps in the deal - has been repeatedly postponed.
Plans to evacuate several hundred rebels from the last opposition-held district of Homs city have also overshadowed the agreement, with rebels saying it would amount to the government declaring the ceasefire over. The Homs governor said the plan had been postponed from Monday to Tuesday.
The collapse of the ceasefire, a major project of US Secretary of State John Kerry, could doom any chance of the administration of President Barack Obama negotiating a breakthrough on Syria before it leaves office in January.
Kerry overcame scepticism of other administration officials to hammer out the truce, gambling on cooperation with Russia despite the deepest mistrust in decades between the Cold War-era superpower foes. Washington and Moscow back opposite sides in the war between insurgents and President Bashar al-Assad's government, while both oppose the Islamic State jihadist group.
The politburo chief of one prominent Aleppo rebel group, Fastaqim, said the agreement had "practically failed and has ended", adding that it remained to be seen if anything could be done "in theory" to save it.
Zakaria Malahifji, speaking to Reuters from the Turkish city of Gaziantep, also indicated rebel groups were preparing for combat: "I imagine in the near future there will be action by the factions".
Fares al-Bayoush, the head of another rebel group operating in northern Syria under the western-backed Free Syrian Army umbrella, told Reuters "the truce in its current state cannot be continued".
The Syrian army meanwhile had yet to announce any extension of the seven-day ceasefire it declared on Sept. 12, which was due to expire at 11:59 p.m. (2059 GMT) on Sunday, according to the statement issued by the army command when the truce was announced.
UN official "pained" at Aleppo aid failure
The US-Russian deal set out steps including a nationwide ceasefire, aid deliveries, and joint US-Russian targeting of jihadists including Islamic State and a faction formerly known as the Nusra Front, which was al Qaeda's Syrian wing until it changed its name in July.
Washington hopes it will lead to talks on ending a war that has splintered Syria, uprooting 11 million people and creating the world's worst refugee crisis.
But it has faced enormous challenges from the outset, including how to disentangle nationalist rebels backed by the West from jihadists who are not covered by the deal.
And there has been no sign of compromise on the issue at the heart of the war: the future of Assad, who enjoys firm Iranian and Russian military backing that is buttressing his strongest military position in years. The dispute over his fate has made a mockery of all previous diplomatic efforts to end the fighting.
The last ceasefire, reached in February, unraveled over a period of weeks as fighting intensified, particularly in and around Aleppo, Syria's biggest city before the war and now potentially the war's biggest prize for pro-government forces.
The UN aid chief said an aid convoy destined for rebel-held eastern Aleppo was still stuck in Turkey.
"I am pained and disappointed that a United Nations convoy has yet to cross into Syria from Turkey, and safely reach eastern Aleppo," the UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O'Brien said in a statement.
The United Nations says it still lacks sufficient security guarantees from both sides to deliver aid to eastern Aleppo, the rebel-held half of the city which has been divided for years and which pro-government forces completely encircled this month.
Up to 275,000 people remain trapped in that part of the city without food, water, proper shelter or medical care, he added.
UN officials have blamed Damascus for blocking aid deliveries to other besieged, rebel-held areas.
The air strike on a Syrian army position by the US-led coalition on Saturday triggered a fierce war of words between Washington and Moscow, with Russia saying it put the agreement under threat.
A US official said the US military believed reports that about 60 Syrian troops were killed. Two Danish F-16 fighter jets and Australian aircraft took part in the raid.
The United States relayed "regret" about the unintentional loss of life. The Danish defense minister said on Monday "more credible sources" were needed before he could draw conclusions.
"I don't want to explore different scenarios until we are certain, that we have even hit Syrian soldiers," Minister of Defense Peter Christensen told local news agency Ritzau. "So far it's only a Russian report. I think we need others and more credible sources, before I conclude anything."
Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said on Sunday the air strikes aimed to sink the US-Russian ceasefire plan.
The Syrian government and its allies have mostly focused their firepower on western areas of the country that are of greatest significance to Assad, including the main cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama, Latakia, Tartous and Aleppo.
The planned evacuation of several hundred rebels from the last opposition-held district of Homs, al-Waer, has also endangered the deal. Rebels said that plan would amount to the government declaring the truce over.
The Homs governor Talal Barazi said the evacuation had been postponed due to "logistical obstacles", and negotiating committees were completing the preparations, state TV reported. He told journalists it would take place on Tuesday morning.
Barazi said on Sunday that between 250 to 300 rebels were due to be evacuated from Waer, on Monday. The opposition say such evacuations are part of a government strategy to forcibly displace its opponents after years of siege and bombardment.
The government has been seeking to conclude local agreements with rebels in besieged areas to give them safe passage to the insurgent stronghold of Idlib in northwestern Syria.
Humanitarian aid deliveries were expected to reach eight or more locations in areas of war-torn Syria on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said amid signs that a Syrian ceasefire may be in deep trouble.
"It was quite good last night," Kerry replied when asked whether the Syrian truce was holding, adding: "Trucks are moving today to maybe eight locations or more so we'll see where we are today. Let's wait..." He was speaking at the start of U.N. meetings in New York with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Air raids hit aid trucks near the city of Aleppo on Monday, a monitoring group reported, as the Syrian military declared that a week-long ceasefire was over.
The attacks were carried out by either Syrian or Russian aircraft, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that there had been 35 strikes in and around Aleppo since the truce ended.
The Observatory said the aid trucks had made a delivery organized by an international organization to an area west of Aleppo. The United Nations and Red Cross said they were investigating the reports.
A local resident told Reuters by phone that the trucks were hit by around five missile strikes while parked in a center belonging to the Syrian Red Crescent in the town of Urm al-Kubra, near Aleppo. The head of the center and several others were badly injured.
The monitoring group said it was not clear if the jets were Syrian or Russian. Moscow supports President Bashar al-Assad with its air force. The Syrian military could not immediately be reached for comment.
The air strikes appeared particularly heavy in insurgent-held areas west of Aleppo, near the rebel stronghold of Idlib province. And in eastern Aleppo, a resident reached by Reuters said there had been dozens of blasts.
"It started with an hour of extremely fierce bombing," said Besher Hawi, the former spokesman for the opposition's Aleppo city council. "Now I can hear the sound of helicopters overhead. The last two were barrel bombs," he said, the sound of an explosion audible in the background.
Abu al-Baraa al-Hamawi, a rebel commander, said the most intense bombardments had taken in place in areas west of Aleppo, the same area where the aid convoy was hit. "The regime and Russians are taking revenge on all the areas," he said.
The raids came as what is likely to be the final attempt by the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama to find a negotiated solution to the five year old civil war appeared close to collapse.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it was too early to call the ceasefire finished, and the United Nations said that only Washington and Moscow could declare it over, as they were the ones who had originally agreed it.
Washington said it was working to extend the truce but called on Russia to first clarify the Syrian army's statement that it was over.
Russian and U.S. officials met in Geneva on Monday to try to extend the truce, and the International Syria Support Group - the countries backing the Syria peace process - was scheduled to meet on Tuesday in New York to assess the agreement.
But both the Syrian army and the rebels spoke of returning to the battlefield.
Syria's army said the seven day truce period had ended. It accused "terrorist groups", a term the government uses for all insurgents, of exploiting the calm to rearm while violating the ceasefire 300 times, and vowed to "continue fulfilling its national duties in fighting terrorism in order to bring back security and stability".
Asked about the army's statement, Kerry told reporters in New York that the seven days of calm and aid deliveries envisaged in the truce had not yet taken place.
"It would be good if they didn’t talk first to the press but if they talked to the people who are actually negotiating this," Kerry said. "We just began today to see real movement of humanitarian goods, and let’s see where we are. We’re happy to have a conversation with them."
Aid was delivered to the besieged town of Talbiseh in Homs province on Monday, the Red Cross said, for the first time since July. The convoy brought in food, water and hygiene supplies for up to 84,000 people, it said.
But most aid shipments envisioned under the truce have yet to go in, especially a convoy destined for rebel-held eastern parts of Aleppo, where some 275,000 civilians are believed trapped without access to food or medical supplies.
"I am pained and disappointed that a United Nations convoy has yet to cross into Syria from Turkey, and safely reach eastern Aleppo," the U.N. Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O'Brien said in a statement.
The United Nations said it had received government approval to reach nearly all the besieged and hard-to-reach areas where it sought to bring aid, but access to many areas was still constrained by fighting, insecurity and administrative delays.
Already widely violated since it took effect, the ceasefire came under added strain at the weekend when Russia said jets from the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers in eastern Syria.
Assad called that incident "flagrant aggression". Washington has called it a mistake.
The ceasefire is the second negotiated by Washington and Moscow since Russia joined the war. But while it led to a significant reduction in fighting at the outset, violence has increased in recent days and aid has mostly failed to arrive.
Plans to evacuate several hundred rebels from the last opposition-held district of Homs city have also overshadowed the agreement, with rebels saying it would amount to the government declaring the ceasefire over. The Homs governor said the plan had been postponed from Monday to Tuesday.
An end to the truce could doom any chance of the Obama administration negotiating a Syriabreakthrough before it leaves office in January. Kerry overcame skepticism of other administration officials to hammer out the deal, gambling on cooperation with Russia despite the deepest mistrust in decades between the Cold War-era superpower foes.
Washington and Moscow back opposite sides in the war between Assad's government and the insurgents, while both oppose the Islamic State jihadist group. Russia joined the war a year ago on Assad's side, tipping it firmly in his favor.
The politburo chief of one prominent Aleppo rebel group, Fastaqim, said the agreement had "practically failed and has ended", adding that it remained to be seen if anything could be done "in theory" to save it.
Zakaria Malahifji, speaking to Reuters from the Turkish city of Gaziantep, also indicated rebel groups were preparing for combat: "I imagine in the near future there will be action by the factions".
Monitors reported clashes in and around Aleppo on Monday. The government blamed some of the violence on what it said was an insurgent assault, but another rebel official denied they had yet launched new attacks.
The opposition High Negotiations Committee spokesman Riad Nassan Agha said the government side had never committed to the truce: "Air raids by Russian and Syrian warplanes, which haven't stopped, suggest the truce never started in the first place."
(Additional reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard in Copenhagen, John Davison, Lisa Barrington and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Lesley Wroughton in New York, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry and Peter Graff; Editing by Giles Elgood)
BEIRUT (AP) — The U.N. humanitarian aid agency suspended all convoys in Syria on Tuesday following deadly airstrikes on aid trucks the previous night that activists said killed at least 12 people, mostly truck drivers and Red Crescent workers.
The attack plunged Syria's U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire further into doubt. The Syrian military, just hours earlier, had declared the week-long truce had failed. The United States said it was prepared to extend the truce deal and Russia — after blaming rebels for the violations — suggested it could still be salvaged.
It was not clear who was behind the attack late on Monday, which sent a red fireball into the sky in the dead of night over a rural area in Aleppo province. Both Syrian and Russian aircraft operate over the province, while the U.S.-led coalition targets the Islamic State group in other parts of the country.
In Geneva, spokesman Jens Laerke of OCHA said on Tuesday that further aid delivery would hold pending a review of the security situation in Syria in the aftermath of the airstrikes. Laerke called it "a very, very dark day... for humanitarians across the world."
But a member of the Syrian Civil Defense — a group of volunteer first responders also known as the White Helmets — criticized the U.N. humanitarian aid agency for suspending the convoys.
Ibrahim Alhaj told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Syrian civilians will pay the price for the decision — and that the U.N. should have condemned the attacks on the convoy rather than suspending aid.
Laerke, the U.N. aid coordinator, said the Syria government had granted needed authorizations in recent days to allow for aid convoys to proceed inside Syria. Humanitarian U.N. aid deliveries had stalled in recent weeks amid continued fighting, and the truce had not paved the way for expanded convoys as initially expected.
Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the civil war, and Aleppo-based activist Bahaa al-Halaby both said the attack killed 12 people.
Among the victims was Omar Barakat who headed the Red Crescent in the town where the attack occurred, they said. The Syrian Civil Defense, the volunteer first responder group also known as the White Helmets, confirmed that casualty figure.
The convoy, part of a routine interagency dispatch operated by the Syrian Red Crescent, was hit in rural western Aleppo province. The White Helmets first responder group posted images of a number of vehicles on fire and a video of the attack showed huge balls of fire in a pitch black area, as ambulances arrive on the scene.
U.N. officials said the U.N. and Red Crescent convoy was delivering assistance for 78,000 people in the town of Uram al-Kubra, west of the city of Aleppo. Initial estimates indicate that about 18 of the 31 trucks in the convoy were hit, as well as the Red Crescent warehouse in the area.
When asked who was behind the airstrikes, Abdurrahman said Syrian President Bashar Assad's "regime does not have the capabilities to carry out such airstrikes within two hours."
He said the airstrikes on Aleppo province, including the ones that hit the convoy, were part of some 40 air raids that lasted about two hours — starting at about 7:30 p.m. Monday — and that "it was mostly Russian warplanes who carried out the air raid."
Al-Halaby said that rebels in Aleppo province also claimed Russian aircraft were behind the attack.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group in Syria, said Russia's air forces and government warplanes dropped 25 bombs damaging some 20 trucks and destroying the Red Crescent warehouse in Uram al-Kubra.
Abdurrahman said the convoy of about 30 trucks had crossed earlier from a government-controlled area and were hit from the air hours after they reached the Red Crescent warehouse. He said that some of the trucks were already emptied when the attack occurred and that in all, 20 trucks were destroyed or damaged.
A paramedic, speaking in a video released by Aleppo 24 News, a media collective, blamed Russian and government warplanes as well as Syrian army helicopter gunships that he said dropped barrel bombs.
Piles of white bags filled with flour were seen near one of the trucks.
Photos posted by Aleppo 24 News showed what appears to be an SUV riddled with shrapnel, its windshield blown out. Another one shows damaged trucks filled with bags parked in front what appeared to be a building. Others show three damaged trucks parked on the road.
Jan Egeland, humanitarian aid coordinator in the office of the U.N. envoy for Syria, told The Associated Press in a text message that the convoy was "bombarded."
Egeland added, "It is outrageous that it was hit while offloading at warehouses."
U. N. Humanitarian Chief Stephen O'Brien called on "all parties to the conflict, once again, to take all necessary measures to protect humanitarian actors, civilians, and civilian infrastructure as required by international humanitarian law."
A Red Crescent official in Syria confirmed the attack, but said no further information was available.
Also Tuesday, the Observatory said government forces launched an offensive in the Handarat area, just north of the city of Aleppo, in what appears to be an attempt to tighten the siege on rebel-held parts of Syria's largest city.
Apart from the 12 killed in the convoy attack, 22 civilians died in attacks Monday across the province, according to the Observatory and Aleppo 24 News.
Keaten reported from Geneva. Associated Press writer Philip Issa in Beirut contributed to this report.
A week into a cease-fire in Syria brokered by Russia and the US, Russian-made warplanes hit a UN aid convoy traveling to the besieged town of Aleppo to provide relief to Syrians at the scene of some of the most intense fighting in the country's five-year civil war.
At least 18 of 31 trucks in a UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy were hit and 12 people were killed, according to Reuters.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the airstrike "sickening" in remarks on Tuesday at the UN General Assembly in New York.
"Present in this hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all sides of the Syria conflict against Syrian civilians,"Ban said.
"It started with an hour of extremely fierce bombing," Besher Hawi, the former spokesman for the opposition's Aleppo city council, told Reuters of the air raid. "Now I can hear the sound of helicopters overhead. The last two were barrel bombs."
Because the Syrian regime, which has been linked to chemical warfare against civilians and other war crimes, flies Russian-made jets, it can be hard for ground forces distinguish them from the Russian air force, which also carries out airstrikes in Syria, reportedly sometimes on hospitals or with banned munitions.
Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told The Associated Press that the Syrian air force "does not have the capabilities to carry out such airstrikes within two hours." Abdurrahman added that "it was mostly Russian warplanes who carried out the air raid."
Future of US-Russian relations
"The United States is outraged by reports that a humanitarian aid convoy was bombed near Aleppo today," State Department spokesman John Kirby said. "The United States will raise this issue directly with Russia. Given the egregious violation of the cessation of hostilities we will reassess the future prospects for cooperation with Russia."
Secretary of State John Kerry had described the cooperation between the US and Russia as possibly "the last chance we have to save a united Syria," and that a truce between the two powers leading to negotiations to end the war "is the only realistic possible solution."
But the Syrian military has declared the cease-fire over, an official failure that comes to a close after the US mistakenly killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers in an airstrike, and the aid convoys Russia promised to let through to Aleppo were bombed.
While the US can claim it had faulty information on the position of the Syrian troops, the position of the UN aid convoy was known to all parties and clearly marked as a humanitarian effort.
A senior US official told Reuters he was not sure if US-Russian relations could be salvaged at this point, as the countries back opposite sides in the Syrian conflict, and their latest attempt at cooperation proved disastrous.
"At this point the Russians have to demonstrate very quickly their seriousness of purpose because otherwise there will be nothing to extend and nothing to salvage," the official told Reuters.
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States said that a Syria ceasefire was "not dead" on Tuesday even as other countries voiced skepticism that a U.S.-Russian deal to halt the violence could be revived.
Foreign ministers from 20 nations emerged with differing views after a meeting to explore how to revive the ceasefire shattered by a strike on a humanitarian aid convoy on Monday, with one minister asking if matters were already hopeless.
The United Nations suspended all aid shipments into Syria after Monday's deadly attack on a convoy carrying humanitarian supplies to a town near Aleppo, as a week-old U.S.-Russian sponsored ceasefire collapsed in renewed violence.
"The ceasefire is not dead," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters as he emerged from the gathering of the International Syria Support Group together with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The United States and Russia are on opposite sides of the 5-1/2-year-old civil war, with Moscow backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Washington supporting rebels seeking to topple him. Both countries share a commitment to defeat Islamic State militants.
The Syrian Red Crescent said the head of one of its local offices and "around 20 civilians" were killed in Monday's strike, which a war monitoring group blamed on Russian or Syrian aircraft.
Russia, which is allied to Assad's government, denied that either its air force or that of the Syrian armed forces was responsible. The Syrian army also denied blame.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier struck a decidedly pessimistic note about the chances of halting violence in the Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year, as he arrived for the meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
"We will have to reflect if there are ways back to negotiations on a truce, or if this has already become hopeless," Steinmeier told reporters before the meeting in a New York luxury hotel.
Speaking afterwards, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault also voiced doubts.
"It was a dramatic meeting. Is there still a chance this ceasefire will be effective? I can't answer that question," Ayrault told reporters. "Without (a) ceasefire it will be (a) spiral of war, but we have to be honest, the U.S.-Russian negotiation has reached its limits."
United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said the group would meet again in New York on Friday.
Tuesday's meeting included foreign ministers from 20 nations, lower officials from China, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, and representatives from the United Nations and the Arab League.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused the Syrian government of killing the most civilians during the civil war and said "powerful patrons that keep feeding the war machine also have blood on their hands."
In his final address to the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, Ban said the Syrian government "continues to barrel bomb neighborhoods and systematically torture thousands of detainees."
(Reporting by Yara Bayoumy, Denis Dyomkin, John Irish, Arshad Mohammed, Michelle Nichols, Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Howard Goller)
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An attack on a convoy carrying humanitarian supplies in the Aleppo area of Syria appeared to be an air strike but it was not carried out by coalition jets, U.S. Central Command spokesman Colonel John Thomas said on Tuesday.
"It was certainly not the coalition who struck from the air. It does look like an air strike," Thomas told reporters during a telephone briefing.
"The only other entities that fly in Syria are Russia and Syria," he said.
The incident could deal a powerful blow to the ceasefire, the latest attempt to halt a war in its sixth year.
The Syrian Red Crescent said the head of one of its local offices and "around 20 civilians" were killed in Monday's strike, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights blamed on Russian or Syrian aircraft.
Russia, which is allied with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad's government, denied that either its air force or the Syrian armed forces was responsible. The Syrian army also denied that it was involved in the attack.
The United Nations suspended aid shipments into Syria on Tuesday.
Thomas said the ceasefire in Syria was in jeopardy because of increased violence.
"This is not the vision that I think was put in place more than seven days ago, to try to get humanitarian assistance flowing into the area and try to decrease the level of violence," Thomas said.
On Saturday, Russia said that U.S. jets had killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers.
The strike triggered a war of words between Washington and Moscow and further strained the cessation of hostilities.
Thomas said a brigadier general would be appointed to investigate the incident.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Diane Craft)
Renowned human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has said that if Syrian President Bashar Assad is prosecuted for war crimes, she wants to be on the team.
Amal, who is married to actor George Clooney, has done work in the past advocating for Yazidi women, a religious minority in the Middle East that has been subjected to genocide at the hands of the terrorist group ISIS.
"If there is a prosecution of President Assad I would be delighted to work on it," Amal told Channel 4 News.
"I think the UN has concluded that the Syrian government has committed crimes against humanity and war crimes. They are not the only ones, there are other actors who have committed the same crimes. But I think there's little doubt that that's what we're dealing with."
Assad and the Syrian Army have been accused of various war crimes, including using chemical weapons against civilians and dropping barrel bombs indiscriminately.
It's unclear if an international criminal court will prosecute him for his alleged crimes.
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wants all aircraft over key humanitarian routes in northern Syria grounded in order to give peace a chance.
Kerry told the U.N. Security Council that such a step could restore credibility to efforts to end the five-year civil war and "give a chance for humanitarian assistance to flow unimpeded."
A U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement reached on Sept. 9 has all but collapsed. And the U.N. suspended aid deliveries after a strike on a humanitarian convoy this week that killed a dozen people.
Moscow (AFP) - Russia's defence minister said Wednesday that Moscow will dispatch its flagship aircraft carrier to bolster its forces in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Syria.
"Currently the Russian naval deployment to the east Mediterranean consists of no less than six battleships and three or four support vessels," minister Sergei Shoigu said, Russian news agencies reported.
"In order to bolster the military capabilities of the group we plan to add the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier to the group."
Hillary Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook stumbled Wednesday when pressed on how the Democratic presidential nominee's policy on Syria would differ from that of the current administration.
Mike Barnicle and Willie Geist grilled Mook on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" about what Clinton would do about the Syrian civil war, which has dragged on for five years with no end in sight.
Toward the end of the questioning, host Joe Scarborough jumped in and confronted Mook, saying, "We love you, buddy, but what are you here for if you can't answer basic questions?"
It started with Mook seeming unwilling to answer policy questions posed by Geist and Barnicle.
"Hillary Clinton was secretary of state when this crisis began," Geist said. "What's her biggest regret about the way Syria's been handled?"
Clinton served as secretary of state under Obama from 2009 until 2013, and Mook pointed out that she wasn't in office when the Syrian crisis accelerated. Geist then noted that she was, however, serving in that role when the conflict started in 2011.
"Well, right, but, you know, yeah. She — I think she's well regarded for her leadership as secretary of state," Mook said. "She came out of that office with a 70% approval rating."
Mook then pivoted to attack Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee.
"She in contrast to Donald Trump has released a clear and decisive plan to defeat ISIS," Mook said. "Donald Trump has said that he thinks he knows more about it than the generals and refuses to tell us what his secret plan is."
Geist continued pressing him.
"What about in Syria, though? She supported the drawing of the red line," Geist said, referring to a "red line" from the Obama administration stipulating that the US would intervene if the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against civilians.
Geist asked: "Obviously she was out of her office when Assad used chemical weapons. Was it a mistake to draw the red line if the president was not willing to do something about it when it was crossed?"
Mook again dodged.
"Well, as you pointed out, the decision regarding that was made after she was out of office, so I think you'd have to ask President Obama," he said.
Geist then asked whether Clinton was disappointed in the handling of the red-line issue. Obama declined to strike Assad after evidence of the chemical weapons attack emerged, instead brokering a deal with Russia for the removal of the regime's arsenal of chemical weapons.
"I think you'd have to ask her about that question, how she would characterize it," Mook said.
Geist pointed out that Mook was "here to speak for" Clinton. But Mook again changed the subject to attack Trump.
"Look, what matters is what she is going to do as president," Mook said. "As I said, she has a clear plan to defeat ISIS. Donald Trump does not. It's a secret. He won't tell anybody what it is and he says he knows more than the generals. I think the choice is clear."
Barnicle later jumped in to press Mook further.
"So, Robby, we do realize that you are not secretary of state, but in the debate next Monday evening how would Secretary Clinton respond to somewhat of a version of the following question, we've had a relief convoy bombed, potentially a war crime, leading into Aleppo," Barnicle said.
"What would you do, Secretary Clinton, about providing food, water, and medicine to the citizens of eastern Aleppo today, right now, differently than what the Obama administration is doing?"
But Mook again demurred.
"Again, I think you're going to have to ask her that question," Mook said. "That's a matter of policy, and I'm going to leave it for her."
That's when Scarborough jumped in.
"We love you, buddy, but what are you here for if you can't answer basic questions?" Scarborough said.
"I mean, I don't know if there's a — I mean, we may be tiptoeing into Gary Johnson territory here if you don't know the answer to that basic of a question," he said, referring to the Libertarian presidential nominee's seeming caught off guard when asked about the crisis in Aleppo in an interview. "What is the response to Aleppo? Then why do we have you here?"
Mook stuck to his line.
"I think — look, you're asking new policy questions," he said. "You would have to ask the secretary."
Scarborough didn't back down.
"New? Aleppo's been around for — Syria's been around for some time," he said. "The red line being drawn has been around for some time. I'm not being difficult here at all — these are basic questions."
Mook stood his ground as well.
"I'm not being difficult either," he said. "I'm simply saying that she has laid out a plan to defeat ISIS, and if there are new questions pertaining to Aleppo, I'm going to need to let her answer those, and she will answer those in the debate, and we look forward to her having the opportunity to do that."
A Syrian warplane has crashed near the capital, but it's unclear if it was shot down or came down because of a technical fault.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said on September 21 that the aircraft crashed north of Damascus.
Syrian state media reported that the warplane crashed after carrying out a combat mission against the Islamic State (IS) group, and that the pilot was rescued.
The cause of the crash was not given.
The IS-affiliated Amaq news agency said the militants downed the plane after the aircraft carried out four raids against it.
The group claimed on September 18 to have shot down another Syrian warplane that crashed in eastern Syria.
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force’s top civilian leader didn’t mince words Sept. 20 when she doubted Moscow’s ability to make good on potential military cooperation with the United States in targeting Islamic State forces in Syria, saying Russia likely can’t be counted on to stick to the deal.
“This would be a ‘transactional’ situation, it’s not a situation where there’s a great deal of trust,” Air Force Sec. Deborah Lee James said during a briefing with reporters at the 2016 Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference.
US Secretary of State John Kerry announced a deal with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in mid-September, saying that coalition and Russian aircraft would work together to target terrorist forces in Syria after a week-long cease-fire. It is unclear whether the deal will stick after reports that an aid convoy was targeted during the lull in fighting, with both sides pointing fingers at the other for breaking the terms of the short truce.
Wading into diplomatic waters, James also warned that allying with Russia could anger US partners in the ongoing operations against ISIS in Syria, hinting that countries like Turkey and Baltic state partners would balk at cooperating on strikes if Russians are in the room.
“Coalition cohesion will be important,” James said. “We have more than 60 countries participating in this — we wouldn’t want to lose coalition members.”
But James offered her starkest critique of the Russian military on an issue that has increasingly plagued American military efforts overseas in the court of public opinion. Top US military officials are worried that if Russia and the US are jointly running air strikes, America will share the blame for bombs that go astray.
“We are extremely precise with our weaponry, Russia is not,” James said. “So we would want to have some form of accountability for the dropping of these weapons to ensure that if there are civilian casualties, clearly it’s not us.”
Military officials have been increasingly pressed on how the US and its allies would work alongside Russian forces in Syria on everything from coordinating air strikes to sharing intelligence on enemy positions. Most military leaders, particularly in the Air Force, have taken a "wait and see" attitude, wondering whether the diplomatic rapprochement will ever result in a military alliance.
“Once the decisions are made on how this cooperation will occur … and we see that the cease-fire holds for the time that the secretary of state has laid out, then we’re going to step very carefully to make sure that what is said in terms of the intent actually results in actions,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.
President Bashar Assad rejected accusations that Syrian or Russian planes struck an aid convoy in Aleppo or that his troops were preventing food from entering the city's rebel-held eastern neighborhoods, blaming the for the collapse of a cease-fire many had hoped would bring relief to the war-ravaged country.
In an interview with The Associated Press in Damascus, Assad also said deadly airstrikes on Syrian troops last week were intentional, dismissing American officials' statements that they were an accident. Assad said the lacked "the will" to join forces with Russia in fighting extremists.
Assad, who inherited power from his father and is now in his 16th year in office, cut a confident figure during the interview — a sign of how his rule, which once seemed threatened by the rebellion, has been solidified by his forces' military advances and by the air campaign of his ally Russia, which turned the tables on the battlefield last year.
He said his enemies alone were to blame for nearly six years of devastation across Syria, and while acknowledging some mistakes, he repeatedly denied any excesses by his troops. He said the war was only likely to "drag on" because of continued external support for his opponents.
"When you have many external factors that you don't control, it's going to drag on and no one in this world can tell you when" the war will end, he said, insisting Syrians who fled the country could return within a few months if the , Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar stopped backing insurgents.
He spoke Wednesday in Damascus' Muhajireen palace, a white-stone building where he often receives guests, nestled among trees on the foothills of Qasioun Mountain. The Syrian capital, seat of Assad's power, has stayed relatively untouched throughout the conflict, spared the devastation inflicted on other, opposition-held areas of the country. In recent months, Assad's forces have taken rebel strongholds in suburbs of the capital, bolstering security and reducing the threat of mortar shells.
The attack on the aid convoy outside Aleppo took place Monday night, hitting a warehouse as aid workers unloaded cargo and triggering huge explosions. Footage filmed by rescuers showed torn flesh being picked from the wreckage. Witnesses described a sustained, two-hour barrage that included barrel bombs — crude, unguided explosives that the Syrian government drops from helicopters.
A senior administration official said the believes with a very high degree of confidence that a Russian-piloted aircraft carried out the strike. The official wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and asked for anonymity.
Assad dismissed the claims, saying whatever American officials say "has no credibility" and is "just lies."
Like Syria, Russia has denied carrying out the convoy bombing.
Syria and the United States have been at loggerheads since the Sept. 17 airstrike last week that hit Syrian troops in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.
officials said the attack — its first direct hit on Syrian forces since the civil war began — was accidental and that the warplanes thought they were targeting Islamic State group positions.
Russia said the strikes killed more than 60 Syrian troops, and afterward, IS militants briefly overran government positions in the area until they were beaten back.
Assad said he did not believe the American account and said that attack targeted a "huge" area constituting of many hills.
"It wasn't an accident by one airplane... It was four airplanes that kept attacking the position of the Syrian troops for nearly one hour, or a little bit more than one hour," Assad said in the interview. "You don't commit a mistake for more than one hour."
"How could they (IS) know that the Americans are going to attack that position in order to gather their militants to attack right away and to capture it one hour after the strike?" Assad asked. "So it was definitely intentional, not unintentional as they claimed."
The strikes contributed to the collapse of the cease-fire, which had already been marred by numerous violations on both sides of the conflict. They also cast serious doubt on chances for implementing an unprecedented -Russian agreement to jointly target militants in the country.
Assad said the United States lacked the will to work with Russia against extremists in Syria. "I don't believe the United States will be ready to join Russia in fighting terrorists in Syria," he said.
Despite extensive evidence to the contrary, Assad repeatedly denied that his forces were besieging opposition-held eastern Aleppo, which has become a symbol both of resistance and also the high price civilians are paying in the war.
He flatly denied claims of malnutrition and a chronic lack of medical supplies.
"If there's really a siege around the city of Aleppo, people would have been dead by now," Assad said, asking how rebels were able to smuggle in arms but apparently not food or medicine.
The ancient city, now partly destroyed, has been carved out into rebel and government-controlled areas since 2012. Rebel reinforcements broke a hole in the blockade in August. But in heavy bombardment over the following weeks, more than 700 civilians were killed. Earlier this month, Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes retook the roads and the siege resumed.
Since then, the U.N. has accused Assad's government of obstructing aid access to the city, despite an agreement to allow aid in during the weeklong cease-fire. During the brief cease-fire, trucks carrying aid sat idle by the nearby Turkish border, awaiting permits and safety guarantees.
Throughout the conflict, Assad's forces have been accused of bombing hospitals and civilians and choking opposition cities. Millions have fled Syria, some of them drowning at sea in the Mediterranean.
The war has been defined by gruesome photos and video posted in the aftermath of bloody attacks or documenting the plight of children in particular. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, and once thriving cities have been ravaged, with entire blocks reduced to rubble. The images have galvanized public opinion worldwide -- but Assad, while acknowledging that the war had been 'savage,' said eyewitness accounts should not be automatically believed.
"Those witnesses only appear when there's an accusation against the Syrian army or the Russian (army), but when the terrorists commit a crime or massacre or anything, you don't see any witnesses... So, what a coincidence," he said.
Assad scoffed at the idea that Syria's "White Helmets"— civil defense volunteers in opposition held areas seen by many as symbols of bravery and defiance — might be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize after a nomination earlier this year.
"What did they achieve in Syria?" he said. "I would only give a prize to whoever works for the peace in Syria."
The group shared this year's Right Livelihood Award, sometimes known as the "Alternative Nobel," with activists from Egypt and Russia and a Turkish newspaper, the prize foundation announced Thursday.
Asked about his methods, including the use of indiscriminate weapons, Assad said "when you have terrorists, you don't throw at them balloons, or you don't use rubber sticks for example. You have to use armaments."
The following is the text of the Syria cease-fire agreement reached by the United States and Russia on Sept. 9, 2016.
While the truce appears to have all but collapsed amid Syrian government and rebel violations, Washington and Moscow say they're committed to trying to revive the deal.
When the agreement was struck, the former Cold War foes decided to keep it confidential. Other powers, such as France, have complained about the secrecy.
Both the U.S. and Russia in recent days have spoken of making the document public. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the agreement. The document is time-stamped Sept. 9 at 10 p.m.
Reducing violence, restoring access and establishing the JIC
The Russian Federation and the United States (hereafter - "the Sides") intend to undertake joint efforts to stabilize the situation in Syria, with special measures for the Aleppo region. Delineation of territories controlled by ISIL, "Jabhat Al-Nusra," and moderate armed opposition forces remains a key priority, as does separating moderate opposition forces from Nusra.
The Sides will designate a date and time at which the following measures will go into effect (designated as Day "D'').
1. On Day "D," all parties to the cessation of hostilities (CoH) in Syria will recommit to the CoH and honor its terms in full, as set forth in the February 22, 2016 Joint Declaration of the Russian Federation and the United States, for a 48 hour period. In particular, these terms include: ceasing all attacks with any weapons, including aerial bombardments, rockets, mortars, and anti-tank guided missiles; refraining from acquiring or seeking to acquire territory from other parties to the CoH; allowing humanitarian agencies rapid, safe, unhindered and sustained access throughout areas under their operational control and allowing immediate humanitarian assistance to reach all people in need; employing proportionate use of force (i.e. no greater than required to address an immediate threat) if and when responding in self-defense. The Sides will agree and inform all parties as to the date and time for "Day D."
2. On D+2, if the CoH in Syria has continued to hold to the mutual satisfaction of the Sides, they will extend it for a mutually agreed upon period of time. Subsequently, the Sides may decide to extend the CoH indefinitely, under the same terms. The Sides will use their influence with the parties to fully honor the terms of the CoH.
3. Special measures will also go into effect for the Castello Road area in Aleppo (as defined by mutually determined coordinates), specifically:
a. Beginning Day D, and even prior to the establishment of checkpoints on the Castello road, humanitarian assistance will be delivered consistent with the terms of the CoH and established UN procedures, and in coordination with relevant UN representatives. At the Turkish border, the UN Monitoring Mission (UNMM) will continue to inspect and seal the trucks designated for delivery of humanitarian assistance via Castello Road to Eastern Aleppo. The seals will not be broken and the trucks will not be opened by any authority between the point of their review and sealing in Turkey and the point of their unloading at UN and its partners' warehouses in east and west Aleppo.
b. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) (or another agreed upon third party) will operate as soon as possible two checkpoints (at agreed upon locations) to verify that, until the UNOPS (or another agreed upon third party) checkpoints are established as clearly described below in this paragraph, only trucks inspected by the UNMM are transiting the road, and that the seals have not been broken. A small detachment of no more than twenty armed personnel per shift provided by, and mutually acceptable to, the government and opposition forces, will provide security for the SARC personnel at the checkpoints on the western and eastern ends of the Castello Road, respectively. The UN will monitor (by physical presence or remotely) the activities of all personnel at the checkpoints. These SARC-manned checkpoints and physical security for them will be handed over to independent, international personnel under the direction of UNOPS (or another agreed upon third party), as soon as they can be deployed. These internationally-managed checkpoints will provide for the phased-in unrestricted movement of all humanitarian, commercial and civilian traffic on Castello Road, as well as the non-use of the road for the transport of weapons (in accordance with procedures to be developed). Phasing will proceed as quickly as possible, when those managing the checkpoints assess, in consultation with the UN and the Sides, that they have the capabilities to accommodate the traffic in a safe and orderly manner.
c. Simultaneous with the establishment of the SARC (or another agreed upon third party) checkpoints indicated in 3(b), pro-government forces and opposition units will pull back simultaneously from Castello Road, and the vacated area will be considered a "demilitarized zone."
Specifically, pro-government forces will:
—Pull back heavy weapons such as armored fighting vehicles and infantry fighting vehicles (other than BTR-60 and BMP-1 without ATGM), tanks, artillery, and mortars, to a distance of 3,500m north of the road;
—Pull back crew-served machine guns, BTR-60 and BMP-1 without ATGM to a distance of 2,500m north of the road;
—Pull back all personnel, other than those present at two observation posts, to a distance of 1,000m north of the road armed with only small arms or light machine guns;
—On the south side of the road, pull back all personnel, weapons and equipment to a distance of 500m from the road;
—Establish up to two observation posts no less than 500m north of Castello road. The locations will be mutually agreed upon, depending on terrain, with a staff of up to 15 persons equipped with small arms only for self-defense and observation equipment;
—Not impede any humanitarian, civilian and commercial traffic transiting Castello Road; and
—Not occupy areas that opposition groups vacate or set up positions in the demilitarized zone, other than the observation posts.
Opposition forces will simultaneously undertake the following actions:
—On the eastern end of Castello Road on the agreed-upon map (to be determined), the opposition will operate depending on the actions of the Kurdish militia units: if the Kurds are present north of Castello Road, the opposition will remain in place; if the Kurds pull back 500m south of Castello Road, the vacated area will be considered to be demilitarized and the opposition groups will pull back 500m north of the road;
—On the western end of Castello Road (on the line of contact extending north from the Castello shopping complex), the opposition pullback will be conducted analogous to the withdrawal of pro-government forces enumerated above.
—Opposition groups located in the 31/15 quadrant of the Russian-provided map, to the north of the Castello shopping complex, will:
—Pull back heavy weapons such as armored fighting vehicles and infantry fighting vehicles (other than BTR-60 and BMP-1 without ATGM), tanks, artillery, and mortars, to a distance of 3,000m north;
—Pull back crew-served machine guns, BTR-60 and BMP-1 without ATGM to a distance of 2,500m north;
—Pull back all personnel to a distance of 1,000m north with only small arms or light machine guns;
—Along the portion of the road that runs from the Castello shopping complex to near the Layramoun Circle, the opposition groups will pull back personnel and weapons to 500m north of Castello Road. This mirrors the pullback of pro-regime forces to 500m south of the Castello Road between those points;
—Not impede any humanitarian, civilian and commercial traffic transiting Castello Road;
—Will not occupy areas that pro-regime forces vacate or set up positions in the demilitarized zone, other than the observation posts; and
—The opposition will make every effort to prevent Nusra forces from advancing into the demilitarized zone from opposition-held areas adjacent to it.
d. Any Syrians can leave Aleppo via Castello Road, including armed opposition forces with their weapons, with the understanding that no harm will come to them and they can choose their destination. Opposition forces leaving Aleppo with weapons must coordinate ahead of time with UN representatives as to the time they will be using Castello Road and the number of personnel and weapons and military equipment departing. It is also understood that no harm will come to civilians or to opposition forces who abide by the CoH and who choose to remain in Aleppo.
e. Any reported violations of the demilitarized zone by any party will be addressed by the United States and Russia. In the event of a penetration of the demilitarized zone by fighters from Nusra after the JIC has been established, the United States and Russia will act in accordance with the provisions of the JIC Terms of Reference (ToR).
f. On Day D, both pro-government forces and opposition groups in the Ramouseh gap will provide safe, unhindered and sustainable humanitarian access to eastern and western Aleppo. They will also facilitate unrestricted movement of all commercial and civilian traffic on the Khan Tuman Road in the Ramouseh Gap in coordination with the UN and establish a monitoring mechanism to be agreed to by the Sides and the UN as soon as possible to ensure access is unimpeded. For this purpose, technical teams from the Sides and the UN will convene by D+4. The delivery of humanitarian assistance will be consistent with the terms of the CoH and established UN procedures, and in coordination with relevant UN representatives. Neither the opposition groups nor pro-government forces will launch attacks within the area indicated in the attached map, and according to the corresponding geo-coordinates (hereinafter referred to as the "area"). Neither the opposition groups nor pro-government forces will attempt to acquire new territory from the other in the "area."
4. The Sides will confirm to each other that the Syrian government and opposition have agreed to adhere to the applicable obligations in the JIC's ToR, including with respect to the Designated Areas (per geo-coordinates agreed upon by the Sides) where Syrian military aircraft cannot operate, except for agreed non-combat flights, and where the Sides will develop targets for action against Nusra.
5. The Sides will announce the establishment of the JIC, on the basis of the ToR and Designated Areas agreed by the Sides, once measures in paragraphs 1-4 above (with exception of the deployment of UNOPS checkpoints and associated movement of commercial and civilian traffic on the Castello Road and the implementation of the monitoring mechanism referenced in paragraph 3(f)) have been implemented to their mutual satisfaction, including at least seven continuous days of adherence to the CoH.
Ref A - Annex
—The Sides will commence preparatory work for the JIC, beginning Day D. These preparations will include initial discussion and sharing of information necessary for the delineation of territories controlled by Nusra and opposition groups in the areas of active hostilities for the purpose of the ultimate operation of the JIC. The more comprehensive process of delineation will be conducted by experts once the JIC is established. Preparations for the JIC will also include: identifying suitable interim and long-term premises; determining necessary working procedures, consistent with the already agreed Terms of Reference (TOR); and determining if there are mutually agreeable adjustments that should be made, consistent with changes on the ground, to the already agreed map of the Designated Areas, so that the JIC can be fully functional as soon as there are seven continuous days of adherence to the CoH and access to Aleppo as per the terms of this understanding.
—In the period between Day D and the establishment of the JIC, the Sides will each develop actionable Nusrah and Daesh (ISIL) targets so as to be in a position to share them in a way that allows strikes to commence on the day the JIC is established. Simultaneous with U.S. or Russian strikes on targets agreed to within the JIC, all Syrian military air activities - fixed and rotary wing - will be halted in the agreed designated areas pursuant to the agreed ToR.
—On Day D, the government and opposition groups that are parties to the CoH shall confirm to the Sides their commitment to the CoH. Any violation of the CoH before or after the JIC is established will be dealt with in accordance with the terms for the CoH agreed to in the Joint Statement of February 22, 2016 and the Standard Operating Procedures to Support the Cessation of Hostilities of March 28, 2016.
—The Sides commit to expedite the deployment of UNOPS on Costello Road as agreed in paragraph 3(b).
—Day D will commence at 19:00 Damascus time on Monday, 12 September, 2016.
—Each Side reserves the right to withdraw from this arrangement if they believe the terms have not been fulfilled.
Only days after the latest ceasefire agreement came into force in Syria, a United Nations aid convoy en route to Aleppo was attacked and destroyed.
The UN was quick to declare this both a premeditated attack and a war crime. Citing air space intelligence, the US government released a statement accusing the Russian Air Force of responsibility, detailing the presence of two Russian Sukhoi SU-24 fighter aircraft in the area at the time of the attack.
The Russian government has denied the accusations, stating that the US has “no facts”, and responded with drone footage of the convoy allegedly showing that anti-government militias were using it as cover.
At the same time, it argued that the explosion did not come from the air, and was in fact a militant attack on the convoys. (The convoy was travelling through militant-held territory at the time of the strike.)
The attack on the convoy follows the pattern of accusation and denial that has characterised the public diplomacy argument between Russia and the West, though chiefly the US: the US or UN makes a statement, and Russia responds with an equally publicly credible alternative.
This back-and-forth pattern has played out many times in Syria and Ukraine, with both sides playing to their own constituencies rather than talking to each other – whether over the downing of flight MH17, Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, or the definition of what counts as a “rebel” or “extremist” group.
This stands in contrast to the coalition forces' response to a bombing attack that killed 60 Syrian troops on September 19, after the ceasefire began. When that incident came to light, the US, Australia and the UK all admitted they had participated in the attack, and announced investigations into the protocol and command used to identify targets.
All of this says two things. The first is that the fractured relations between Russia and the West over Syria cannot be reasonably separated from the tensions over Ukraine. With intense pressure on two fronts, the room for a common path to peace is fast disappearing.
The second is that the West has illustrated that it does not have the ability to restrain Russia in Syria, and much less in Ukraine. What ways has the West sought to restrain Russia already?
Diplomacy and sanctions
The diplomatic effort has been ongoing since Russia began its active military operations in Ukraine. The Minsk I and Minsk II agreements for peace in Ukraine were founded on a constructive diplomatic partnership between the US, EU and Russia.
In fact, the principles Minsk II sets out are still used by those monitoring the Ukranian conflict to determine what qualifies as a transgression by either side.
Diplomatic efforts in Syria have been even more extensive, with co-operation at the UN Security Council and through the joint military communication centre that oversees operations against the so-called Islamic State. Such diplomacy helped bring about the latest (now failed) ceasefire, which allowed the UN aid convoy into Syria in the first place.
But as the incident involving the convoy made painfully clear, the current state of diplomacy is bad and getting worse – and all the while, it’s under pressure from the sanctions on Russia that the US and EU have maintained since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
These sanctions focused on members of the Russian government and those with specific economic links to Vladimir Putin and key actors in his government, blocking international capital flows (including from oil companies) and freezing assets outside of Russia.
So far, the sanctions have been primarily intended to pressurise the elite rather than to directly affect everyday Russians, but plummeting oil and gas prices have had an impact on the cost of living, in turn putting extra pressure on Putin’s government.
More controversially, the West has tried to curb Russia’s influence in both NATO and Syria by using martial deterrence.
The North Atlantic Treaty obliges all NATO members to defend and come to the aid of another should they be threatened or attacked. Since the Ukraine crisis really began to escalate, we’ve duly seen NATO troops newly positioned in Eastern Europe, an uptick in joint military exercises, and a general rise in military and defence spending.
In Syria, the issue is more complex, especially in shared airspace that both the West and Russia are using to fight IS while Russia simultaneously uses it to attack anti-government militias.
The West and Russia can’t just posture; they have to both communicate and co-ordinate their various offensives to protect proxies, assets and soldiers on the ground. This is a very dangerous game to play – especially given that a new conventional war could potentially become a nuclear war.
The most effective restraint would probably be a binding agreement on a common path to peace in Syria, but the parties involved are nowhere close to agreeing on what such a peace should look like, much less the way to bring it about.
The picture is simply too clouded by the rift over the Assad government’s future, the operations against IS, and the role of Iran. And all the while, the US, Europe and Russia are still facing off over the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, with all the diplomatic strain that that entails.
Russia has proven very adept at using the Syria conflict to its advantage. It’s defending a sovereign government still in power, wields overwhelming superiority in terms of air power, and it’s working with both a well-trained Syrian National Army and highly motivated pro-government militias.
But in Syria as in Ukraine, Russia will eventually seek a peace settlement. The question is whether the West will have the courage to accept it and co-operate with Russia to implement it. Easing over the difficult Russian-Western relationship will require both sides to face realities they don’t like.
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Aleppo (Syria) (AFP) - Syrian and Russian aircraft pounded rebel-held areas of Aleppo on Friday, a monitor said, after the army announced a new offensive aimed at retaking all of the divided second city.
At least 30 strikes hit the rebel-held east of the city during the night and early on Friday, killing at least three people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Britain-based monitoring group said that dozens of people were wounded and that more dead were feared buried under the rubble.
Two civil defence centres were damaged in the bombardment, an AFP correspondent reported.
Russian warplanes were carrying out strikes alongside Syrian aircraft, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
"The Syrians are dropping barrel bombs and the Russian planes are launching strikes," he told AFP.
The raids came after the Syrian army announced late on Thursday that it was launching a new offensive to retake rebel-held parts of the city.
The Observatory said it was "a large-scale land offensive supported by Russian air strikes aimed at taking bit by bit the eastern sector of Aleppo and emptying it of its residents."
A truce deal hammered out between Russia and the United States briefly halted the violence earlier this month, but it collapsed after just a week without any of the promised deliveries of desperately needed relief supplies.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura warned: "What is happening is Aleppo is under attack and everyone is going back to the conflict."
Aleppo was once Syria's commercial and industrial hub but has been ravaged by fighting and roughly divided between government control in the west and rebel control in the east since mid-2012.
Rebel districts have been under siege by the army for most of the past two months after troops overran the last supply lines.
More than 300,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011.
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Warplanes launched some of the heaviest air strikes yet on rebel-held areas of Aleppo on Friday after the Russian-backed Syrian army declared an offensive to fully capture Syria's biggest city, killing off any hope of reviving a ceasefire.
Residents said the streets were deserted as the 250,000 people still trapped in the besieged opposition-held sector of Aleppo sought shelter from jets.
The rebels and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring body described raids by sophisticated jets they said must belong to Russia. Residents also spoke of attacks by helicopters using bombs made from oil drums, a tactic usually attributed to the Syrian army.
"Can you hear it? The neighborhood is getting hit right now by missiles. We can hear the planes right now," Mohammad Abu Rajab, a radiologist, told Reuters. "The planes are not leaving the sky, helicopters, barrel bombs, warplanes."
The intensive bombardment left no doubt that the Syrian government and its Russian allies had spurned a plea from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to halt flights to resurrect the ceasefire, which lasted a week before collapsing on Monday.
A rebel commander said the blasts were the fiercest the city had faced.
"I woke up to a powerful earthquake though I was in a place far away from where the missile landed," he said in a voice recording sent to Reuters. His group had "martyrs under the rubble" in three locations.
In a late night announcement on Thursday, the Syrian military announced "the start of its operations in the eastern districts of Aleppo", and warned people to stay away from "the headquarters and positions of the armed terrorist gangs".
The statement gave no details of what the operation may entail - eastern Aleppo had already been the target of intense air strikes on Thursday. A source close to Damascus told Reuters on Friday a major ground operation had yet to begin.
"Military operations include everything, and of course the most important part is the ground operation," the source said.
There was no immediate comment from the Russian or Syrian militaries on Friday's air strikes.
The Syrian army's declaration of the offensive coincided with international meetings on Syria in New York, the latest diplomatic efforts officially intended to revive the truce, which was brokered by the United States and Russia.
Its collapse, the same fate as all previous efforts to halt a 5-1/2-year-old war that has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, has doomed what may be the final bid for a peace breakthrough before President Barack Obama leaves office.
The Syrian government, strengthened by Russian air power and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias, has been tightening its grip on rebel-held districts of Aleppo this year, and this summer achieved a long-held goal of fully encircling the area.
The government already controls the city's western half, where fewer people have fled. Before the war, the city held nearly 3 million people and was Syria's economic hub.
Recovering full control of Aleppo would be the most important victory of the war so far for President Bashar al-Assad, who has sought to consolidate his grip over the western cities where the overwhelming majority of Syrians lived before fighting drove half of the nation from its homes.
The Observatory said there were at least 40 air strikes since midnight.
Ammar al Selmo, the head of civil defense rescue service in opposition-held Aleppo, said three of its four centers in Aleppo had been hit. "What's happening now is annihilation in every sense of the word," he told Reuters. "Today the bombardment is more violent, with a larger number of planes."
The U.S.-Russian agreement marked their second attempt this year to halt the war. It was supposed to bring about a nationwide ceasefire, improved humanitarian aid access, and a joint U.S.-Russian effort against jihadist groups including Islamic State and the Nusra Front, long al Qaeda's Syrian wing.
"Long, painful, difficult"
But the ceasefire collapsed into renewed bombardments on Monday, including an attack on aid convoy that Washington has blamed on Moscow, which denies involvement.
Assad remains characteristically defiant, saying on Thursday he expected the conflict to "drag on" as long as it is part of a global conflict in which the groups fighting him are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United States.
On Thursday at the United Nations, the United States and Russia failed to agree on how to revive the ceasefire during what U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura called a "long, painful, difficult and disappointing" meeting.
The International Syria Support Group, including Moscow, Washington and other major powers, met on the sidelines of the annual United Nations gathering of world leaders in New York.
"We have exchanged ideas with the Russians and we plan to consult tomorrow with respect to those ideas," Kerry said, expressing concern at the reports of the planned new Syrian offensive. "I am no less determined today than I was yesterday but I am even more frustrated."
Western states have backed Kerry's call to ground warplanes to create the right conditions for the truce. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault described Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's response to that proposal as "not satisfying."
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Peter Graff)
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For a little more than a year, a small group of eight officials with the EU’s European External Action Service (EEAS) has been working on a counter-propaganda strategy that reads like something out of the Cold War.
The initiative was the result of a decision at a summit of the European Council in March 2015 which concluded that action was needed to “challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”.
There was talk of a European Russian-language TV station to go head-to-head with RT,
Russia’s English language news and current affairs channel, but this never came to fruition – it was felt that, as with the New Cold War narrative so beloved of the mainstream media, it had the capacity to return EU-Russia relations to a state of “us-versus-them” relations in which both sides had engaged, essentially, in a propaganda war.
Nevertheless, by 2015, it had become difficult even for those EU states that were friendliest with Russia to pretend the Kremlin was not bent on a campaign of agitation against the West. The work of Kremlin trolls particularly had caused concern. Trolls use a range of methods, including concocting conspiracy theories, distorting the “facts” and delivering a barrage of pro-Kremlin and anti-Western messages, all designed to have insidious effects.
However, the problem went far deeper and wider. There are worries about the reach of Russian domestic media into the homes of Russian speakers in neighbouring states and the destabilising effects that can have. But anxiety has moved even further westwards– the Kremlin has invested heavily in international media projects, including RT. Russian media were accused of fuelling discord in Germany over its refugee policy, especially in relation to the New Year Cologne attacks and a little later, the alleged rape of a Russian girl.
Limits of the law
One strategy to counter this was to turn to the law in an attempt to bring Russian media to account for their propaganda-style methods. In March 2014, the British broadcasting regulator, Ofcom found TV Novosti, the licence holder for RT, guilty of four counts of breach of the impartiality code when covering events in Ukraine in March of the same year for UK audiences. Ofcom noted in its report that this was not the first breach by TV Novosti of impartiality standards.
The effectiveness of a recourse to law can be judged by the fact that Ofcom called for TV Novosti to “attend a meeting”, talking only about the possibility of regulatory action in the case of further breaches. This goes some way towards explaining the decision to establish the disinformation service.
Other reasons lie in Russia’s undeniable success in generating an impression of actively interfering in the domestic affairs of other states – even if not having actually done so. Nowhere has this been more visible than in the US election campaigns and especially the alleged hacking by Russians of the Democratic National Committee emails at a sensitive time for Hillary Clinton. Vladimir Putin’s comment that it didn’t really matter who hacked them, that it amounted to a public service, was a typically crafty way of maintaining legal deniability while giving the impression that it could if it wanted. This episode further illustrates the difficulty faced by the EU in countering Russian disinformation.
Claim and counter-claim
While the EEAS skirts around the term “propaganda”, events in recent days have made clear that the US considers that the West is engaged in a propaganda war with Russia. From the killing of Syrian soldiers by the US in an airstrike– which was regretfully acknowledged by Western sources which insist it was an accident – to the alleged Russian or Syrian airstrikes of an aid convoy in which 20 or more people – including aid workers – died, the two states are engaged in a war of words over the most terrible of circumstances.
In a UN Security Council meeting on September 21, a clearly exasperated US secretary of state, John Kerry, talked of the need for Russia to accept responsibility for its actions and of his Russian counterpart living in a “parallel universe”. Russia remained unmoved, continuing to insist on its concern that ceasefires not be used instrumentally by the opposition to win ground against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Understanding the context in which the EU has bolstered its strategic communications by focusing on a disinformation campaign is to understand it, therefore, as a reactionary force. Take the campaign website as the first component. Lest anyone doubt its purpose, the banner is clear on motivation, speaking of “pro-Kremlin disinformation”, “fake media stories”, with its boldest lettering reserved for the message “don’t be deceived, question even more”.
In its FAQs, the EEAS says its EastStratCom Task Force is not in place to “engage in counter-propaganda” but rather “to proactively promote the European Union’s policy towards the eastern neighbourhood”. Given the circumstances of its creation, its “EUMythbusters” tweets and the fact that its digest “does not constitute an official EU position”, these statements must be read with some scepticism.
All told, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that agreeing on the need to counter Russian disinformation is tacit admittance of a prior weakness on the EU’s part – even of a failure to be an effective communicator in its own right. Only time will tell whether the EU’s strategic communications can take on the more proactive and positively grounded direction the EEAS claims it already has.
At the same time, we should not dismiss the possibility that the harder line taken by the US in this regard may yet be adopted by the EU as well. This would signal a very negative step. Bridges, not barriers, are needed here. The EEAS is right to try and emphasise the objective of countering disinformation rather than trying to beat Russia in a propaganda war. The EU must also realise that Russia’s propaganda is, to a large extent, falling on fertile ground. Europe has a growing homegrown crisis as nationalism and populism takes hold in a number of its states and must resist the temptation to blame Russia for that.