Reprinted from Middle East Eye
Was the first ever US strike against Syrian government forces an intentional hit by the Pentagon to block military cooperation with Russia?
Another US-Russian Syria ceasefire deal has been blown up.
Whether it could have survived even with a US-Russian accord is open to doubt, given the incentives for al-Qaeda and its allies to destroy it. But the politics of the US-Russian relationship played a central role in the denouement of the second ceasefire agreement.
The final blow apparently came from the Russian-Syrian side, but what provoked the decision to end the ceasefire was the first ever US strike against Syrian government forces on 17 September.
That convinced the Russians that the US Pentagon had no intention of implementing the main element of the deal that was most important to the Putin government: a joint US-Russian air campaign against the Islamic State (IS) militant group and al-Qaeda through a "Joint Implementation Centre." And it is entirely credible that it was meant to do precisely that.
The Russians had a powerful incentive to ensure that the ceasefire would hold, especially around Aleppo.
In the new ceasefire agreement, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russsian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had negotiated an unusually detailed set of requirements for both sides to withdraw their forces from the Castello Road, the main artery for entry into Aleppo from the north. It was understood that the "demilitarization" north of Aleppo was aimed at allowing humanitarian aid to reach the city and was, therefore, the central political focus of the ceasefire.
The Russians put great emphasis on ensuring that the Syrian army would comply with the demilitarization plan. It had established a mobile observation post on the road on 13 September. And both the Russians and Syrian state television reported that the Syrian army had withdrawn its heavy weaponry from the road early on 15 September, including video footage showing a bulldozer clearing barbed wire from the road. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the Syrian army had withdrawn from the road.
But al-Qaeda's newly renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (previously the al-Nusra Front) had a clear incentive to refuse to comply with a move that could open the door to a US-Russian campaign against it. Opposition sources in Aleppo claimed that no such government withdrawal had happened, and said that opposition units would not pull back from positions near the road. On the morning of 16 September, the Syrian army moved back into positions on the road.
Kerry and Lavrov agreed in a phone conversation that same day that the ceasefire was still holding, even though humanitarian aid convoys were still stalled in the buffer zone at the Turkish border because of the lack of permission from the Syrian government, as well as uncertainty about security on the route to Aleppo.
But Kerry also told Lavrov that the US now insisted that it would establish the Joint Implementation Center only after the humanitarian aid had been delivered.
That crucial shift in US diplomatic position was a direct result of the aggressive opposition of the Pentagon to Obama's intention to enter into military cooperation with Russia in Syria. The Pentagon was motivated by an overriding interest in heading off such high-profile US-Russian cooperation at a time when it is pushing for much greater US military efforts to counter what it portrays as Russian aggression in a new Cold War.
At an extraordinary video conference with Kerry immediately after the negotiation of the ceasefire agreement was complete, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter strongly objected to the Joint Center -- especially the provision for sharing intelligence with the Russians for a campaign against IS and al-Qaeda.
Obama had overridden Carter's objections at the time, but a New York Times story filed the night of 13 September reported that Pentagon officials were still refusing to agree that the US should proceed with the creation of the Joint Implementation Center if the ceasefire held for seven days.