US, Russia Trade Charges of Syria Cease-Fire Violations

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands at the conclusion of a joint press conference after their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland on Sept. 9. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands at the conclusion of a joint press conference after their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland on Sept. 9. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP)

The Pentagon and the Russian military traded accusations Thursday of failing to live up to the "cessation of hostilities" agreement in Syria, casting doubt on the viability of the proposed deal for U.S.-Russian coordination on operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

"We're waiting for the [Syrian] regime and the Russians to comply with the terms" of the cessation arrangement by guaranteeing safe passage to a convoy of aid trucks that has been held up at the Turkish border, said Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary. "There will be no military coordination until those terms are met."

Russia countered that the U.S. was guilty of "non-fulfillment" of its own obligations under the cessation of hostilities to stop "moderate" rebels backed by the U.S. from attacking areas controlled by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In a Facebook posting, Russia's Defense Ministry said, "Only the Syrian army has been observing the ceasefire regime within these three days of implementation of the agreements while the US-led 'moderate opposition' has been increasing the number of shellings of residential quarters."

"From the first minute, Russia has been meeting its obligations to enforce the cessation of hostilities in Syria," the Defense Ministry said.

Cook said the cessation of hostilities was largely holding, but Staffan de Mistura, the special United Nations envoy for Syria, said in Geneva that there was still a red tape "problem" with getting the aid convoys moving.

De Mistura said the Syrian government had yet to provide "facilitation letters" that would allow aid convoys to pass through army checkpoints and reach besieged areas. "We cannot let days of this reduction of violence be wasted by not moving forward," he said.

Under the deal worked out by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, all parties involved in the Syrian civil war were to observe a cessation of hostilities starting on Monday that was to last seven days.

Kerry said Monday that the plan was "designed to advance the process of trying to reduce the violence so that we can get people to a table" and "begin to negotiate a political transition and the restoration of a peaceful and united Syria."

State Department spokesman John Kirby said, "For us, it gives us a real shot at keeping Assad from barrel bombing and gassing his own people as well as the opposition; and more critically, if a cessation of hostilities can be maintained and reduced violence can be established and sustained, and humanitarian access, it can get the opposition back to the table with the regime in Geneva under the [United Nations], get a political process started. That's the real goal here."

The difficult part for the Defense Department, if the cease-fire holds, is the Kerry-Lavrov deal to have the U.S. and Russian militaries work together under a joint cooperation agreement to coordinate operations and airstrikes against ISIS and the al-Qaida-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, which now goes by the name Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of Syria).

At a Pentagon news conference, Cook said coordination with the Russians would be run out of a Joint Implementation Center, but a location for the center had yet to be determined.

He also said that the U.S. and Russian militaries working together would require a change in the U.S. law barring military cooperation with Russia, but "we're putting the cart before the horse."

The U.S. is prepared to meet the legal requirements, but the Russians first must rein in Assad's forces and allow humanitarian aid delivery, and "that's not happened yet," he said.

Cook also denied recent reports of friction between Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter over cooperating with the Russian military, reflecting concerns within the uniformed military, which has traditionally treated Russia as an aggressor state.

In congressional testimony, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford has identified Russia as the main "existential" threat to the U.S. However, Cook said Carter "absolutely supports Secretary Kerry's efforts."

In the course of Syria's 66-month-old civil war, numerous efforts to arrange a cease-fire leading to peace talks in Geneva have failed. Most recently, the U.S. and Russia arranged a cessation of hostilities in February, but it fell apart within a month.

A surge in violence followed, displacing more Syrians internally and sending hundreds of thousands more refugees fleeing to Europe. According to the United Nations, about 6.6 million Syrians have been displaced and another five million have become refugees, mostly in squalid refugee camps in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

Cook said the U.S. campaign against ISIS in Syria is continuing and will not be affected by the tentative agreements brokered by Kerry.

U.S. Central Command said that U.S. and coalition aircraft carried out 10 strikes in northeastern Syria on Wednesday against ISIS targets.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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