US-led air strikes on Syrian army threaten ceasefire: Russia

US Ambassador Samantha Power said Washington regretted the loss of life in Syria.
US Ambassador Samantha Power said Washington regretted the loss of life in Syria. PHOTO: AFP

US military says raids were on what coalition believed to be ISIS positions; Russia says over 60 Syrian troops killed

MOSCOW • Russia has stepped up its war of words with Washington, saying air strikes by a US-led coalition on the Syrian army threatened the implementation of an already shaky ceasefire deal.

In a strongly worded statement, Russia's Foreign Ministry said the US position on the incident was "unconstructive and inarticulate".

"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," the ministry said.

"We strongly urge Washington to exert the needed pressure on the illegal armed groups under its patronage to implement the ceasefire plan unconditionally. Otherwise, the implementation of the entire package of the US-Russian accords reached in Geneva on Sept 9 may be jeopardised," it said.

The Russian army says more than 60 Syrian troops were killed in the strikes in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zor last Saturday.

The US military said the coalition stopped the attacks against what it had believed to be Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) positions after Russia informed it that Syrian military personnel and vehicles might have been hit.

The US-Russian ceasefire, which took effect last Monday, is the most significant peacemaking effort in Syria for months, but has been undermined by repeated accusations of violations on both sides and by a failure to bring humanitarian aid to besieged areas.

The Syrian government insisted that the strike was not a mistake and proved its long-held assertion that the US supports the terror group as part of an effort to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian army said the raid had allowed ISIS fighters to gain ground around the key eastern airbase of Deir al-Zor, but a military source said government forces were back on the offensive yesterday.

An emergency United Nations Security Council meeting called by Moscow to discuss the air strike ended early last Saturday after an exchange between the US and Russia reminiscent of Cold War-era verbal jousting.

US Ambassador Samantha Power said Washington regretted the loss of life but that Moscow's request for the meeting was a "stunt".

"Russia really needs to stop the cheap point-scoring and the grandstanding and the stunts and focus on what matters, which is implementation of something we negotiated in good faith with them," she told reporters.

She abruptly left her seat as Russian representative Vitaly Churkin took the floor to condemn the air strikes during the meeting.

When asked if the incident spelled the end of the Syria deal between Moscow and Washington, Mr Churkin said: "This is a very big question mark."

He added: "I would be very interested to see how Washington is going to react. If what Ambassador Power has done today is any indication of their possible reaction, then we are in serious trouble."

The US-Russian ceasefire, which took effect last Monday, is the most significant peacemaking effort in Syria for months, but has been undermined by repeated accusations of violations on both sides and by a failure to bring humanitarian aid to besieged areas.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are due on Wednesday to attend a special Security Council meeting on Syria, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'US-led air strikes on Syrian army threaten ceasefire: Russia'. Print Edition | Subscribe