Russian and Syrian officials angrily rejected U.S. charges that they were behind a deadly attack Monday evening on a United Nations aid convoy heading for the besieged city of Aleppo.
The incident underscored the deep level of distrust among the principals in the brutal 5-year-old civil war.
U.S. military commanders now have little option but to wait for officials from the State Department and United Nations to give them the green light to plan for joint air operations with Moscow in Syria — a key piece of the accord to target Islamic State and other extremist elements operating in Syria.
“We will not move forward until the [U.S.] diplomats tell us to,” Col. Thomas said from command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.
U.S. military officials broke off talks with their Russian counterparts after the U.N. convoy carrying food and medical equipment was hit by an airstrike. At first glance, the attack, which U.S. officials insist was likely carried out by Russian or Syrian warplanes, seemingly brought an end to a cease-fire deal reached between Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov less than a week earlier.
“All of our information indicates clearly that this was an airstrike. That means there only could have been two entities responsible,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters.
But U.N. Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura refused to declare the cease-fire dead. He told reporters gathered for the U.N. General Assembly in New York that only Moscow and Washington could declare the pact terminated. The move allowed Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov a window of opportunity for last-minute negotiations to revive the cease-fire pact, despite the airstrike against the U.N. aid convoy.
State Department officials remained confident that the attack on the U.N. aid convoy would not derail long-term efforts to bring about a diplomatic end to the Syrian civil war.
“They agreed that, despite continued violence, there was still an imperative to pursue a nationwide cessation of hostilities based on the arrangement reached last week in Geneva between the United States and Russia,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in New York. Mr. Kerry was more emphatic about Washington’s chances of keeping the peace deal alive.
“The cease-fire is not dead,” he told reporters after emerging from the most recent round of talks with members of the International Syria Support Group. “We are going to continue to work. We are going to meet again Friday on some specific steps.”
Military representatives agreed to a location for a proposed joint command center to coordinate U.S. and Russian air operations and were slated to begin face-to-face meetings on other aspects of the deal before talks were terminated, Col. Thomas said.
“Bombing is continuing. Aleppo is still threatened. The population is starving. And there is a humanitarian convoy that is attacked and there are dead,” Mr. Ayrault said. “This is the reality. One must denounce this reality.”
U.S. military commanders were pessimistic about the State Department’s chances of keeping the cease-fire deal intact. “We are not anticipating any great progress anytime soon,” Col. Thomas said.
A questionable deal
U.S. military officials expressed wariness over the viability of teaming up with Moscow, driven by outright distrust of their Russian counterpart’s ability to maintain the cease-fire long enough to begin in-depth planning for joint operations.
“I’m not going to tell you I trust them. They need to do the right thing, [and] we’ll see what happens from there,” U.S. Air Force Central Command chief Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian told reporters last week.
Specifically, some inside the Pentagon feared that the proposed joint command center could give Russian officials a close look at U.S. operations and tactics and that Moscow could use the bombing campaign to give a battlefield advantage to Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime Russian ally who President Obama insists must go as part of any long-term political resolution.
That skepticism was again on display Tuesday as command officials addressed the airstrike against the U.N. aid convoy and the repeated denials of involvement by Russia and Syria.
Eighteen of the 31 trucks in the convoy heading toward Aleppo were hit, and 20 international aid workers were killed. The attack prompted U.N. officials to halt any aid shipments into Aleppo.
Witnesses told The Associated Press that the Monday attack on a Syrian Arab Red Crescent warehouse and convoy in the rebel-held town of Uram al-Kubra in Aleppo province was prolonged and intense. They said the aerial bombardment continued as rescue workers rushed to pull the wounded from the flaming wreckage and rubble.
The city, a known stronghold for anti-Assad rebel forces, has been under siege for months by Syrian and Russian warplanes.
Col. Thomas confirmed that the convoy attack was the result of a targeted airstrike and that no U.S. or coalition aircraft were in the vicinity at the time.
“We do think it was an airstrike. We do know that it was not us,” he said.
U.S. and allied aircraft have limited their operations to specifically targeted locations and installations affiliated with the Islamic State. At the time, there was no activity by Islamic State operatives around the area where the U.N. convoy was hit, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Tuesday.
Moscow has strongly denied any role in the airstrike, and Syrian officials say the attack was the work of rebels. The Russian Foreign Ministry said, “We responsibly say that neither the Russian nor the Syrian air force conducted any strikes on the U.N. aid convoy on the southwestern outskirts of Aleppo.”
The ministry said the accusations could be aimed at distracting attention from an earlier strike on Syrian army positions by the U.S.-led coalition.
U.S. commanders intend to keep in place a standing agreement with Russia to inform each other about air operations in Syria or Iraq, which was the only link between the two militaries, Col. Thomas said.
That pact was reached last October, after several near misses between Russian fighters and U.S. aircraft in the skies over Syria.