US Calls Off Syria Peace Talks With Russia

PHOTO: Syrian volunteers carry an injured person on a stretcher following Syrian government forces airstrikes on the rebel held neighbourhood of Heluk in Aleppo, Sept. 30, 2016.PlayThaer Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images
WATCH US Calls Off Talks With Russia Over Syria

The U.S. government announced today that it is suspending all Syrian peace talks with Russia over frustrations with Moscow and its inability to live up to commitments to a cease-fire agreement.

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"There is nothing more for the United States and Russia to talk about," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said today of negotiations to end the 5-year Syrian civil war. He called it a "tragic" development that will lead to more loss of life.

The announcement comes two weeks after the most recent attempt at a cease-fire fell apart in dramatic fashion when a humanitarian aid convoy trying to reach besieged areas of rebel-held Aleppo was destroyed by an airstrike.

The U.S. blamed Russia for that attack, and the Russians later suggested it could have been carried out by a U.S. drone, a claim the U.S. military strongly denied. The attack on the aid convoy was followed by a resurgence of airstrikes on Aleppo by Russia and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, resulting in some of the deadliest days of the war.

"The United States is suspending its participation in bilateral channels with Russia" that were established to sustain the cease-fire brokered by the U.S., the State Department announced in a statement to the press.

"Russia and the Syrian regime have chosen to pursue a military course ... as demonstrated by their intensified attacks against civilian areas, targeting of critical infrastructure such as hospitals, and preventing humanitarian aid from reaching civilians in need, including through the September 19 attack on a humanitarian aid convoy."

Russia’s foreign ministry responded to the U.S. announcement by saying it “regretted” the American decision, but again blamed the U.S. for the cease-fire’s collapse, in particular claiming it had failed to help establish it around Aleppo.

“Now, clearly, having not been able to fulfill these agreements, which they worked up themselves, they are attempting to push responsibility onto someone else,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the ministry said, according to the Interfax news agency.

This failed cease-fire was only the most recent time that the U.S. and Russia -- each using their influence with the Syrian opposition and President al-Assad’s regime, respectively -- have tried to negotiate an end to the Syrian conflict.

Russia's foreign ministry responded to the news today, saying it "regrets" the U.S. decision to break off further talks. "Washington has simply not fulfilled the key conditions of the agreements," Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova told Russian journalists. The Russians have long criticized the U.S. for failing to provide a adequate distinction between the moderate rebels its backs and the extremist opposition forces.

Today's announcement makes good on Secretary of State John Kerry's threat last week to end talks with Russia.

Critics slammed Kerry's warning last week about ending talks with Russia, saying such a step would have no effect and would not stop Russia from carrying out atrocities against Syrian civilians.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the nation's top diplomat "delusional" in a statement laced heavily with sarcasm.

"We can only imagine that having heard the news, Vladimir Putin has called off his bear hunt and is rushing back to the Kremlin to call off Russian airstrikes on hospitals, schools and humanitarian aid convoys around Aleppo," the statement read. "After all, butchering the Syrian people to save the Assad regime is an important Russian goal. But not if it comes at the unthinkable price of dialogue with Secretary Kerry."

Had the cease-fire agreement succeeded, the U.S. and Russia would have established a military-intelligence sharing operation aimed at continuing strikes on extremist forces in Syria through a so-called Joint Implementation Center. The State Department said today it will withdraw personnel that had been dispatched to the region in anticipation of that mission, but that it will continue to use established military communications channels to avoid conflict with Russia's own counterterrorism operations.

Some had questioned from the beginning whether the U.S. had been correct to pursue the negotiations with Russia, suggesting the Kremlin had instead been mostly playing for time and the political cover offered by the talks to further prop up president Assad.

“John Kerry has done his best to try to play judo, diplomatic judo, with the stated objectives of the Russian Federation in Syria,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria to the State Department, now director at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “But those stated objectives, in my view are not Vladimir Putin’s objectives.”

Hof said the Russians’ overriding objective to keep Assad in power meant they had never wanted a real deal, though he credited Kerry for wishing to test them. Kerry himself had repeatedly warned he did not trust Russian intentions over the talks, but felt the scale of the suffering in Syria meant it was necessary to try them.

Hof, who has previously criticized the Obama administration for refusing to provide greater support to anti-Assad rebels, said Kerry had been hamstrung by the White House's public and private opposition to military options in Syria or to supplying more powerful weaponry to the rebels.

“John Kerry was going into this with virtually no leverage,” Hof said. “And the result is inevitable- the people with the ace’s, the kings, the queens and the jacks are the ones who win most card games and that’s what happened this time.”

Administration officials have previously said they believe greater military intervention is more likely to make the crisis worse, than end it.

The decision to end talks came amid another display of diplomatic tussling between Moscow and Washington, with Russia announcing today it will suspend a 16-year-old nuclear weapons control agreement with the U.S.

A decree cancelling the deal, signed by Vladimir Putin, said Washington's "unfriendly actions" don't permit it to continue. The Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement had called on each side to destroy 34 tons of highly enriched weapons-grade plutonium and was seen at the time it was signed as a milestone in the U.S. and Russia's attempts to reduce their nuclear arsenals after the Cold War arms race.

Today Russia published a remarkable list of conditions for the deal’s continuation, demanding that the U.S. drawdown troop numbers in eastern Europe, cancel all sanctions against Russia and pay compensation for them, including for losses prompted by Russia’s own counter-sanctions that were imposed in response.

Russia also accused the U.S. of failing to meet its obligations under the plutonium deal. The U.S. has missed its targets in the deal, largely through mismanagement in establishing the plants meant to dispose of the plutonium, but experts said the deal could have been salvaged if the political climate had been different.

State Department spokesman Elizabeth Trudeau said today that Russia's suspension of the nuclear agreement and the U.S. calling off talks on Syria are not linked.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Frederic C. Hof as an analyst at the Middle East Institute. He is director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and is not affiliated to the Middle East Institute.