MESOP FLASH : US-Russia Deal to Coordinate Airstrikes

WEST KURDISTAN (SYRIA) – The US and Russia have announced a tentative deal to coordinate airstrikes inside Syria against the Islamic State and the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra. After talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the agreement would deal with the causes of the collapse of a February 27 “cessation of hostilities”: bombings by the Assad regime and Jabhat al-Nusra attacks.“We agreed to steps that, if implemented in good faith, can address two serious problems that I just described about the cessation,” Kerry said. “It is possible to help restore the cessation of hostilities, significantly reduce violence and help create the space for a genuine political transition.”

However, Kerry refused to set out the terms of the agreement:

The concrete steps that we have agreed on are not going to be laid out in public in some long list because we want them to work and because they need more work in order to work.

I want to emphasize, though, that they are not based on trust.

The US proposal creates a joint command-and-control center in Amman, Jordan to exchange intelligence and coordinate aerial operations. Kerry arrived in Moscow on Thursday to discuss the initiative, first meeting President Vladimir Putin.Critics of the proposal, approved by President Obama two weeks ago, question whether Russia will confine itself to strikes on the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. They note that the vast majority of Moscow’s airstrikes, since its intervention in late September, have been on opposition territory — including numerous attacks on civilian sites.

The critics also question whether Russia, the essential supporter of the Assad regime, will apply any pressure to end bombings and sieges. The continued attacks — as well as President Assad’s refusal of any transitional governing authority — were the chief causes of the breakdowns of talks, in Geneva between January and April, seeking a resolution of Syria’s 5 1/2-year conflict.

A Focus on Nusra

Kerry avoided those issues. He focused instead on Jabhat al-Nusra, which is linked to Al Qa’eda, and warning — despite the lack of any evidence — that it could carry out terrorist operations such as Thursday night’s deadly truck attack that killed 84 people in Nice in southern France:

If some critic is criticizing the United States or Russia for going after Al Nusra, which is a terrorist organization, because they’re good fighters against Assad, they have their priorities completely screwed up.

The fact is that Nusra is plotting against countries in the world. What happened in Nice last night could just as well come from Nusra or wherever it came from as any other entity. Because that’s what they do.

Kerry’s words echoed the long-standing Russian line — and that of the Assad regime — that “terrorists” must be defeated in Syria.

Lavrov re-asserted the position on Friday, adding implied criticism of foreign powers giving support to Syria’s rebels and opposition: “There were cases in history when some countries were trying to play with extremist and terrorist groups, hoping to use them to achieve their own geopolitical goals to topple undesirable regimes.”

He denied that Russia, with its airstrikes and ground advisors alongside regime forces, had broken the February cessation of hostilities: “A lot could be said on who is to blame.”