Sep 21, 2016 by


Conflict in Syria
Kerry: ‘You Don’t Drop Bombs on Children’

Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday accused the Syrian government of violating a cease-fire agreement. By UNTV, VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS on Publish Date September 21, 2016. Photo by Timothy A. Clary/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Watch in Times Video »


UNITED NATIONS — Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday called for an immediate grounding of all military aircraft in what he described as “key areas” of Syria — including where aid is delivered — as a last-ditch effort to save an agreement with Russia to reduce violence and ultimately halt a war that shows no sign of slowing.

Speaking in an unusually pointed and partly unscripted session at a United Nations Security Council meeting on the Syria crisis, Mr. Kerry angrily accused Russia of living “in a parallel universe” and allowing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to extend “the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II.”

On Monday, a convoy of trucks taking aid to the besieged city of Aleppo was destroyed in a deadly airstrike, and American officials said Russia was responsible. The Russians have denied that, and questioned evidence that it was an airstrike at all.

The United Nations has not confirmed what struck its trucks.

It was a striking change in tone for Mr. Kerry, usually the perpetual optimist, who only 12 days ago had welcomed a long-negotiated agreement for a reduction in violence, a grounding of the Syrian Air Force, and ultimately the joint-targeting of the Islamic State and Nusra Front terrorist groups, with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov.

But beyond Mr. Kerry’s anger was a hard truth: If Russia and Syria reject the idea of a halt in flights, there is little the United States is prepared to do to enforce one. President Obama several years ago rejected the option of creating a no-fly zone to protect refugees, and now, with Russian jets in the air over Syrian airspace, the chances of confrontation are far higher.

The doubling down on the agreement, even as it was in tatters, reflected the Obama administration’s assumption that it lacks better alternatives for dealing with the many-sided civil war in Syria that has left roughly a half-million people dead.

But President Obama devoted only a few sentences to the Syria crisis in his address to the United Nations General Assembly this week, and left New York on Wednesday afternoon with no clear path to solve an issue that may well taint the legacy of how he handled the violent aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring.
Continue reading the main story
Related Coverage

Russia Denies Any Role in Deadly Convoy Attack in Syria SEPT. 21, 2016
Aid Convoy Is Hit in Syria as Cease-Fire Falters and Bombings Resume SEPT. 19, 2016
U.S. Admits Airstrike in Syria, Meant to Hit ISIS, Killed Syrian Troops SEPT. 17, 2016
Straightforward Answers to Basic Questions About Syria’s War SEPT. 18, 2016


Mr. Kerry’s demand on Wednesday that all aircraft be grounded was part of an American effort to seek urgent change. The attack on the humanitarian convoy, a war crime, followed an American airstrike on Syrian forces that killed more than 60 people, and which the Pentagon quickly acknowledged was a mistake.

Mr. Kerry angrily said Wednesday that it was one thing to err in bombing “people running around with guns on the ground,” and another to strike “trucks in a convoy with big U.N. markings all over them.”

“The eyewitnesses will tell you what happened,” Mr. Kerry said, in a direct confrontation with Russia of a kind rarely seen at the Security Council since the Cold War. “The place turned into hell and fighter jets were in the sky.”

With his new proposal, Mr. Kerry was also making what amounts to an 11th-hour effort to test Russian intentions in Syria, where the Kremlin has increasingly engaged militarily to defend Mr. Assad. Mr. Lavrov’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, who was accompanying him, suggested after Mr. Kerry spoke that the Russians were not enthused by his ideas.

“It’s about nothing,” she said. “That was a show.”

In private, senior Obama administration officials acknowledge that the very viability of the agreement with the Russians is in question. Yet none of the players wanted to walk away and concede that the effort had failed.

Mr. Kerry said the flight ban should be in “key areas.” American officials declined to specify them. But they said he was referring to parts of northwest Syria that are in dire need of aid, including cities like Aleppo, where the opposition is prevalent.

The flight ban proposal will be discussed Thursday at a meeting in New York of the International Syrian Support Group, a multinational body that is led by Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov. A more definitive Russian response to the proposal may come then.

One of the crucial American tasks in those cities is to separate Syrian opposition groups that the United States has supported and groups like the Nusra Front, a Qaeda affiliate that now calls itself the Levant Conquest Front. But fulfilling that task has proved far more difficult in Aleppo, for example, than it seemed in the negotiating room in Geneva.

While separating the American-backed group from their tactical alliances with the Nusra Front sounds logical, for the rebels it would often mean abandoning their home territory, leaving Nusra unchallenged and opening their towns to an American-Russian bombing campaign. Others groups would have to fight Nusra, something they do not have the capability to do.

Rebel leaders say Washington is putting them into a classic bind: The Americans will not give them more support for fear of aiding Nusra, but without more weapons they cannot frontally fight Nusra.

The most significant physical movement away from Nusra by American-aided groups, in fact, came when Turkey offered them something in return: real backing to take a border area from the Islamic State that could one day be a safe place for the opposition to try to set up governance that offers a concrete alternative to Mr. Assad. When they did, they were criticized for abandoning the Aleppo front at a time of crisis.

The angry exchanges with Russia at the United Nations this week were prompted by the American conclusion that Russian aircraft appeared to have been responsible for the assault on the aid convoy. That is based on extensive satellite photography of the area, and signals intelligence.

Russia has denied responsibility but has offered varying explanations of what might have happened, including the possibility that American aircraft bombed the convoy. The United States has said none of its aircraft were involved.

The agreement between Russia and the United States, which went into effect Sept. 12, reduced the overall level of violence for a number of days, despite violations in the divided city of Aleppo and other parts of northern Syria held by insurgents opposed to Mr. Assad.

But the bombing of the United Nations convoy happened after the Syrian government said it considered the cease-fire to be over — and to have been unsuccessful.

Mr. Kerry was undeterred. “We must move forward to try to immediately ground all aircraft flying in those key areas in order to de-escalate the situation and give a chance for humanitarian aid to flow unimpeded,” Mr. Kerry told diplomats at the Security Council. “And if that happens, there’s a chance of giving credibility back to this process.”

The military logic of Mr. Kerry’s proposal is clear. It would eliminate the risk that another aid convoy could be struck from the air because no aircraft could fly over the areas where the assistance was to be delivered.

The suggestion was carefully crafted diplomatically as well. Formally it applies to all aircraft that might fly over “key areas,” including those flown by the United States and its partners, but the intent is to prevent airstrikes by Syrian and Russian planes.

By urging that the step be taken immediately, Mr. Kerry was trying to avoid the need for time-consuming negotiations.

“How can people go sit at a table with a regime that bombs hospitals and drops chlorine gas again and again and again and again and again and again, and acts with impunity?” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. Kerry called Mr. Assad “a spoiler” who did not believe in the cease-fire. He also urged opposition groups to cut their ties — which he called an “unholy alliance” — with the Nusra Front, which Mr. Kerry said had no interest in a peace deal.

“It’s a moment of truth,” he said. “It raises a profound doubt about whether Russia and the Assad regime can or will live up to obligations they agreed to in Geneva,” he added.

The Security Council session began with remarks by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who also exhorted diplomats to revive the cease-fire. Mr. Ban, who has denounced the convoy attack as an atrocity committed by cowards, also said he was “looking at options” to investigate what had happened.

Russia often responds to accusations of wrongdoing with a barrage of explanations that seem intended to sow confusion. A stream of varying accounts about the convoy attack fit that pattern.

The latest Russian statement suggested that an American drone flying out of Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, where American and NATO forces are based, was aloft in the area and very likely involved.

Russian planes neither carried out any strikes where the convoy was hit nor had it any plans for attacks in that area, said a statement from the spokesman for the Defense Ministry.

Somini Sengupta reported from the United Nations, Michael R. Gordon from New York, and Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon. Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from Moscow, David E. Sanger from Washington, and Rick Gladstone from New York.

A version of this article appears in print on September 22, 2016, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: Kerry Urges Grounding of Military Aircraft in ‘Key Areas’ of Syria. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *