‘Best gift to terrorists’ would be US boycott of Syria peace effort – Moscow

The US’ refusal to cooperate with Russia would be a real “gift” to terrorists in Syria, on a par with its failure to separate “moderates” from jihadists and the recent airstrike against Syrian army, Moscow said in response to a barrage of criticism from Washington.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power accused the Syrian and Russian governments of carrying out a “soul-shattering” air campaign in Aleppo, saying that their anti-terror efforts would only lead to more “radicalization” and a greater refugee flow out of Syria.

“What they are doing is a gift to [Islamic State] and [al-Nusra Front], the groups that they claim that they want to stop,” Power said Thursday.

This outburst by the US led Moscow to express puzzlement, with Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova saying that it is the US who is offering “gifts” to terrorists. Commenting on the diplomatic deadlock, Zakharova recalled how Washington denied the existence of terrorists in Syria until the fact became too obvious, and the US had to switch the narrative to accusing Russia and Damascus of bombing so-called “moderates.”

“If we discuss ‘gifts to terrorists’, then those of course are the merger of al-Nusra Front and 'moderate opposition', the deliveries of humanitarian aid to the militants and the bombing of the Syrian army fighting against ISIS,” Zakharova wrote on Facebook. “However, the best gift [to jihadists] would be Washington’s refusal to cooperate with Russia on Syria's settlement."

“If Washington’s threat to terminate interaction is formalized, then there will be no doubt left that White House has taken militants under its wing, and the sun shines down the terrorist street,” Zakharova added.

The latest seven-day truce in Syria brokered by US and Russia expired on September 19 – two days after a US-led coalition airstrike on Syrian army positions near the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) frontline at Deir Ezzor killed over 60 soldiers. On Thursday, Moscow offered to impose 48-hour ‘breaks’ in military operations in Aleppo instead of week-long ceasefires, and once again voiced hope that Washington would finally honor their obligations and separate the so-called “moderate rebels” which they support from terrorist units on the ground.

“In general, we express regret at the rather non-constructive nature of the rhetoric voiced by Washington in the past days,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding that Russia will “continue the operations of its air force in support of the anti-terrorist activity of Syria’s armed forces.”

Speaking at a public policy conference in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry told the crowd that the US was “on the verge of suspending the discussion because it is irrational in the context of the kind of bombing taking place to be sitting there trying to take things seriously.”

“It is one of those moments where we are going to have to pursue other alternatives,” he added. No suspension of work has yet been announced by either Moscow or Washington, but Kerry spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the phone on Wednesday and Thursday about salvaging the diplomatic effort in Syria, according to Russia’s foreign ministry.

“Mr Lavrov again emphasized that quite a few anti-government units that Washington calls ‘moderate’ have not merely refused to carry out the September 9 Russian-US agreement on consolidating the truce and providing humanitarian access, but are merging with Jabhat al-Nusra and continue fighting against the Syrian army side by side with this Al-Qaeda affiliate,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on the subject of Wednesday call. “Mr. Lavrov drew Mr. Kerry’s attention to the revelations of Jabhat al-Nusra field commanders in the media about the external support they receive, including US arms supplies, and the claim of the Western-backed Syrian opposition leader Riad Hijab that Jabhat al-Nusra is not a terrorist organization.” 

Meanwhile, the US is seriously considering a non-diplomatic solution to the crisis, with Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that President Barack Obama had asked staff to look at how Washington might respond.

“The president has asked all of the agencies to put forward options, some familiar, some new, that we are very actively reviewing,” Blinken said, adding that officials would “work through these in the days ahead.”

Blinken echoed the words of US State Department spokesman John Kirby who said on Wednesday that US policy makers are discussing options “that don’t revolve around diplomacy” in Syria.

Commenting on Washington’s rhetoric, a former Pentagon official, Michael Maloof, told RT that US diplomats have been voicing “frustration” over their inability “to do [their] job” under the US-Russian agreement and “control the moderates.” While a concrete “Plan B” is yet to be announced by Washington, Maloof believes that the US will simply expand its aid to the rebels.

“There won’t be a direct US action but there will be continued efforts, particularly by the Saudis and Qataris to continue providing a surface to air missiles, for example, to the rebels, as they have been doing and provide other armored type of military assistance to the rebels,” he said.

The expert’s assessment is in line with other analyses offered by US officials to Reuters, who claimed that the US might now allow the Gulf states to supply rebels with more sophisticated weapons. Another alternative is for the US to strike Syrian government airbases. Supporting rebel counter-attacks with weapons and air strikes is also on the table. Such a reverse in policy, one official noted, “might not reverse the tide of battle, but might cause the Russians to stop and think.”

As the US threatens to quit diplomacy, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a telephone call with Lavrov called on Moscow and Washington to resume ceasefire discussions and produce at least a temporary truce.