Russia: If Not for Our Campaign in Syria, ‘Black Flags’ Could be Flying Over Damascus

By Patrick Goodenough | October 4, 2016 | 4:41am EDT
A fighter from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra holds a flag in front of the governor building in Idlib province, northern Syria. (AP Photo, File)

( – The United States, in pursuit of the goal of ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is ready to “make a deal with the devil” – the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra – Russia’s foreign ministry charged Monday.

Responding to the Obama administration’s decision to suspend bilateral cooperation with Moscow over the Syrian crisis, the ministry accused­ the U.S. of a willingness to “forge an alliance with hardened terrorists.”

The world’s two leading military powers are engaged in a war of words that has escalated since a painstakingly-negotiated but short-lived ceasefire collapsed last month.

The U.S. accuses Russia of being unwilling or unable to rein in the Assad regime, on the contrary intensifying armed attacks on civilian areas and infrastructure in Aleppo, including hospitals.

For its part, Russia accuses the U.S. of not doing enough to pressure rebel groups it backs in Syria to disentangle themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra, suggesting that the U.S. is essentially colluding with the terrorists.

At the same time, Russia maintains that its own military actions may well have prevented a terrorist takeover of the country.

“Had it not been for our involvement in Syria it might well be that the black flags would be flying over Damascus,” Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin told reporters in New York. “It could well be. This is the reality of the situation.”

Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) both have predominantly black flags, differing in design but both featuring the Islamic declaration of faith, “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger.”

The U.N. Security Council began discussions on a French-drafted resolution calling for an immediate truce in Aleppo including an end to any overflight by military aircraft.

Churkin called into question the feasibility of the resolution and, asked about the proposal to ground aircraft, said Russia “cannot accept unilateral steps.”

‘Hostile steps’

On Monday the war of words was overtaken by actions on both sides. First, Washington made good on an earlier threat and suspended bilateral engagement with Russia on Syria.

Later in the day, President Vladimir Putin issued a directive suspending a 16-year-old bilateral agreement to dispose of surplus nuclear weapons-grade plutonium.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov linked Putin’s move to “hostile steps” taken by the U.S., citing sanctions relating to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and expanding NATO infrastructure and deployments in eastern Europe.

“They even threaten terrorist attacks in Russian cities,” he added, alluding to a recent U.S. warning that by prolonging the civil war Russia was risking loss of life in Syria and terrorist attacks at home. (The State Department rejected claims that the comments amounted to incitement to terrorism.)

Lavrov said the decision to suspend the plutonium-cleanup accord “is a signal to Washington that it cannot use the language of force, sanctions and ultimatums with Russia while continuing to selectively cooperate with our country only when it benefits the U.S.”

In another retaliatory move, Russia’s state Duma is considering ratifying a new agreement that would authorize the indefinite deployment of Russian warplanes at a base in Syria which it has been using for its year-long air campaign in support of the Assad regime.

A Duma source told the Sputnik state news agency that ratifying the agreement would be “the best response” to the U.S. decision to cut off bilateral engagement.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau disputed that there was any link between the U.S. decision to suspend discussions over Syria and the Russian decision to suspend the plutonium agreement – a step which she said the administration regretted.

“It’s disingenuous of Russia to cite the United States threat to strategic stability as a reason for this decision,” she said. “The United States seeks a constructive dialogue with Russia on strategic issues, but it is Russia instead who continues to engage in destabilizing activities, and to suspend cooperation under existing agreements like this one that benefit international security.”

Asked whether she would say of U.S.-Russia relations were at a “very low point,” Trudeau declined to characterize the state of the relationship.

She pointed out that cooperation between the two has continued in “areas where we have commonalities,” citing the Iran and North Korea nuclear issues.

“We do have sharp differences with Russia certainly on Syria, on Ukraine, on this issue right now,” Trudeau said. “Where we can work with Russia to benefit the international community and also to increase our own national security, though, we will continue to do so.”

As Russia late last week marked the one-year anniversary of its air campaign in Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that a year of Russian airstrikes had cost the lives of more than 3,800 civilians, including 906 children.

The watchdog said the airstrikes had also killed some 2,746 members of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) and 2,814 from other rebel and militant groups.

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