Updated Oct. 4, 2016 1:12 a.m. ET
WASHINGTON—The rift between the U.S. and Russia deepened Monday as the Obama administration quit talks over the failed cease-fire in Syria, saying Moscow’s role in the bombardment of Aleppo left nothing more to discuss.
The decision ends for now prospects for a truce and threatens to send the long war into a perilous new direction and makes hopes for a political settlement more distant.
The end of the talks also put the onus on the Obama administration to consider other options for Syria, including the provision of more powerful weaponry from the U.S. and other allies for rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
“There is nothing more for the United States and Russia to talk about in regard to trying to reach an agreement that would reduce the violence inside of Syria,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. “And that’s tragic.”
The White House wouldn’t specify what options it would take in Syria. “We’re going to have to pursue an alternative approach,” Mr. Earnest said.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Obama administration has revived an internal discussion over giving U.S.-vetted Syrian rebels new weapons systems to help them fend off Syrian and Russian artillery and air power.
Under another option, Washington could give a green light to partners in the region, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to provide the rebels with more weapons unilaterally.
U.S. intelligence officials and their counterparts in the region have been holding secret talks about these and other so-called Plan B options, officials in the region said Monday.
The U.S. has ruled out the provision of man-portable air defense systems, known as Manpads, because of proliferation concerns, but could authorize shipments of less-mobile antiaircraft weapons systems, officials said. Rebel groups, along with Turkish and Saudi intelligence, have long supported the introduction of a limited number of Manpads, but the U.S. has resisted.
Yasser Alyousef, a political spokesman for the rebel group Nour al-Din al-Zinki, said the U.S. decision to pull out of talks could increase Russian isolation and that “perhaps America will turn a blind eye to regional powers that are willing to give us what could exhaust Russia.” His group is one of the largest fighting the regime in Aleppo.
United Nations diplomats said debate is beginning on a French resolution that would reinstate the cease-fire and restrict military flights over Aleppo, a measure that would in effect create a no-fly zone. Russia, as a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, said Monday that it would likely scotch the resolution because it opposes the grounding of flights.
Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, told reporters on Monday that if France wanted Russia not to veto the resolution it would have to be a “much more moderate” draft.
Marking an end to the talks, the U.S. withdrew a team of officials who had sent to Geneva to work directly with Russians under the failed deal, which had called for jointly targeting militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Elizabeth Trudeau, a State Department spokeswoman, said the U.S. move marks the end of U.S.-Russian engagement on Syria, but doesn’t necessarily affect efforts involving both countries via larger groups of countries, such as the United Nations. The decision also doesn’t end a separate military agreement reached earlier with Russia involving procedures for preventing confrontations between U.S. and Russian warplanes over Syria.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Monday evening that Moscow regretted the U.S. decision, and blamed Washington for the continuing crisis, according to the news agency Interfax.
“Washington simply did not fulfill a key condition of arrangements to ease the humanitarian situation of the inhabitants of Aleppo,” she said, according to Interfax. “And now, apparently, unable to comply with agreements that they themselves worked out, they are trying to pass on responsibility to someone else.”
Russia has complained that Washington wasn’t upholding its end of the bargain by failing to separate U.S.-backed Syrian rebels from more extremist groups tied to al Qaeda.
Earlier on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was suspending another U.S.-Russian deal, reached in 2000, on disposal of weapons-grade plutonium, citing “unfriendly actions” by the U.S.
Mr. Putin’s decision didn’t appear to be directly related to the collapse of joint efforts on Syria but accentuated the deterioration in relations over the past few weeks. The plutonium agreement was aimed at disposing radioactive stockpiles that could be used to build thousands of nuclear warheads and was seen then as a sign of cooperation between the two powers. Mr. Putin, in suspending the plutonium deal, also complained about U.S. laws and sanctions penalizing Russia.
To underline why the U.S. was pulling out of the talks, U.S. intelligence agencies detailed alleged abuses in the Russian and Syrian military offensive. They cited a “deliberate strategy to use wanton destruction against innocent civilians for military and political objectives,” a U.S. intelligence official said.
The Obama administration’s decision on Syrian negotiations closes the door on the diplomatic process that began after the U.S. and Russia announced Sept. 10 that they had reached a cease-fire deal providing for a halt in fighting, delivery of humanitarian aid and, ultimately, military cooperation between Washington and Moscow.
The cease-fire quickly ran into problems. On Sept. 17, barely a week after the deal took effect, warplanes flown by the U.S.-led coalition combating Islamic State erroneously bombed a Syrian military site, killing dozens of soldiers fighting for Mr. Assad. Two days later, an international aid convoy was hit by airstrikes that the U.S. blamed on Russia and cited as an example of bad faith.
Over the next several days, as violence resumed, world leaders gathered at the United Nations General Assembly failed to agree on a way to piece the deal back together.
Secretary of State John Kerry first warned his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a phone call on Wednesday that the U.S. would walk away from the talks if Russia didn’t take immediate steps to reinstate the cease-fire and allow the passage of humanitarian aid.
Moscow said a day later that it would be willing to support a 48-hour truce to allow for aid deliveries, but the cease-fire wasn’t reinstated. Mr. Kerry spoke several times with Mr. Lavrov, but the two didn’t announce any new agreements. On Friday, the State Department said any prospect of a cessation in hostilities was “on life support.”
U.S. officials have acknowledged some of the Syrian rebels Washington backs also fight alongside more extreme elements. But Mr. Kerry had hoped that by offering Russia closer military cooperation against Islamic State and the Syria Conquest Front, formerly known as al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, Moscow would use its influence with the Assad regime to bring about an end to violence and allow aid to get through.
However, Russia and the Syrian government have ignored criticism for targeting nonmilitary targets, including the recent bombing of a hospital in Aleppo. That factored into the U.S. decision to suspend the bilateral talks, according to the State Department. “The Russians made very clear that they would not cease the attacks that we are seeing, that we saw this weekend, that we saw against the hospital,” said Ms. Trudeau. “We felt we came to the point with Russia where we were not reaching the same goal.”
Critics of the Obama administration’s deal with Russia had said the U.S. lacked leverage and had no way to pressure Moscow to halt the violence. The administration believed throughout the cease-fire process that Moscow wanted to reach the part of the deal that provided for military cooperation between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria, officials have said.
The U.S. suspension of talks with Russia is “just acknowledging the obvious—there has never been anything to discuss,” said Mark Kramer, director of the Cold War studies program at Harvard University. “Russia wants to keep Assad in power forever and will kill as many people as needed to attain that objective. The administration’s belief that Putin would agree to ease Assad out of power was just ridiculous wishful thinking.”
The State Department said that talks are still possible in a different format, perhaps involving the U.N., but U.S. officials wouldn’t spell out potential future options or approaches.
“We continue to have these discussions with partners and allies,” Ms. Trudeau said.
and Farnaz Fassihi contributed to this article.
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Tags: Assad, bombardment of Aleppo, cease fire, hospitals bombed, Islamic state, John Kerry, Lavrov, Obama, Obama Administration, Putin, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Syria Conquest Front, targeting hospitals, truce, Turkey, U. S., U.S.-vetted Syrian rebels, war crimes