International efforts to end the fighting in Syria have been dealt a serious blow, with the US suspending direct contacts with Russia on halting the war, and chilly relations are turning even frostier after Russia put a hold on a plutonium disposal deal with Washington.
The two decisions, announced in their respective capitals just hours apart Monday, were ostensibly unrelated but underscored deep mistrust and rising tensions between the former Cold War foes, who are increasingly at odds on a number of issues, particularly Syria and Ukraine.
The moves further reduce areas of Washington-Moscow cooperation, yet their most immediate impact may be the potential death blow delivered to halting attempts to revive a moribund ceasefire in Syria, get desperately needed humanitarian aid to besieged communities and begin negotiations on political transition that could mean the ouster of President Bashar Assad.
The Obama administration said it decided to cut off discussions on Syria because Russia had not lived up to the terms of last month’s agreement to restore a tattered cease-fire and ensure sustained deliveries of humanitarian aid to besieged cities, such as Aleppo, which has been under bombardment from Russian and Syrian forces.
“What’s clear is that there is nothing more for the United States and Russia to talk about with regard to trying to reach an agreement that would reduce the violence inside of Syria and that’s tragic,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
“This is not a decision that was taken lightly,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Russia failed to live up to its own commitments … and was also either unwilling or unable to ensure Syrian regime adherence to the arrangements to which Moscow agreed.”
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Kirby’s statement said that Russia and Syria are pursuing military action in violation of the cease-fire agreement, and pointed to their targeting of hospitals as well as the September 19 airstrike on a United Nations humanitarian aid convoy. The US accused Russia of bombing that convoy, a charge both Russia and Syria have denied.
Russia intervened on behalf of its close ally Syria on September 30 last year, joining Assad’s bombardment of both anti-Assad rebel groups and militant groups such as the Islamic State and Fatah al-Sham Front, an al-Qaida spinoff formerly known as the Nusra Front.
Russia is interested in propping up Assad in part because Russia’s only naval facility outside the former Soviet Union is on the Syrian coast. If it had been implemented, the cease-fire deal would have created a joint US-Russian center to coordinate military and intelligence operations. President Barack Obama had overruled Pentagon objections to such cooperation and Secretary of State John Kerry made the offer.