Alexander Mercouris, The Duran, Sept 25, 2016
Expert in: International law, international relations. Alexander is a writer on international affairs with a special interest in Russia and law. He has written extensively on the legal aspects of NSA spying and events in Ukraine in terms of human rights, constitutionality and international law. He worked for 12 years in the Royal Courts of Justice in London as a lawyer, specializing in human rights and constitutional law
With the Kerry – Lavrov agreement having collapsed and the U.S. military ruling out imposition of a no-fly zone, the U.S. can only rage as the Syrian army with Russian backing closes in on the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo.
Over the course of the last week, following the collapse of the Kerry – Lavrov agreement and the ceasefire, and with the Syrian army closing in on the Jihadis trapped in eastern Aleppo, the reality of pending defeat in Aleppo has finally struck home with the Western powers.
The result is a round of frantic diplomatic and media activity to try to embarrass the Russians to bring the Syrian army’s offensive in Aleppo to a stop.
The reason for this activity is the further advance of the Syrian army in Aleppo since the breakdown of the ceasefire. Having defeated and driven back the Jabhat Al-Nusra led Jihadi offensive against the south west of Aleppo by the first week of September, the Syrian army since the collapse of the ceasefire has consolidated its control of the Castello road by capturing the now deserted area of the Handarat Palestinian refugee camp.
It is also, following intense artillery shelling and bombing, advancing from the area of the Aleppo citadel and from the Ramousseh district into the Jihadi controlled areas of eastern Aleppo, apparently in order to consolidate its control of the suburbs of south western Aleppo and – possibly – so as to cut Jihadi controlled eastern Aleppo in half.
Reports from Aleppo speak of the Syrian military and its allies concentrating substantial forces near or in the city to support the offensive. The Russian marines are still at the Castello road, and there are reports that up to 8,000 Iranian commanded Iraqi Shia militia have also arrived in the city. The main strike force however remains the Syrian army.
It appears that the Russian aerial strike force at Khmeimim air base has also been reinforced. A video released on Saturday 24th September 2016 by Russian Ruptly TVsupposedly shows Syrian troops advancing against Jihadi fighters in Lattakia province following the collapse of the ceasefire. The video shows SU25 aircraft providing ground support. Russia deployed SU25 aircraft to Khmeimim air base in September last year. However they were all withdrawn in March. It seems they are now back.
The key point to understand, and which explains all the furious rhetoric of the last few days, is that the Western powers cannot stop the Syrian offensive against the Jihadis trapped in Aleppo.
At a U.S. Senate hearing on Thursday 22nd September 2016, U.S. General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained why. Pressed by Mississippi Republican Senator Roger Wicker to say if the U.S. could take "decisive action” by imposing a no-fly zone – something which Wicker said he had discussed with the Democrats and which might have bipartisan support – Dunford replied, "For now, for us to control all the airspace in Syria would require us to go to war with Syria and Russia. That’s a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make.”
Dunford’s comment provoked an intervention by Republican Senator John McCain, a perennial war hawk and interventionist who constantly presses for U.S. military action at any and every opportunity and especially so in any conflict involving Russia. McCain tried to get Dunford to say that a no-fly zone was not the same as "total control of the Syrian airspace”, which would require war with Russia and Syria.
The reality, as both McCain and Dunford know, is that the U.S. has never imposed a no-fly zone over a country over which it did not have "total control of the airspace”. It is inconceivable the U.S. would try to impose a no-fly zone over Syria if it did not have "total control of the airspace”. Dunford’s admission that "total control of the airspace” cannot be achieved in Syria without going to war with Russia for all practical purposes rules the whole idea of a no-fly zone over Syria out.
Unable to impose a no-fly zone, there is nothing in practical terms that the U.S. can do to change the course of the fighting in Aleppo.
It is this U.S. awareness of its own impotence as its Jihadi proteges in Aleppo face total defeat which accounts for all the angry rhetoric and cranking up of atrocity stories we have been seeing over the last week. These have now culminated in some typically furious denunciations of Russia by U.S. ambassador Samantha Power on 25th September 2016 at the UN Security Council, over the course of which she actually accused Russia of "barbarism”.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in an unguarded comment for which he is probably already being taken to task, slipped the truth out during a television interview on Sunday 25th September 2016: "If you say to me the West is too impotent, I would have to agree. I would have to agree that, since we took those decisions in 2013, when those red lines were crossed, we have not really had a viable military response, or any kinetic response to what is going on. I don’t think there is any real appetite for such a thing.”
Johnson then went on to say that the only thing the West could do in this situation is to try to embarrass the Russians into calling a stop. He explained this by saying that "the one thing the Russians respond to is adverse global public opinion.”
This explains all the current talk of war crimes, encompassing charges of (the unproved) Russian guilt for the attack on the relief convoy, complaints about the deliberate cutting off of Aleppo’s water supply, charges of the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas of Aleppo, claims of the use of firebombs there etc. – all things which happen in Syria all the time, and which having been happening continuously there ever since the war started, but which are now being talked about as war crimes.
In the same interview Johnson put it this way: "They [the Russians] are in the dock of the court of international opinion. They are guilty of making the war far more protracted and far more hideous, and yes, when it comes up, the bombing of civilian targets, we should be looking … to see if the targeting is done in the knowledge they are wholly innocent civilian targets, [because] that is a war crime.”
To Western dismay, the Russians, however, show no sign of bending.
The key point about the events at the UN General Assembly last week was that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, despite coming under intense concerted pressure from the U.S. and its allies, flatly ruled out any more unilateral ceasefires by the Syrian army.
Instead he made it crystal clear that a ceasefire could only happen if the Syrian opposition fighters genuinely committed themselves to it and separated themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra, as the U.S. promised in February and in the recent Kerry – Lavrov agreement that they would do.
At the UN Security Council meeting on 25th September 2016, Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the same thing:
The American side de facto signed that it was unable to influence the groups it sponsors and to deliver on the deal as it promised. First of all, to separate those groups from terrorists and mark their positions on the ground accordingly.
The ceasefire can only be salvaged now on a collective basis. It’s not us that have to prove something to somebody unilaterally. We have to see proof that there is a genuine desire to separate U.S.-allied rebel groups from the Al-Nusra Front, then destroy the Al-Nusra Front and bring the opposition into a political process. Otherwise our suspicions that this was only meant to shield the Al-Nusra Front would only grow stronger.
Two weeks ago, I said that the likely motivation of the realists in Washington who supported the Kerry-Lavrov agreement was to save the Jihadis in Aleppo and preserve them as a coherent force by evacuating them from the city, where they had become trapped and where their position had become untenable. That was why, as I speculated on the strength of certain comments made by Russian military officials, it appeared that the Kerry-Lavrov agreement made provision for their withdrawal from Aleppo by way of the Castello Road.
As it turns out the Kerry-Lavrov agreement did indeed provide for that. This has now been confirmed by the text of the part of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement the U.S. has disclosed (through the bizarre device of a leak to the Associated Press). This is the specific provision in the text:
"Any Syrians can leave Aleppo via Castello Road, including armed opposition forces with their weapons, with the understanding that no harm will come to them and they can choose their destination. Opposition forces leaving Aleppo with weapons must coordinate ahead of time with UN representatives as to the time they will be using Castello Road and the number of personnel and weapons and military equipment departing.
The document the U.S. has published is only one document of the five which together make up the Kerry-Lavrov agreement. The other documents no doubt go into much greater detail about the separation of the fighters the U.S. supports from Jabhat Al-Nusra. It is likely that these documents specify which fighters were to leave Aleppo via the Castello Road, and what would happen to those who remained.
In the event, the intentions of the realists were defeated because the hardliners in Washington and the Jihadis on the ground in Syria rejected the Kerry-Lavrov agreement. The result was that instead of separating themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra – as the Kerry-Lavrov agreement required them to do – the Jihadi fighters have remained united with Jabhat Al-Nusra, and tried to exploit the ceasefire to carry out more attacks on the Syrian army.
Following the collapse of the ceasefire, and with the forcible imposition of a no-fly zone for all practical purposes ruled out, the U.S. has found itself left with nothing other than U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s absurd proposal that Russia and Syria impose a no-fly zone on themselves. The moment the Russians rejected this proposal – as they were bound to do – the U.S.’s bluff was effectively called.
It is this awareness on the part of the U.S. that its bluff has been called, and that its impotence to effect militarily the course of the battle of Aleppo has been laid bare, which is behind the furious denunciations we are now hearing from the U.S. and its allies, as they scramble desperately to try to get the Russians to call off the battle of Aleppo so as to save their Jihadi proteges in Aleppo from total defeat, and themselves from the humiliation of the public failure of their strategy.
U.S. admits it has no idea who attacked Aleppo UN humanitarian convoy
By Alexander Mercouris, The Duran, Sept 26, 2016
As top U.S. officials admit, they do not know who attacked the Aleppo relief convoy all prospects of an impartial investigation fade away.
One of the overlooked comments which U.S. General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made at the Senate hearing on Thursday [Sept 22] concerned the recent attack on the relief convoy near Aleppo, which has recently been so much in the news.
Here is what he said: "I don’t have the facts. There is no doubt in my mind that the Russians are responsible.”
And here is what U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said, testifying at the same Senate hearing alongside General Dunford: "The Russians are responsible for this strike whether they conducted it or not.”
In other words, despite the tidal wave of claims which have been flowing saying the Russians attacked the convoy, and despite the claims to that effect made by the anonymous U.S. officials who have been prowling behind the scenes through the Western media, the U.S. does not actually know that the Russians attacked the convoy. U.S. General Dunford "doesn’t have the facts” and U.S. Defence Secretary Carter cannot say whether the Russians "conducted (the attack) or not”.
I presume Dunford and Carter, respectively the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. Secretary of Defence, are the sort of people who would know if U.S. intelligence was reporting that the Russians carried out the attack. I can see no reason why they would fail to say that the Russians carried out the attack if that is what U.S. intelligence was actually reporting. The fact that they are saying that they don’t know must mean that U.S. intelligence – and therefore the U.S. government – doesn’t know either.
Basically what the U.S. is saying is: we know it wasn’t us; it could only therefore have been the Syrians or the Russians; only the Russians have the necessary technology and two of their SU24s were in the area; therefore it must have been the Russians. This is not knowledge or evidence but a chain of inference.
To confuse matters, judging by a piece in ‘Moon of Alabama’, the U.S. story appears to have shifted so that the U.S. is now apparently claiming that both the Syrians and the Russians jointly carried out the attack.
It is sometimes possible to infer the truth of who was behind a particular attack by looking at the evidence, but can it actually be done in this case? The short answer, I would say, is no.
Since the attack is being called by some a war crime, it would seem a basic step first to secure and inspect what in that case would be a crime scene before drawing any inferences and making any accusations. Almost a week after the attack not only has that not been done, but no one seems to be in any hurry to do it.
With the crime scene not secured, the possibility of contamination or outright manipulation of the evidence is very real, especially given the strong incentive to do so of the Jihadi fighters who are in physical control of it. After all that is what many claim the Jihadi fighters did to the scene of the chemical attack on Ghouta in August 2013.
In light of this, photographs which have been circulating which supposedly show the fin of a Russian bomb at the scene of the attack can carry no weight and must be disregarded, especially as the bomb in question appears to be one of the most commonly used in Syria. That would make finding and planting a sample of one at the scene of the attack a relatively straightforward matter.
In the absence of any actual evidence that the Russians carried out the attack, the U.S. and the Western media have fallen back on ridiculing what the Russians have said about it. Unfortunately the clever way this has been done – notably by U.S. Secretary of State Kerry at the UN Security Council – has confused many people, including someone as level headed as the veteran British correspondent Patrick Cockburn.
Briefly, and contrary to the impression given by Kerry and others, the Russians have not said how the convoy was attacked or by whom or how it came to be destroyed. They have merely denied that they or the Syrians did it, and have provided commentaries on what they say is some of the evidence they have or which they have seen.
That evidence includes a video which they say shows armed Jihadis shadowing the convoy in a vehicle equipped with a mortar, information that a U.S. Predator drone was in the area, and analysis of video evidence of opposition activists which they suggest shows that the convoy was set on fire, and was not destroyed as the result of an air strike.
The Russian claims about armed Jihadis near the convoy and the U.S. Predator drone in the area do not look to me like claims that the convoy was attacked because it was being used as cover by the Jihadis, or that the Jihadis blew up the convoy with a mortar, or that the U.S. Predator drone attacked it – all claims I have seen alleged that the Russians have made. The Russians have never made those claims, though others have done so on the strength of the commentary and evidence the Russians have provided.
Rather, these Russian claims seem to me intended to counter U.S. claims that the Russians "must have” attacked the convoy because two of their SU24s were in the area. The point the Russians are making is that if their SU24s were in the area, then so were the Jihadis and the U.S. (in the form of the Predator drone), and to construe that it "must have been” the Russians who attacked the convoy merely because their SU24s happened to be in the area is therefore unwarranted.
As for the analysis of the video evidence that the convoy was set on fire, as the Russians have themselves admitted, that is purely speculative. Without a proper inspection of the scene of the convoy attack one simply cannot know.
In my experience, the invariable response of someone trying to cover up their involvement in a crime is to hit on a single made-up story of how the crime was committed and to stick to it whilst providing an alibi. That this is not what the Russians are doing does not prove them innocent, but it is definitely not the sign of guilt some are taking it for. If anything, it suggests that the Russians genuinely do not know what happened to the convoy, which might be why they are calling for the attack on the convoy to be independently investigated.
All other things being equal, the fact the Russians are calling for an independent investigation also suggests that they are unlikely to have done it. As a general rule, someone who has committed a crime is usually the last person to call for an independent investigation of the crime, especially if the crime scene is not in their control. If the Russians did attack the convoy – or if the Syrians attacked the convoy and the Russians know the Syrians attacked it – then the Russian demand for an investigation looks like a frankly reckless double-bluff.
Again, none of this proves that the Russians are innocent. Moreover, anyone who wants to dispute the commentary or the evidence the Russians have put forward is at liberty to do so, though they do their credibility no favours if they do so by resorting to sarcasm and ridicule. However, it is interesting that so far it is the Russians who are calling for an investigation whilst none of those who are accusing them is doing so.
In the meantime, I do not think it is worthwhile speculating on how the convoy was destroyed or by whom. I do not think anywhere near enough facts are known to make it possible for anyone to say. In the absence of a proper investigation – or even an inspection of the site of the attack – any claim can be no more than a guess. If people like Dunford and Carter don’t have the necessary facts, then it is impossible that anyone else commenting on what happened from afar can have either.
Sadly, I must also say that I do not think that how the convoy came to be attacked or by whom will ever be known. Quite simply, those who are in a position to find out the truth are not interested in doing so.
For the U.S., the attack on the convoy came at a very convenient moment, when it was on the defensive following its attack on the Syrian troops defending Deir Al-Zour. Whilst that does not mean it was the U.S. which attacked the convoy or which ordered the attack on the convoy – for the record, I don’t think the U.S. did either of those things – it does mean that the U.S. has no incentive to find out the truth of what happened in case that might undermine a story that has served it so well.
With the U.S.’s proxies in control of the scene of the attack that all but guarantees that no proper investigation of this incident will ever take place, which in turn means that the truth of what happened will never become known.