Russia and the US in Syria: Deals, disinfo and deception

2016-07-01-putin-obama-syria

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post yesterday, columnist Josh Rogin revealed what he said was potentially a “bad deal” that the Obama administration is pitching to Russia about increased cooperation in Syria. But it’s hard to know what to make of the news, which the Russians won’t comment on, and which comes amidst what seems to be a spike in bad relations between Russia and the U.S.

News broke this week of an incident, for example, in which the U.S. and Russia both accused each other of taking inappropriate action in an encounter between two naval ships. That follows similarly conflicting reports of an assault outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

According to, again, Josh Rogin, writing in the Washington Post’s “global opinions” section, an American “diplomat” was attacked earlier this month by a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) guard stationed outside of the embassy.

“The motive for the attack remains unclear,” Rogin writes. “One U.S. official told me that the diplomat was seeking refuge in the embassy complex to avoid being detained by the Russian intelligence services. A different U.S. official told me the diplomat may have been working as a spy in Russia under what’s known as ‘diplomatic cover,’ which means he was pretending to be a State Department employee.”

If the Russians are to be believed, the second hypothesis is closer to the truth. “US State Department and security services have been actively using the Washington Post for disseminating distorted information and outright lies about ‘harassment’ of the US diplomats in Russia,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reportedly said.

The report from Russia Today (a publication admittedly funded by the Russian government) continues:

The ministry’s spokeswoman explained that, in reality, it was a US citizen who attacked a Russian security guard stationed outside the US embassy when the officer tried to check his ID.

“On the night of June 6, a taxi drove up to the US embassy in Moscow. A man with a hat drawn over his eyes jumped out of the car and rushed to the entrance. A police officer, who was on duty at the entrance, tried to check the ID of the suspicious man to ensure that there is no threat for the embassy,” Zakharova told journalists at a briefing on Thursday.

“Instead of letting the officer see his ID, the man hit him with an elbow in the face than pushed him away and fled to the embassy,” she added, stressing that the Washington Post report “not only distorts the information but openly contradicts the facts.”

She also emphasized that the attack on the police officer was recorded by the CCTV cameras and presented to the US State Department “long ago,” with Russian Foreign Ministry filing a protest over the incident.

It was later revealed that the man who attacked the officer was in fact a CIA agent, who worked in Russia under diplomatic cover and was returning from a mission on the night of the attack, the spokeswoman stressed, adding that the agent apparently tried to escape recognition.

Whatever the truth is about who attacked who, it seems clear that U.S-Russian relations have recently been strained. The Moscow embassy incident followed a previous back and forth between the Washington Post and Russia Today about whose diplomats were being harassed by who. Reports of the U.S. proposal for increased cooperation in Syria are perplexing given this backdrop.

The proposed deal, Rogin writes, “would deepen military cooperation between the two countries against some terrorists in exchange for Russia getting the Assad regime to stop bombing U.S.-supported rebels. (…) The crux of the deal is a U.S. promise to join forces with the Russian air force to share targeting and coordinate an expanded bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, which is primarily fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

Rogin’s article also notes that “CIA Director John Brennan said Wednesday in remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations that Russia is ‘trying to crush’ anti-Assad forces and that Moscow has not lived up to its commitments regarding the cease-fire or the political process in Syria. Nevertheless, Brennan said, the United States needs to work with Russia.”

Meanwhile, a Kremlin spokesman has reportedly refused to comment on the U.S. proposal, and according to Russia Today, “the head of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, said that Washington still hasn’t provided a list of groups it considers terrorist, allowing jihadists to regroup and escape Russian-led air raids on their positions,” while the Russian Defense Ministry in contrast, according to RT, has provided the U.S. a list of its own targets.

The Russian publication additionally noted yet another back and forth between the two former Cold War adversaries:

“Russia needs to understand that our patience is not infinite. In fact, it is very limited with whether or not Assad is going to be held accountable,” the US secretary of state (John Kerry) said. “It is very clear that the cessation of hostilities is frayed and at risk, and that it is critical for a genuine cessation to be put in place,” he added.

“If anyone’s patience on Syria is waning, it is ours, not the United States,” the head of the Russian General Staff replied in response to Kerry’s statement. “We are in full compliance with our obligations to maintain the ceasefire and ensure national reconciliation in Syria. The American side always has problems with the ‘opposition under its control,’” Gerasimov noted.

The true motivations of both Russia and the U.S., along with the multitude of other actors in the chaotic mess that has consumed Syria and the broader region, are difficult to pin down. What is clear, however, is that those motivations are being masked by layers of posturing and deception, and that in terms of international intrigue, you would be hard pressed to find a hotter spot on the world map at this moment in history than Syria.

 

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