U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the possibility Tuesday that, under the terms of the Syria cease-fire agreement hammered out last week, the U.S. and Russia may work together with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military on targeting the jihadist group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (and now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham). The AP reports:
If calm holds after seven days, the U.S. and Russia would then cooperate on how to jointly combat the al-Qaida linked group formerly called the Nusra Front and now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. But the two powers also could approve Syrian combat missions against the group, he said.
The U.S. has never previously spoken of approving military operations by Assad, whom they blame for a war that has killed as many as a half-million people.
"Assad is not supposed to be bombing the opposition, because there is a cease-fire," Kerry told journalists at the State Department. "Now he is allowed ... to target Nusra. But that will be on strikes that are agreed upon with Russia and the United States in order to go after them."
I’m guessing we may see some clarification or even walking back of this statement—Kerry can get a little carried away when speaking extemporaneously—because it would seem to suggest that the U.S. is now coordinating airstrikes with Assad’s military, whose tactics include the continued use of chemical weapons, intentionally starving towns, barrel bombing civilians, and targeting hospitals. The U.S. has also pretty openly accused Assad of collaboration with ISIS. The next time the Syrian military engages in one of these activities, it will be fair to ask whether the U.S. signed off on it.
There’s a good chance we won’t even get to the point where such coordination would take place. The cease-fire has already reportedly been violated by both sides in the few hours since it went into effect. Still: It’s been almost three years since the U.S. very nearly launched direct military intervention against Assad. It’s been clear for some time that the Obama administration is backing away from the idea that he needs to step down. This latest development would essentially make that official.
Update, 4:30 p.m. Well, that was quick:
So the U.S. won't be coordinating airstrikes with the Syrian government. It will only coordinate them with Russia, which will coordinate with the Syrian government. Got it.