Roy Gutman writes: The city of Aleppo has been one of the most important symbols of the five-year-long uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. For that reason, it is no surprise the Syrian government has been mounting an air and ground assault on Aleppo for the past two weeks in the hope of winning it back. What’s much harder to understand is why the United States has been sending out ambiguous signals about its view of the offensive on the city.
The United States and Russia agreed to a cease-fire in Aleppo on Wednesday, which was supposed to last for 48 hours. While violence has decreased in the aftermath of the agreement, it seems likely to have only delayed the larger struggle for control of the city.
The Obama administration has chosen not to spotlight what by most definitions are widespread and systematic war crimes. On occasion, it blames the Syrian Air Force for bombing hospitals and other civilian targets but rarely discusses Russian violations. It doesn’t even share with the public the rampant infractions of the cease-fire it is overseeing. That’s all classified.
Instead, U.S. officials have repeatedly focused attention on al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. In a series of inaccurate or loosely worded statements, officials have implied Nusra Front has a major presence in Aleppo — assertions that the Russian and Syrian governments could interpret, or exploit, as an invitation to carry on with the bombardment.
American policy baffles allies in the Sunni Muslim world. Turkish officials say Russia’s intervention in Syria upended the battlefield by shifting the balance of power in the Assad regime’s favor, and it has to be righted before there can be a political solution.
But the Obama administration views Russian intervention from a more benign perspective.
There was real concern in Russia “about a potential catastrophic success” by rebel forces in mid-2015, “where Assad collapses, but so do all the Syrian state institutions, and you have even more of a failed state,” the senior administration official told FP. “What Russia has done is return it to the stalemate.”
That perspective, coupled with the U.S. refusal to contemplate the use of force, sets the context for a series of wrong or ambiguous U.S. statements about the role of Nusra Front in Syria.
The first to raise a furor was by Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. Voicing concern that the Assad regime with Russian support was concentrating forces around Aleppo, he added: “That said, it’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, al-Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities. So it’s complicated. We’re watching it.”
Asked by FP to double-check his information, Warren replied that his statement was wrong.
“I was incorrect when I said Nusra holds Aleppo,” he said in an email. “Turns out that our current read is that Nusra controls the northwest suburbs” and other groups control the center.
His remarks, however, had already spread around the world, including on the BBC, Fox News, and Iran’s Press TV.
Humanitarian aid officials in Turkey, who have to negotiate with all the armed groups, were stunned.
“I can find no one who thinks that Nusra is in control, aside from the U.S. spokesperson,” said a top official of one international group that sends food and medical supplies to northern Syria. “Totally inaccurate. They’re the faction with the least presence,” said an aid official, who is in touch with the factions on the ground and the aid organizations providing assistance. He added that Nusra Front had recently set up five checkpoints within the city.
In fact, according to Aleppo officials and rebel sources, moderate rebels, many of them recipients of U.S.-approved covert support, control some 80 percent of Aleppo. [Continue reading…]