US, Russia poised for new battle over Syria

"I would not agree that coalition aircraft ought to be grounded," said Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "I do agree that Syrian regime aircraft and Russian aircraft should be grounded."

NEW YORK | The United States and Russia are taking their differences over the conflict in Syria to new heights, after trading ferocious allegations of duplicity and malfeasance at the United Nations Security Council.

After a fractious meeting of the council on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were set to duel again at a gathering of foreign ministers from the roughly 20 nations that have interests in Syria. Thursday’s meeting of the International Syria Support Group comes after the two blamed each other for spoiling the country’s cease-fire that they had agreed to only two weeks before.

Ash Carter, Joseph Dunford

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, left, accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, before Senate Armed Services Committee. The nation's top military officials faced sharp questions from Republicans angry that the Obama administration is not taking more aggressive steps to end the 5-year-old-civil war in Syria. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

APTOPIX United Nations Security Council

Syria's permanent representative to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, right, talks with Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin before the start of a Security Council meeting, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, at U.N. headquarters. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

United Nations Security Council

Members of the Security Council meet to address the situation in Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, at U.N. headquarters. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

United Nations Security Council

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a Security Council meeting, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, at U.N. headquarters. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

APTOPIX United Nations Security Council

United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, listens during a Security Council meeting, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, at U.N. headquarters. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Amid deep pessimism over whether the truce could be resurrected, the group was to consider a U.S. call for all warplanes to halt flights over aid routes following an attack on a humanitarian convoy near the besieged city of Aleppo and a Russian suggestion for a three-day pause in fighting to get the so-called “cessation of hostilities” back on track. However, diplomats said prospects for the success of either idea were unclear.

And Kerry didn’t even have solid support at home for his plan. The top U.S. military official told Congress on Thursday that he disagrees with Kerry’s proposal to ground all warplanes.

“I would not agree that coalition aircraft ought to be grounded,” said Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I do agree that Syrian regime aircraft and Russian aircraft should be grounded.”

The meeting also comes after Syrian President Bashar Assad blamed the U.S. for the collapse of the cease-fire in an interview with The Associated Press in Damascus. Assad said the U.S. lacked “the will” to join forces with Russia in fighting extremists and rejected Washington’s claim that airstrikes last week on Syrian troops were accidental.

The diametrically opposed views of Washington and Moscow were underscored at the Security Council meeting that had originally been called to enshrine the Sept. 9 truce. Instead, members rued the possibility of a darker phase in the conflict amid increased attacks on humanitarian workers. And, in unusually blunt language, they illustrated why they’ve been unable for more than five years to stop Syria’s civil war.

“Supposedly we all want the same goal. I’ve heard that again and again,” a visibly angry Kerry told the council. “Everybody sits there and says we want a united Syria, secular, respecting the rights of all people, in which the people of Syria can choose their leadership. But we are proving woefully inadequate in our ability to be able to get to the table and have that conversation and make it happen.”

While the U.S. and Russia have previously butted heads over several proposed resolutions critical of the Syrian government, Wednesday’s agenda didn’t even include a suggested course of action. Instead, the two-hour discussion served as a warm-up act for Thursday’s meeting.

Kerry blamed Russia, lambasting what he portrayed as a cynical response to an airstrike on a humanitarian aid convoy this week that killed 20 civilians and raised “profound doubt” about Russia’s and Syria’s willingness to abide by the cease-fire. The U.S. believes that a Russian-piloted aircraft carried out the strike, said a senior American official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

Russia has denied U.S. claims that it was responsible, but Kerry focused on its shifting explanation of what might have happened.

First, Kerry said, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary described the attack as a “necessary response” to an alleged offensive by al-Qaida-linked militants elsewhere in the country. Then, a Russian ambassador said forces were targeting another area.

Russia’s Defense Ministry followed by saying the aid convoy was accompanied by militants in a pickup truck with a mortar, Kerry said, adding that no such evidence exists. Then, the ministry denied any Russian or Syrian involvement as its spokesman suggested, in Kerry’s words, that “the food and the medicine just spontaneously combusted.”

“This is not a joke,” Kerry exclaimed, urging all to stop the “word games that duck responsibility or avoid the choices … with respect to war and peace, life and death.” His pleas crossed paths with another statement by Russia’s government, this time suggesting a U.S. coalition Predator drone was operating nearby when the convoy attack occurred. The Pentagon said no drone was in the area at the time.

It was one of Kerry’s most bitter exchanges with Moscow as secretary of state, laced with invective and outrage.

Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper and broadcast journalist Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.

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