The United States and Russia, global powers backing opposing sides in Syria’s devastating civil war, had finally agreed to join forces against terrorist groups rampant in the Middle Eastern country.
Then a widely condemned attack on a United Nations humanitarian aid convoy jeopardized those plans - leaving Syria’s fate hanging in the balance.
It remains unclear who committed the attack, which killed at least 20 civilians in the northern city of Aleppo, but the US has placed the blame squarely on Russia.
Late on Wednesday, Russia’s Defence Ministry hit back at the allegation, claiming in comments carried by state news agency TASS that a US-designed Predator drone had been flying above the convoy at the time.
Even if the Syrian military conducted the attack via an air-strike, a scenario broadly considered as the most likely, Russia was responsible for ensuring that Syrian warplanes would not fly over the area, according to a recent pact with the US.
It appears that the attack could prove to be a pivotal moment in this civil war of more than five years, as cooperation between the US and Russia unravels amid a failed countrywide ceasefire and escalating distrust between the former Cold War foes.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “had every reason to strike the convoy”, Russian security analyst Vladimir Frolov said.
The attack was “consistent with al-Assad’s strategy of making civilian life on rebel-held territories unsustainable in order to undermine popular support for the rebels”.
Russia quickly deflected responsibility for the attack and claimed it did not appear to be an air-strike, implying that rebel or terrorist groups were the perpetrators.
The UN refrained from attributing blame after the attack. “As humanitarians, we are not in a position to verify the type of the attack or who is responsible,” said David Swanson, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“What is clear, however, is that notification of the convoy had been duly provided to all parties to the conflict and received all proper authorisations from relevant authorities,” Swanson said. “Moreover, the convoy was clearly marked as humanitarian, which makes this attack so horrific.”
In recent days leading up to the collapse of the ceasefire, Moscow repeatedly accused Washington of not holding up its part of the bargain, saying the US was failing to separate US-backed rebels from UN-designated terrorist groups.
Frolov said there was a small chance that the deal could be salvaged “because it is so advantageous for Moscow and because the US has no Plan B”.
But that would require them to force the Syrian military and the rebels into compliance, “which is extremely hard to do”.
Aleppo had been rocked by protests in recent days expressing outrage at the fact that al-Qaeda-linked fighters who control much of the city were not included in the US-Russian-brokered ceasefire. Protesters appeared in videos saying they would not allow UN vehicles to enter the city through a government-secured route.
“Russia now is facing a big setback, as Russia knows that its ally, the Syrian military, has made many mistakes that could affect Russia’s image before the international community,” Lebanon-based analyst Amin Qamouriyeh said.
“The latest attack might be a turning point for the Russians if it’s proven that the regime hit the convoy,” Qamouriyeh continued. “The Russians cannot keep covering for mistakes, and the Americans know that.”
Meanwhile, with the US presidential election looming, Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, does not expect much of a change in Washington’s role.
“As the US approaches its presidential election, there will be no radical shift in US policy, especially not in favour of an escalatory approach [in Syria],” Sayigh said.
“The US administration simply can’t handle or manage that, nor will it risk creating an even bigger mess to hand over to the incoming administration,” he added.
Mikhail Troitskiy, an international affairs analyst in Moscow, said Russia is using the Syria conflict to raise its status vis-a-vis the US. “But this comes at a substantial cost for Russia and amid contradictions with other regional stakeholders, such as Iran and Turkey, as to what the endgame in the conflict could look like.
“Russia will have to ponder how much longer it would like to conduct operations in Syria at the cost of up to US$100 million per day,” Troitskiy said.
However, “the collapse of the latest ceasefire will likely result in resumed proxy war between Russia and the US”. As for the US, Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, does not expect much of a change in the country’s role in Syria because of the upcoming presidential election.