Russia says the United States and other UN members are floating the idea of establishing a "truce" with anti-Assad jihadist groups now battling Syrian and Russian forces in Idlib.
The problem is, as Moscow pointed out, these groups which are also bolstered by thousands of foreign fighters, include internationally designated terrorist organizations —especially the main group occupying the northwest province, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (or HTS, formerly Nusra Front).
Addressing a press conference at the start of this week alongside Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin, Russian FM Sergey Lavrov said he was "concerned about the attitude of some Western states" toward al-Qaeda groups operating in Syria. He noted these groups "are officially on terrorist organizations' lists compiled by the U.N. Security Council, they are also on the U.S.' national list of terrorist organizations."
But then he lambasted top US envoy for the region James Jeffrey, who was recently in Turkey, for appearing to suggest that al-Qaeda faction HTS should not be recognized as a terrorist organization.
Newsweek reported of special envoy to Syria Jeffrey's remarks:
The remarks come after James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative on Syria and special envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), told a press briefing earlier this month he had not seen Hayat Tahrir al-Sham "planning or carrying out international terrorism attacks." He made similar comments days earlier.
It follows a years-long pattern of both Washington officials and mainstream US media soft-peddling and even romanticizing terrorist groups in Syria, on the mere basis they are fighting to overthrow America's enemy Assad.
And it's no secret that the CIA and Pentagon were actively funding, arming, and training violent Islamist factions for years, branding them as "moderates" — even helping jihadists take over Idlib in the first place in 2015.
.@SecPompeo on Syria’s #Idlib province: The Assad regime’s brutal new aggression, cynically backed by Moscow and Tehran, imperils more than 3 million displaced persons. The answer is a permanent ceasefire and @UN-led negotiations. pic.twitter.com/efJMokZvU3— Department of State (@StateDept) February 25, 2020
The main group under the brunt of Syrian-Russian airpower, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has since March 2017 been a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. For this reason Lavrov told a UN Human Rights Council meeting on Tuesday that some UN members are seeking to "justify the atrocities of radical and terrorist groups."
Lavrov further said that US officials have "repeatedly made statements that mean that they consider Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to not be a terrorist organization as such and that it would be possible under certain circumstances to enter into a dialogue with it."
The Russian top diplomat added, "this is not the first time we hear such transparent hints, and we consider them completely unacceptable."
Russia perhaps senses that Washington could ensure pressure on Damascus by preserving Idlib as de facto al-Qaeda territory by backing a truce or ceasefire, similar to current US ceasefire talks with the Afghan Taliban. HTS itself has long been described as "the Syrian Taliban" — given its harsh brand of radical Islam imposed by the sword on the local population wherever it gains a foothold.
Seemingly in response to Russia's criticism, the US State Department published a video Tuesday afternoon of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasizing the only way forward is a "permanent ceasefire" in Idlib, also as calls grow from the usual hawkish corners of the beltway for greater US intervention in the conflict.