The US-Russia deal to bring peace to Syria seemed near collapse yesterday, as the two countries publicly accused each other of double-dealing and atrocities in the wake of an apparently mistaken US airstrike that killed dozens of Syrian soldiers.
The US Central Command acknowledged the strike, in eastern Syria's Deir al-Zour province, saying it was "halted immediately" when US forces were informed by Russia "that it was possible the personnel and vehicles targeted were part of the Syrian military". Central Command said the intended target had been Isis (Islamic State) forces in the area.
A US Defence official said the strike "appears to be an intelligence failure".
Russia and Syria asserted that 62 were killed and about 100 others were injured. A senior administration official said the United States had "relayed our regret" through Russia "for the unintentional loss of life of Syrian forces fighting Isis," and had launched an internal investigation.
It marked the first time the United States has engaged the Syrian military since it began targeting Isis in Syria and Iraq two years ago. The strike also came at a particularly sensitive time in US and Russian efforts to forge a ceasefire in Syria's civil war, as each has accused the other of failing to comply with an agreement they struck a week ago for a ceasefire.
The incident quickly sparked one of the most hostile diplomatic exchanges between Washington and Moscow in recent years. Russia, after calling an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, suggested that the strike was "not accidental" and that it was designed to derail the deal.
Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, also said the strike could be evidence of US support for Isis and an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting the Syrian Government, which the United States has sought to help oust.
Churkin spoke outside the Security Council chamber after his US counterpart, Samantha Power, appeared before reporters as the meeting was starting, scornfully calling the closed-door session a Russian "stunt". The Syrian regime, assisted by Russia, has tortured and bombed its people, Power said.
"And, yet, in the face of none of these atrocities has Russia expressed outrage, nor has it demanded investigations, nor has it ever called for . . . an emergency meeting of the Security Council. Seriously? And they're calling this emergency meeting? Really? Because of a single airstrike . . . in error . . . which we have quickly called for investigating?"
Churkin, who stalked out of the meeting as Power entered, said that he had never, "in all my years in international life, over 40 years," seen "such an extraordinary display of American heavy-handedness as we are witnessing today". He described Power's remarks as "demagoguery of the highest order".