Russia and Syria should face war crimes probe for civilian attacks, Kerry says

Acrimony between Washington and Moscow heated up even further Friday as Secretary of State John F. Kerry called for Russia to be investigated for war crimes because of its bombardment of civilians in Syria and the Obama administration publicly accused Vladimir Putin’s government of computer hacking that was “intended to interfere with the U.S. election.”

Together, the statements marked another sign that U.S.-Russia relations are spiraling downward toward an enmity not seen since the Cold War.

Kerry, using some of his toughest language to date, cited another bombing overnight of a Syrian hospital that he said had killed 20 people and wounded more than 100. He blamed the Russia-backed government of Syrian President Bashar Assad; the two allies have been pounding rebel-controlled sections of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, for days, scuttling Kerry’s efforts to impose a cease-fire.

“These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes. And those who commit these would and should be held accountable for these actions,” Kerry said ahead of a meeting with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault.

“They’re beyond the accidental now — way beyond. Years beyond the accidental,” Kerry added. Russia and Syria are using “a targeted strategy to terrorize civilians and to kill anybody and everybody who is in the way of their military objectives,” he said.

Kerry’s comments — and an angry retort from Moscow — are the latest in a ratcheting up of hostile threats and counter-threats between the two powers. At last month’s U.N. General Assembly, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power publicly accused Russia of “barbarism.”

Earlier this week, the U.S. suspended bilateral cooperation with Russia over Syria because of what Kerry said was Moscow’s refusal to heed a cease-fire and instead relentlessly attack civilians. Putin, at the same time, withdrew from a key nuclear pact it had signed with Washington more than a decade ago.

Putin has repeatedly flexed his military muscle in the Middle East in an attempt to regain a dominant role in the region — while warning the U.S. not to attack Assad’s military or face consequences.

Responding to Kerry’s latest comments about a war-crimes probe, Russia said the U.S. was simply trying to distract from its own failures in the region.

"It is very dangerous to play with such words because war crimes also weigh on the shoulders of American officials," Russian new agencies quoted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying.

Kerry and Ayrault discussed a draft resolution France hopes to bring forward at an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting over the weekend. The resolution calls for an immediate halting to the bombing of Aleppo and the free passage of humanitarian aid to besieged enclaves. Russia has already labeled the draft “unacceptable” and will likely veto it.

“Tomorrow will be a moment of truth … for all the members of the Security Council,” Ayrault said, speaking through an interpreter, alongside Kerry. “Do you, yes or no, want a cease-fire in Aleppo? And the question is in particular for our Russian partners.”

Kerry and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, agreed to a partial cease-fire last month but it quickly fell apart. It would have included new military cooperation between the two nations in targeting terrorist groups. That is off the table now, and the State Department says “all other options” are under consideration. 

The U.S. has repeatedly accused Moscow and Damascus of “indiscriminate” bombing of civilian targets, while Russia claims it is targeting only “terrorists.” Russia also claims the U.S. has failed to uphold its part of the bargain, which included attempting to separate jihadist factions, including the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, from more moderate rebel groups that the U.S. backs.

Separately but as part of the same growing ill will, the Obama administration officially blamed the Russian government on Friday for attempting to interfere in the U.S. election by hacking computers used by political groups, including the Democratic National Committee.

In a statement, the U.S. intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security for the first time publicly said they were “confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.”

The goal of “these thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process,” the statement said.

The DNC is not identified in the statement, but a U.S. official confirmed it was one of the victims targeted by the Russian government.

The assessment also determined that only “Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities ... based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts.”

Previously, intelligence officials had privately blamed Russia, but would not say so openly.

The DNC disclosed it had been hacked in June, and a large number of internal emails soon were published on the website of WikiLeaks. The FBI confirmed in July that it was investigating the intrusion.

The Clinton campaign has said that “an analytics data program maintained by the DNC, and used by our campaign and a number of other entities, was accessed as part of the DNC hack.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other Democratic organizations also used the hacked system.

GOP nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on whether Russia was behind the attack.

The statement by U.S. officials also noted the recent hacking attacks targeting U.S. election systems. More than a dozen states have reported that voter registration databases have been scanned and probed by hackers, according to U.S. officials. Hackers this summer successfully penetrated an Illinois voter registration database.

U.S. officials suspect the Russian government is behind those cyberattacks too, law enforcement sources have said. However, the intelligence community is “not now in a position to attribute this activity to the Russian government,” the statement said.

Election experts have said it would be extremely difficult for Russia or another country to influence the outcome of an election, though they could seek to sow confusion.

The statement issued Friday reiterated that view, saying that their assessment “is based on the decentralized nature of our election system in this country and the number of protections state and local election officials have in place.”

Intelligence and DHS officials urged states and local election offices to remain “vigilant and seek cybersecurity assistance from DHS” to prepare for potential cyberattacks.

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UPDATES:

3:45 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with staff reporting.

The story was originally published at 9:35 a.m.

 

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