The Obama administration is reportedly considering military options for Syria, or at least trying to signal to Russia that military force is back on the table.
Reuters reports “even Administration advocates of a more muscular U.S. response said on Wednesday that it was not clear what, if anything, the president would do, and that his options ‘begin at tougher talk,’ as one official put it.”
Secretary of State John Kerry has been threatening to break off bilateral contacts with Russia since the Russian-backed Syrian government discarded the ceasefire agreement negotiated by American and Russian diplomats, launching a series of deadly airstrikes and ground operations on rebel-held sectors of Aleppo.
Disturbingly, two officials cited anonymously by Reuters said the administration was “caught off guard” by the “speed with which the Syrians have advanced,” leaving it with few good options to influence the outcome of the conflict:
The most dramatic option under consideration – but considered less likely – would be a U.S. air strike on a Syrian air base far from the fighting between Assad’s troops and rebel forces in the north, officials said.
Other ideas under consideration include sending more U.S. special operations forces to train and advise Kurdish and Syrian rebel groups, and deploying additional American and allied naval and airpower to the eastern Mediterranean, where a French aircraft carrier is already en route.
U.S. officials had considered a humanitarian airlift to rebel-held areas, which would require escorts by U.S. warplanes, but this has been deemed too risky and has been “moved down the list,” one official said.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and “made clear the United States and its partners hold Russia responsible for this situation.”
Kerry told Lavrov the U.S. is “making preparations to suspend U.S.-Russia bilateral engagement on Syria,” unless Russia “takes immediate steps” to end the carnage around Aleppo.
“The scale of the slaughter is unprecedented in Syria’s five years of civil war, as are the international cries for something to be done. Yet there is a growing sense that the United States is powerless to stop it, or is at least unwilling to take steps that might force Moscow and Damascus to change their calculations,” the Washington Post opined.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that Russia brushed off Kerry’s threats and said it would continue operations in Syria.
“We have more than once suggested 48-hour pauses in order to ensure humanitarian access. But our American colleagues are totally fixated on demands of a seven-day pause for reasons that only they know,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
“A seven-day pause is a time period that is quite sufficient for terrorist groups to take necessary steps in order to stock up on supplies, allow terrorists to rest and regroup forces,” Ryabkov added. “It is as though the duration was specially chosen to tackle such tasks, and consequently, a seven-day period is unacceptable for us.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also insinuated the United States was interested in helping terrorists
Also on Thursday, the U.N. deputy special envoy for Syria, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, said up to 600 wounded in Aleppo were awaiting treatment due to medicine shortages, hundreds were waiting for medical evacuations, and there was only food left for a quarter of the population.
“The bombing must stop, civilians must be protected and the cessation of hostilities must be restored,” said Ramzy.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said that “what Assad and Russia are doing in Aleppo is soul-shattering.”
She accused Russia of “fighting alongside the regime, bombing alongside the regime, exceeding in brutality what we have seen from the regime in the life of this war.”
Ian Bremmer at Time sees Russia and Syria calling Obama’s bluff: “One thing is clear: Russian planes in Syria’s airspace and Iranian boots on Syrian ground give Moscow and Tehran a bigger say on Assad and a greater stake in Syria’s future than Washington will ever have. And that’s a reality that the next U.S. President would do well to accept.”
Writing at the Washington Post, Philip Gordon argues the contrary position, saying Obama gave Putin a “clean win” with the ceasefire deal, which tacitly accepted there would be no regime change in Damascus for the foreseeable future, but Putin is now “imposing serious costs not only on defenseless Syrians, but on Russia itself.”
Gordon says Putin’s mistakes include assuming Russia will be able to control the Syrian regime after the civil war ends, assuming that even massive Russian bombing campaigns can give Assad a decisive victory over rebel forces, underestimating how much retaliation — including attacks from terrorists — Russia might suffer for unleashing carnage in Syria, and understating the cost of chillier relations with Europe and the United States.
Those are all highly speculative assertions, as is Gordon’s assumption that a President Hillary Clinton would be much tougher on Russia than Obama has been. Russian journalist Oleg Kashin writes at the UK Guardian that Putin is winning a “high-risk gamble” in Syria, by using it to distract from his less successful adventure in Ukraine and forcing Western powers to negotiate with Russia for the end to a prolonged war.