Secretary of State John Kerry threatened Wednesday to halt talks with Russia over the war in Syria and cancel plans to expand military cooperation unless Russia and the Syrian regime’s ongoing bombing of rebel-held areas in Eastern Aleppo stops. Russia has rejected the demand, and the bombing, which has killed hundreds including 96 children in recent days, continues. Eastern Aleppo is reportedly down to just seven surgical doctors for a population of 250,000 after two hospitals were bombed, the latest instance in a deliberate strategy by the Assad regime and Russia of targeting medical facilities.
In response to what Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power has called “barbarism” in Aleppo, the Obama administration is reportedly considering “tougher responses,” including some options that, according to State Department spokesman John Kirby, “don’t revolve around diplomacy.”
What could that mean? Well, according to Reuters, probably not very much. The discussions of options has happened at “staff level” and none have yet been presented to the president. Nondiplomatic would seem to imply some sort of military force. But the Obama administration has ruled out any major commitment of U.S. troops and is unlikely to change that stance. A limited airstrike on a Syrian military base is also reportedly under discussion but considered unlikely due to the possibility of Russian casualties.
Another possibility is providing more aid to anti-Assad rebels, or allowing rebel-supporting countries in the gulf to do so, though officials say this would not include providing them with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which is what they really need. Yes, the U.S. fears that these weapons could end up in the hands of ISIS or other terrorist groups, but without them, it’s hard to see how rebels could fight back effectively against regime and Russian airpower. More aid to the rebels without these weapons at this point seems likely to simply prolong the conflict. An official’s suggestion to Reuters that while more aid wouldn’t reverse the tide of the conflict but “might cause the Russians to stop and think” is laughably optimistic.
More sanctions against Russia or Syria are another possibility, though the U.S. already expanded anti-Russian sanctions over Ukraine just a few weeks ago and they don’t seem to be doing the trick.
And so, the president’s options, as one official put it, “begin at tougher talk.” The idea that this would have any effect is easy to mock. As John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a statement after Kerry threatened to call off talks, “We can only imagine that having heard the news, Vladimir Putin has called off his bear hunt and is rushing back to the Kremlin to call off Russian airstrikes on hospitals, schools and humanitarian aid convoys around Aleppo.”
But those arguing for completely cutting off Russia and considering military options don’t sound much more realistic. As former State Department Syria hand Frederic Hof said earlier this week “no one is calling for invasion, occupation, or violent regime change.” So assuming that even the pro-interventionalists don’t actually want to overthrow Assad, it’s hard to see what limited aid to the rebels or limited airstrikes would do other than, again, prolong the conflict. And assuming Assad stays in power, it’s hard to see how he can be constrained without Russia pressuring him.
Mistakes by the Obama administration in its handling of Syria have helped get us into the current situation, but right now I’m not hearing a lot of good ideas from anyone for getting out of it.