With Only Bad Options in Syria, US Reluctant to Alter Course

The disintegration of diplomatic talks with Russia has left the Obama administration with an array of bad options for what to do next in Syria.
Despite harrowing scenes of violence in the city of Aleppo and beyond, President Barack Obama is unlikely to approve any dramatic shift in strategy before handing the civil war over to his successor in January.
The options under discussion at the White House — limited military strikes, sanctions, more weapons for rebels, multiparty talks — have one thing in common: None appears likely to halt the bloodshed in the short term.
The more aggressive proposals come with the added risk of pulling the U.S. into direct military confrontation with Russia, a threat illuminated by a string of recent taunts from Moscow.
Obama has wrestled for years with the Syria crisis and is reluctant to entangle the U.S. in another Mideast war. He insisted the only viable path forward involved U.S.-Russia-brokered talks, but they have now fallen apart,
He faces the prospect of leaving office as a bystander to a war in which an estimated 500,000 people have been killed and 11 million people — half of Syria’s pre-war population — have become refugees.
“Obama’s practically lame-duck status only reinforces the argument for maintaining the current policy,” said Jonathan Stevenson, a former senior Mideast adviser to the president. “It’s true, of course, that presidents on their way out are not always risk-averse, but maybe they should be.”
Secretary of State John Kerry and others are clamoring for a stronger response after the Syrian and Russian assaults on Aleppo punctured the veneer of a productive diplomatic track, and the U.S. withdrew from talks with Russia last week.
Evidence of the collapse of relations abounded Friday.
The U.S. formally accused Russia of trying to meddle in the U.S. election by hacking U.S. political groups, and Kerry accused the Kremlin of war crimes in Syria. Earlier, Russia suspended deals with the U.S. on nuclear research cooperation and disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.
The turn of events has led the White House to cautiously reconsider proposals that had been largely ruled out, including economic penalties against Russia that the U.S. would have to orchestrate with Russia’s larger trading partners.
Senior U.S. officials said the administration was discussing options with European countries while U.S. intelligence agencies map out companies and individuals that could be targeted.
Under a separate proposal, the U.S. would take narrow, short-term military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military, such as its air force assets, officials said. The goal wouldn’t be to eliminate Assad’s ability to attack opposition groups, but to scare Syria and Russia into returning to the negotiating table, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Yet officials from multiple U.S. agencies said chances appeared slim that Obama would approve the strikes. Such a move probably would trigger at least a short-term uptick in violence, they noted, with long-term prospects for starting a peace process unclear.
Moreover, there is no U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing strikes against Syria, leaving the U.S. without a clear legal basis to act. Russia has bolstered its capabilities in Syria with state-of-the-art S-300 missile defense systems, while warning it could fire back if Assad’s assets come under U.S. attack.
Russia launched its military campaign in Syria last year to help Assad’s forces fight the opposition. The U.S. military and its partners are only targeting the Islamic State group and other extremists in the country.
Even with diplomatic talks ended, Russia and the U.S. are maintaining military-to-military “deconfliction” contacts to prevent an accidental confrontation in Syria’s crowded sky. But Russia’s military warned ominously this week that it wouldn’t have enough time to use the “hotline” before shooting back.
“Both parties will try to avoid any sort of escalation that may entail unpredictable consequences, but various things may happen,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, an association of top Russian political experts. “The risks are high, especially now when mutual aversion is strong.”
In sanctions, too, the U.S. sees potential drawbacks.
The U.S. had blamed Moscow of being either unable or unwilling to persuade Assad to abide by the most recent cease-fire. But it is holding out hope that Moscow has a change of heart, perhaps in response to sanctions.
The White House and State Department had argued to Congress that new sanctions legislation could undermine efforts with Russians to forge a cease-fire between Assad and rebel groups. Lawmakers responded last month by canceling a vote on a bipartisan bill requiring Obama to impose sanctions on anyone who does business with Syria’s government or central bank, its aviation industry or energy sector.
While the Russia talks have collapsed, the administration maintains concerns about the sanctions might also hurt Iran, another Assad supporter, giving Tehran an excuse to renege on the U.S.-brokered nuclear deal. The administration also demanded that lawmakers strip out mandatory requirements so that Obama can waive sanctions at his discretion, congressional aides said.
The U.S. has legal authority to target Russian entities over support for Syria, but there have been no Russia sanctions to date for its actions in Syria. The White House has argued that because the U.S. does little trade with Russia, U.S. sanctions would be ineffective unless European countries join.
The administration also has long considered allowing Saudi Arabia and other Assad opponents to arm the Syrian opposition with more sophisticated weaponry. But there’s widespread concern about weapons reaching extremists, given intermingling across Syria’s battlefields by various groups fighting Assad.
That leaves renewed diplomacy, through the U.N. or the 20-nation International Syria Support Group, as the most probable focus. Both formats include Russia.