What Plan B? After Syria Collapse, U.S. Insists It Still Has One

  • Aleppo assault continues after Kerry says he may suspend talks
  • ‘Diplomacy with Russia on Syria is futile,’ analyst says

Buildings destroyed by Russian bombs in the al-Shear district of Aleppo on Sept. 28.

Photographer: Jawad al Rifai/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

U.S. officials say they’re weighing new options to stop the bombing campaign by Russia and Syria that’s plunged the city of Aleppo deeper into misery. Few people outside the Obama administration believe there’s much it will do.

With the United Nations’ secretary-general warning that the siege of Aleppo may amount to war crimes, Secretary of State John Kerry threatened Wednesday to “suspend” talks with Russia on a diplomatic solution. The move by Kerry -- who vowed in February that the U.S. would have a “Plan B” if negotiations failed -- was ignored by Moscow, which pressed ahead with its air campaign and said it would accept nothing more than 48-hour cease-fires.

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks on the US strategy in Syria during an address at the United States Institute of Peace on November 12, 2015 in Washington, DC.
John Kerry
Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

“Diplomacy with Russia on Syria is futile,” said David Schenker, the director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute. “Any continued diplomacy needs to be coupled with other measures to increase pressure on Moscow and by steps to change the dynamics on the ground.”

With its “moderate” rebel allies on the defense and President Barack Obama resistant to stepping up direct military engagement in the 5 1/2-year civil war, the U.S. is largely ceding the battlefield to a welter of forces from Russia, Syria, Turkey and Iran, as well as Kurdish militias and terrorist groups including Islamic State.

Syrian government troops seized more of Aleppo late on Thursday, including the Handarat neighborhood and al-Kindi hospital in the city’s north, according to state-run media and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war through activists on the ground. There were fierce clashes on Friday near the hospital, the group said, and at least 12 airstrikes overnight on eastern Aleppo, where the rebels are entrenched.

For a QuickTake explaining Syria’s multifaceted warfare, click here.

Kerry’s top deputy, Antony Blinken, went to Capitol Hill Thursday to tell senators that the government was coming up with possible new responses, though he didn’t say what they might be. Both Republicans and Democrats expressed frustration with the U.S.’s inability to influence events on the ground. Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he’d hold a classified hearing if that would help Blinken share specific ideas.

All Blinken would say was that the administration has asked government agencies to “put forward options, some familiar, some new."

“When we are able to work through these in the days ahead we’ll have the opportunity to come back and talk about them in detail," Blinken said.

The urgency to find a solution to the conflict, which has displaced millions of people and unleashed a refugee crisis in Europe, has only grown. At a meeting of the UN Security Council on Thursday, humanitarian chief Stephan O’Brien said 861,000 people are besieged in Syria, including 275,000 in Aleppo. The city that once was Syria’s commercial hub, he said, is no longer just on the precipice of disaster.

‘Merciless Abyss’

“It is well into its terrible descent into the pitiless and merciless abyss of a humanitarian catastrophe unlike any we have witnessed in Syria,” O’Brien told the Security Council.

Republicans in Congress have questioned the wisdom of Kerry’s efforts to find some accommodation with Russia, suggesting the secretary of state was strung along throughout months of talks with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov.

“While Russian and Syrian regime aircraft bombed hospitals, markets, aid warehouses and other civilian targets, President Obama sent his intrepid but delusional secretary of state to tilt yet again at the windmill of cooperating with Vladimir Putin,” Senator John McCain said last week at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he heads.

Kerry hit back at his critics in Congress on Thursday. He highlighted the contradiction at the center of the Syria debate: the demand for the U.S. to do more coupled with wariness about entangling the country in yet another conflict after long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I don’t see Congress panting to put people on the ground to go to war in Syria,” Kerry said at the annual Washington Ideas Forum. “It’s easy to be critical of the diplomatic effort because it’s difficult, but what’s the alternative? Is the United States going to go to war in Syria? I don’t think that is going to happen."

Qaddafi, Hussein

In that sense, the U.S. response in Syria is inextricably linked to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the turmoil seen in Libya and Iraq after the fall of rulers Moammar Al Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Analysts say forcing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power as the outcome of a transition -- which has been a key demand of the U.S. -- could spur new refugee flows and deepen a sectarian conflict between Shiite Muslims, backed by Iran, and Sunnis who have the support of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf States.

“It is legitimate to say that what is happening in Syria is so horrific that we should be prepared to do whatever it takes, but you have to be genuinely prepared to do that,” said Philip Gordon, a special assistant to Obama from 2013 to 2015 and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I do think the president always asks the question of what happens next: If we do X, what happens after that?"

Back in February, Kerry assured the Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. wouldn’t let Russia or anyone else get away with violating a cease-fire signed at the time, an initiative that also failed.

“It would be a mistake for anybody to calculate that President Obama is going to decide that, if this doesn’t work, there isn’t another set of options," Kerry said then. “Anybody who thinks that there is impunity for violating this going forward is mistaken."

Sharing Information

As part of the latest cease-fire deal, reached in Geneva on Sept. 9, the U.S. offered to share information with Russia in targeting Islamic extremists in Syria under what was to be known as the Joint Implementation Center. That concession was seen as a win for Moscow, and the very notion of disclosing intelligence made officials at the Pentagon uneasy.

It never happened. Within days, both sides were feuding over the U.S. bombing of Syrian troops, which Pentagon officials said was an accident, and a deadly attack on a humanitarian aid convoy by Russian or Syrian jets. Russia has denied it was at fault, while criticizing the U.S. for failing to deliver on its promise to separate the moderate forces it backs from terrorists linked to al-Qaeda.

Increasingly, U.S. officials are saying Russia will pay a price for its actions in Syria, not because of what the Obama administration may do but because of the resentment and violence it’s unleashing.

“What they are doing is sowing not only the doom of this country and these people and this proud civilization of Syria, but it is going to generate more refugee flow, more radicalization,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said Thursday. “What they are doing is a gift to ISIL and al-Nusra, the groups that they claim that they want to stop.”

Comments like Power’s have heightened skepticism that the U.S. has any other options. Kerry isn’t conceding defeat -- he says his role as the nation’s top diplomat is to ceaselessly search for a political solution -- but looming over the blame game is the reality that the Obama administration has just four months left.

“There is no Plan B,” Senator Corker said. "The only thing that is existent is words."

— With assistance by Kambiz Foroohar, and Donna Abu-Nasr

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