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White House Options Grim as Syria Spirals Downward

  • Mary Alice Salinas

FILE - President Barack Obama is photographed through the window as he speaks in the Oval Office during a conference call at the White House in Washington, June 2, 2014.

FILE - President Barack Obama is photographed through the window as he speaks in the Oval Office during a conference call at the White House in Washington, June 2, 2014.

Exactly one year after Russia began its air campaign to help Bashar al-Assad’s government crush opposition rebels, Syria continues a hellish descent into chaos, carnage and devastation.

The White House still has no effective plan to stop it and there are no good options either, experts said.

Moscow marked the anniversary on Friday by signaling it will ramp up its bombardments alongside the Syrian government against Aleppo, the last stronghold of opposition rebels.

More than 250,000 people are trapped in the ravaged city, where the bombings have decimated critical sites, including water supplies, refugee camps, hospitals and humanitarian aid supplies. The strikes even targeted an underground playground, according to the White House.

After speaking by phone on Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the attacks "barbarous."

Humanitarian aid

Yet the White House has continued to express hope that Moscow would press the Assad government to uphold a cease-fire and allow the flow of humanitarian aid to terrorized populations in Aleppo and elsewhere.

A U.S.-Russia brokered cease-fire fell apart last month, after Russia and Syria launched the air offensive against opposition rebels in a bid to push them out of major urban areas.

The bombardments have pushed diplomatic engagement between Moscow and Washington to the brink.

Syrian civil defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, pass the body of a boy after he was pulled from the rubble following a government forces airstrike on the rebel-held al-Shaer neighborhood of Aleppo, Sept. 27, 2016.

Syrian civil defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, pass the body of a boy after he was pulled from the rubble following a government forces airstrike on the rebel-held al-Shaer neighborhood of Aleppo, Sept. 27, 2016.


On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called U.S. threats to break engagement over the Syria bombings “unacceptable and deplorable.”

A telephone conversation between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov on Friday yielded no progress.

“We are at the same place,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

U.S. diplomatic engagement with Russia “is on life support, but it has not flat-lined yet,” Toner said. “We want to make sure that we understand the stakes and that Russia understands the stakes, more importantly."

The Obama administration has continued to look for ways to “alleviate the suffering in Syria,” but the options “are not very good,” Toner said.

No major shift by US

The White House also has offered no indication it plans a major shift in its approach.

Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford predicted there will be no major breakthrough between the U.S. and Russia to solve the crisis because they have fundamentally different views.

Ford, who served in the diplomatic role from 2011-2014, is currently a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

America’s top priority is counterterrorism while Russia’s top concern is to ensure the survival of Assad’s government, he wrote on the think tank’s website.

“The Americans perceive that the brutal policies of the Assad government drive terrorist recruitment and instability,” Ford wrote. While Russia believes “Assad’s clique holds what is left of the government together and were it to fall, confusion in Damascus would aggravate the terrorism challenge.”

Because the Obama administration has ruled out direct military intervention, “Washington is content to back Syrian local forces against ISIS (Islamic State), knowing it is not a permanent fix,” he argued.

On Friday, Lavrov even suggested the Americans at a minimum “tacitly support” Syria’s al-Qaida wing, the al-Nusra Front, because the U.S. “refuses basically to separate the opposition from the Nusra,” he claimed.

The Russian diplomat also charged more rebel groups are aligning themselves with terror organizations.

People dig in the rubble in an ongoing search for survivors at a site hit previously by an airstrike in the rebel-held Tariq al-Bab neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 26, 2016.

People dig in the rubble in an ongoing search for survivors at a site hit previously by an airstrike in the rebel-held Tariq al-Bab neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 26, 2016.


Terror vs. opposition groups

While Russia has said it is fighting terror groups in Syria, the U.S. has accused Moscow of primarily targeting local opposition groups and civilians instead.

“There has been a shameful strategy implemented by the Assad regime and aided and abetted by the Russians to try to bomb civilians into submission,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

One expert suggested the U.S. has done too little.

“The U.S. has never invested enough to drive the Syrian conflict in any meaningful way,” said Genevieve Casagrande, Syria research analyst for the Institute of the Study of War. “It has left the U.S. constrained in a lot of ways.”

In addition, the engagement with Russia must end, Casagrande argued.

“It is quite clear that these talks are not sufficient and they’re not working,” she said. “The U.S. cannot under any circumstances accept a partnership with Russia while Russia continues to be a belligerent actor in the Syrian civil war.”

While Kerry has done everything possible to reach a negotiated solution, the effort ignores important realities, said Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It ignores that reality that Russia, the Assad regime, Iran, the Hezbollah don’t want a negotiated solution,” Cordesman said.

Moscow 'wins'

Moscow “wins regardless of the outcome,” added Cordesman, who said Russia has used its role in Syria to show it can compete with the U.S. For Russia, “playing the spoiler role ... is just as strategically advantageous as having a successful Assad regime.”

Experts also said the U.S. must do more to bolster opposition groups in Syria before they are forced to turn to al-Qaida groups for help in breaking the siege.

“We have to start piecing together and strengthening some of these remaining independent and U.S.-backed groups into groups that can sustain the onslaught of a Russian-Syrian regime aerial campaign and the increasing pressure from al-Qaida inside Syria,” Casagrande warned.

The U.S. needs a more assertive approach and to provide opposition groups with a surge of assistance, said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Lister said the groups could provide civilians with protection for a sustained period of time, opening up the opportunity for “meaningful political negotiations” and efforts to “gradually undermine extremist narratives on the ground.”

Experts agreed, however, there is no one good or easy solution to solving the Syrian crisis.

“The U.S. needs to do something that shocks the system just enough,” Casagrande said. “It won’t fix it. But it may create opportunities.”

Nike Ching at the State Department contributed to this report.

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