US considers tougher response to Russia over Syria crisis
John Kerry threatens to halt diplomacy with Russia following recent strikes on Aleppo
Secretary of State John Kerry is threatening to cut off all contacts with Moscow over Syria, unless Russian and Syrian government attacks on Aleppo end. Photograph: Jason DeCrow/AP
Obama administration officials are considering tougher responses to the Russian-backed Syrian government assault on Aleppo, including military options, US officials said on Wednesday.
The new discussions were being held at “staff level,” and have yet to produce any recommendations to president Barack Obama, who has resisted ordering military action against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the country’s multisided civil war.
But the deliberations coincide with secretary of state John Kerry threatening to halt diplomacy with Russia on Syria and holding Moscow responsible for dropping incendiary bombs on rebel areas of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. It was the stiffest US warning to the Russians since the September 19th collapse of a truce they jointly brokered.
Even administration advocates of a stronger US 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.
One official said that before any action could be taken, Washington would first have “follow through on Kerry’s threat and break off talks with the Russians” on Syria.
But the heavy use of Russian airpower in Syria has compounded US distrust of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical intentions, not only in the 5-1/2 year civil war, but also in the Ukraine conflict and in what US officials say are Russian-backed cyber attacks on US political targets.
The US officials said the failure of diplomacy in Syria has left the Obama administration no choice but to consider alternatives, most of which involve some use of force and have been examined before but held in abeyance.
These include allowing Gulf allies to supply rebels with more sophisticated weaponry, something considered more likely despite Washington’s opposition to this until now. Another is a US air strike on an Assad air base, viewed as less likely because of the potential for causing Russian casualties, the officials told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The options being weighed are limited in number and stop well short of any large-scale commitment of US troops, which Mr Obama, who has only four months left in office, has long rejected, the officials said.
Two officials said the speed with which the Syrians have advanced in Aleppo and the diplomatic track has collapsed caught some in the administration off guard. The fall of Aleppo would restore Mr Assad’s rule over western Syria’s most important city and deal a devastating blow to the rebels.
As a result, one of the officials said, the list of options is narrowing to supporting rebel counter attacks elsewhere with additional weaponry or even air strikes, which “might not reverse the tide of battle, but might cause the Russians to stop and think”.
Another official said any weapons supplies would not include shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, or Manpads, which the Obama administration fears could fall into the hands of Islamic State militants or al-Qaeda-linked groups.
The most dramatic option under consideration - but considered less likely - would be a US 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 US 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.
Officials had considered a humanitarian airlift to rebel-held areas, which would require escorts by warplanes, but this has been deemed too risky and has been “moved down the list,” one official said.
State department spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday that US officials involved in the interagency process that deals with national security had discussed other Syria options “that don’t revolve around diplomacy.” He declined to elaborate.
The officials cautioned that no decisions were imminent with defence secretary Ash Carter travelling and Mr Obama and other senior officials planning to attend former Israeli leader Shimon Peres’s funeral in Israel on Friday.