President Barack Obama’s administration’s suspension of contacts with Russia on Syria took so long that when it finally came on Monday, it looked like just another display of U.S. weakness. On Sept. 19, Russian and Syrian planes shredded the cease-fire deal negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry by bombing one of the U.N. humanitarian convoys it had authorized — a blatant war crime. Yet not for two weeks did Kerry finally abandon his increasingly forlorn efforts to induce the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin to stop its ferocious onslaught against the city of Aleppo, which has included multiple bombings of hospitals and the killing of hundreds of children.
All along it was clear that the diplomatic effort would fail, because the United States refused to use military pressure against the regime of Bashar Assad — a lack of leverage that Kerry himself lamented in a meeting with Syrian activists. Yet the pleading phone calls to Moscow continued, day after day, and consideration of other U.S. options in Syria remained on hold, even as eastern Aleppo was reduced to rubble.
Administration supporters ruefully wondered why Putin chose not to go forward with a cease-fire plan that was, as former State Department and National Security Council official Philip Gordon put it, “a clean win” for Russia. The deal negotiated by Kerry would have left the Assad regime in power indefinitely while Russia and the United States joined in a military campaign against its opponents — those rebels deemed to be “terrorists.”
The simple answer is that, having pocketed those U.S. concessions, Putin chose to pursue a still more decisive victory, the recapture by the regime of Syria’s largest city. If the offensive succeeds, any possibility of Assad leaving power will be removed. If it fails, the Kremlin reckons it can always go back to the ever-willing Kerry.
Putin clearly calculates that he has nothing to fear from the United States; so confident has he become that he canceled a nuclear cooperation agreement with Washington on Monday and decreed a list of stiff conditions for restoring relations, including the lifting of sanctions and compensation to Russia for their costs. The White House, meanwhile, still has not responded to Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee or even publicly acknowledged Moscow’s role.
The administration is going through the motions of considering new options in Syria. According to The Post’s Josh Rogin, possibilities to be weighed in a Cabinet-level meeting Wednesday include cruise-missile strikes to ground the Syrian air force and the supply of more advanced weapons to the rebels defending Aleppo. Senior Pentagon and CIA officials are said to support those steps, and for good reason: Their assessment is that the fall of Aleppo would worsen the terrorist threat from Syria.
President Obama has rejected military options numerous times on the grounds that they would only exacerbate the conflict. The result has been a steady expansion of Syria’s carnage, the growth of terrorist forces and the shrinking of U.S. influence, to Russia’s gain. Continuing inaction will compound those disastrous results.