Aleppo teeters but no sign of US action

Updated 4:34 PM EDT, Wed September 28, 2016

Story highlights

John Kerry is threatening to suspend US-Russia bilateral engagement on Syria

Aleppo's collapse would worsen the strategic environment for the United States

(CNN) —  

As Aleppo teeters on the brink of falling to Syrian regime forces, there is no consensus in the Obama administration on what, if any, action to take to help the beleaguered opposition with which the US is allied, several American officials have told CNN.

The administration may have less than a week before regime and Russian attacks result in Aleppo’s collapse, potentially displacing tens of thousands of civilians and worsening the strategic environment for the United States, according to one internal US government calculation.

The Obama administration has blamed Russia for the collapse of a ceasefire negotiated more than a week ago by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which would have stopped the fighting around Aleppo and paved the way for joint US-Russian military cooperation against terrorist groups in Syria.

In a phone call with Lavrov on Wednesday, Kerry threatened to “suspend US-Russia bilateral engagement on Syria … unless Russia takes immediate steps to end the assault on Aleppo and restore the cessation of hostilities,” according to a State Department statement.

But Kerry has said there are no good alternatives to working with Russia, and the US has little leverage to force Russia’s hand given the reluctance of the White House to risk a military confrontation in which US planes could be shot down by Moscow.

A senior administration official told CNN Tuesday that interagency discussions are taking place and that many across the administration feel the US should intervene militarily to keep Aleppo in opposition hands.

But there is little sense that the White House is ready to take military steps and there is no indication that President Barack Obama has yet been presented with any such options or even asked for them.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest expressed concern Tuesday that arming the opposition “only further militarizes a situation that doesn’t have a military solution.”

However, he noted that the situation in Aleppo “continues to be of deep concern to the President and his national security team, and it’s something that we’re going to continue to closely monitor.”

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Earnest said the US is looking for “creative ways” to expedite delivery of humanitarian assistance, describing it as the “prominent goal” of diplomatic efforts.

The US has assembled an international coalition to fight ISIS and other terror groups that have established safe havens in the chaos of the Syrian civil war. But it has not taken military action to boost the rebels, even as it has sided with the moderate opposition and called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a close Russian ally, to step aside.

The White House has faced criticism for not doing more to help Syrian civilians caught in the conflict, particularly in the blockaded city of Aleppo. Many Aleppo residents have already fled, contributing to the massive Syrian refugee crisis, but those who remain have faced food shortages, a lack of medicine and chemical attacks.

More arms to rebels?

US officials are privately warning that if the attacks on Aleppo do not stop, Arab allies in the anti-ISIS coalition may decide to start shipping shoulder-fired, anti-air weapons to the moderate opposition.

These allies are deeply opposed to the Assad regime and invested in the opposition prevailing in a civil war that has major reverberations for their region.

Until now, officials across the administration have feared that ramping up the arming of Syrian rebels would be disastrous because of the risk that such weapons could easily fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down civilian airliners.

So far, the US has been able to convince the allies not to send large numbers of those weapons into Syria, though a small amount have been shipped in.

But officials now say there is discussion about lifting opposition to allies sending additional, more powerful, surface-to-surface weapons to US-backed rebel groups.

A senior US official told CNN that the administration is now considering telling the coalition it will no longer object to them supplying the rebels with anti-armor ground weapons, additional munitions and mortars.

The US still does not want them to supply anti-air shoulder fired-missiles, howerver, out of concern they could fall into the hands of terrorists.

Officials emphasized that this would not involve the US military, but they did not rule out the US intelligence community facilitating those shipments into Syria.

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Meanwhile, State Department spokesman John Kirby warned Moscow that it risked getting stuck in a quagmire if it didn’t work to end the violence.

“The war won’t stop, opposition groups are certainly not going to pull back,” he told reporters. “Extremist groups will continue to exploit the vacuums that are there in Syria, to expand their operations, which will include – no question – attacks against Russian interests, perhaps even Russian cities. And Russia will continue to send troops home in body bags.”

The situation in Aleppo has only become more dire in the last week as Moscow and Damascus have pummeled the environs, including hitting UN aid trucks bound for the city under the terms of the unsuccessful ceasefire worked out by the US and Russia.

Russia has claimed that the recent bombing campaign against Aleppo is an attempt by Moscow and the Syrian regime to go after one-time al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, previously known as al Nusra Front.

US officials, however, are skeptical of that explanation. Though Russia has said that its aim in intervening militarily in Syria is to fight terror groups, it is widely seen as bolstering Assad as he battles the rebel insurgents.

“They are trying to take Aleppo,” a US official said of Russia. “They are trying to go after opposition. They are using Nusra as an excuse, but nobody thinks this is about Nusra.”

The goal of any US intervention, in part, would be to show Russia that Washington could still intervene, even though so far it has not.

Aleppo’s fall could be boon for ISIS

In addition, there are implications for the fight against ISIS.

If thousands of civilians flee the strategic city, it would bring a new and unprecedented level of largely ungoverned territory to northern Syria that ISIS is likely to take advantage of by moving into new areas, according to a recent assessment by US officials.

The reason, officials said, is because the Syrian regime ground forces will not be able to govern such a broad area of unrest. It also is likely to mean that Kurdish and Turkish forces will delay any move on Raqqa, the self-declared capital of ISIS and a foremost US target.

It is also not clear what an Aleppo collapse might do to the continued presence of US Special Operations Forces in northern Syria, should the battlefield then shift to that terrain.

Officials advocating some type of intervention told CNN that a decision might have to be made as soon as the next five days for limited airstrikes against Syria military airfields and bases if Aleppo is to be saved.

The State Department was publicly gloomy Monday about the prospect of any diplomatic initiative to get the Russians to back off Aleppo.

“I don’t want to say we’ve thrown in the towel,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. “But it’s hard – unless we see some gestures by Russia on behalf of the regime … we don’t see this moving forward.”

Toner added, “We’re still committed to pursuing this process. It’s just we’re not in a good place. I don’t know how to put it more frankly than that.”

Before the most recent violence in Aleppo began, Kerry pointed obliquely to the potential issues associated with military action if diplomacy failed.

“Options are ugly because one option moves in a direction of trying to get a ceasefire and trying to get to the table to have a negotiation,” he said in an interview with CNN. “The other option moves to more arms moving into the area, more fighting, more destruction, more migrants, more refugees, more children, women, schools, hospitals hit – literally, possibly the destruction of Syria as an entire nation-state, and it’s getting close to that even now.”

US frustration with Russia

Officials told CNN that Kerry is extremely frustrated by the situation but has little leverage to change the balance of power on the ground with Russia without some US military muscle.

Kerry last met with Lavrov in New York last week during the United Nations General Assembly meetings.

At that time, Kerry called on Russia to ground the Syrian Air Force and said there was no point in continuing to talk until Russia came forward with “serious” proposals on ending the violence.

Officials said they believe the White House was hoping it could have made the now-failed ceasefire agreement work long enough for any policy change to become more involved in Syria to be made by the next administration.

Privately, US defense officials are emphasizing that there is no internal planning at the Pentagon for military options.

Defense officials insist there must be a formal policy decision before they can even assemble new options for the President. But US military intelligence officials are aware of the locations the Syrian regime is using for its attacks.

The White House publicly has said its still working on the possibility of expanded sanctions against the Syrian regime.

But when asked if there are “new things” the White House is considering in Syria, Earnest said earlier this week, “I don’t have any announcements at this point.”

He added, “With regard to Russia, what I would say is simply that Russia will have to account for their actions in the context of the consequences they are likely to provoke.”