U.S. military strikes against the Assad regime will be back on the table Wednesday at the White House, when top national security officials in the Obama administration are set to discuss options for the way forward in Syria. But there’s little prospect President Obama will ultimately approve them.
Inside the national security agencies, meetings have been going on for weeks to consider new options to recommend to the president to address the ongoing crisis in Aleppo, where Syrian and Russian aircraft continue to perpetrate the deadliest bombing campaign the city has seen since the five-year-old civil war began. A meeting of the Principals Committee, which includes Cabinet-level officials, is scheduled for Wednesday. A meeting of the National Security Council, which could include the president, could come as early as this weekend.
Last Wednesday, at a Deputies Committee meeting at the White House, officials from the State Department, the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed limited military strikes against the regime as a means of forcing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to pay a cost for his violations of the cease-fire, disrupt his ability to continue committing war crimes against civilians in Aleppo, and raise the pressure on the regime to come back to the negotiating table in a serious way.
The options under consideration, which remain classified, include bombing Syrian air force runways using cruise missiles and other long-range weapons fired from coalition planes and ships, an administration official who is part of the discussions told me. One proposed way to get around the White House’s long-standing objection to striking the Assad regime without a U.N. Security Council resolution would be to carry out the strikes covertly and without public acknowledgment, the official said.
The CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, represented in the Deputies Committee meeting by Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva, expressed support for such “kinetic” options, the official said. That marked an increase of support for striking Assad compared with the last time such options were considered.
“There’s an increased mood in support of kinetic actions against the regime,” one senior administration official said. “The CIA and the Joint Staff have said that the fall of Aleppo would undermine America’s counterterrorism goals in Syria.”
There’s still great skepticism, however, that the White House will approve military action. Other administration officials told The Post this week that Obama is no more willing to commit U.S. military force inside Syria than he was previously and that each of the military options being discussed have negative risks or consequences.
The State Department announced Monday that it was suspending bilateral channels of communication with Russia related to the failed cease-fire deal struck last month. The United States will now bring back all of the personnel from Geneva who have been waiting for weeks to begin a new project of military and intelligence cooperation with the Russians that was to accompany the cease-fire if it had held.
Two administration officials told me that the suspension was set to be announced last Friday, but Secretary of State John F. Kerry asked for a delay after speaking on the phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Kerry wanted more time to work out an extension of the cease-fire but failed, leaving the administration without a clear path forward.
Last week, Kerry was caught on tape telling a group of Syrian activists that he had argued for military strikes against the regime but that he “lost the argument.” Kerry had supported limited strikes against the regime in 2013 as punishment for Assad using chemical weapons against his own people. But while Congress was deliberating an authorization, the president withdrew his request and decided to strike a deal with Moscow instead.
This time around, Kerry has not favored using U.S. military force against the Assad regime, two administration officials said. He now prefers continued diplomacy with Russia, even in the face of what he says is Moscow’s willingness to “turn a blind eye” to, if not participate directly, in war crimes in Aleppo.
Kerry does support increasing pressure on the Assad regime, officials said.
The National Security Council’s senior coordinator for the Middle East, Rob Malley, and the president’s special envoy to the coalition for the fight against the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, are also said to be against any military escalation against the Assad regime, officials said. There’s no consensus on what options should be sent to the president’s desk. Other options include increased weapons for some Syrian rebel groups and an increase in the quality of such weapons, to allow rebels to defend Aleppo’s civilians.
If Obama does not approve greater support for the Syrian rebels or increased coalition pressure on the Assad regime, the only option left is to wait out the siege of Aleppo and reengage the Russians if and when Aleppo falls, albeit in a weaker position.
Former State Department Syria official Frederic Hof wrote Monday that any policy going forward that hinges on the assumption that Russia is looking for a near-term diplomatic solution in Syria is destined for failure.
“Whatever excuses the administration offers for leaving Syrians defenseless against mass murder, the continued search for common ground with Vladimir Putin should not be one of them,” he wrote. “If nothing else, John Kerry’s exhaustive diplomatic due diligence should retire that illusion permanently.”
Kerry’s deputy, Antony Blinken, testified last week that the U.S. leverage in Russia comes from the notion that Russia will eventually become weary of the cost of its military intervention in Syria. “The leverage is the consequences for Russia of being stuck in a quagmire that is going to have a number of profoundly negative effects,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The argument against more U.S. military intervention in Syria, including strikes against the regime, is based on risks that should be taken seriously but that are ultimately hypothetical. The effects of continuing the current policy are not hypothetical. They include more of what we are seeing now: Russia and the Assad regime committing war crimes against civilians with impunity and destroying Syria’s largest city.