The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As Aleppo burns, the U.S. hems and haws

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

"WHAT RUSSIA is sponsoring and doing" in the Syrian city of Aleppo "is barbarism," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said on Sunday. She's right: For days, Russian and Syrian planes have rained bombs — including white phosphorus, cluster munitions and "bunker-busters" designed to penetrate basements — on the rebel-held side of the city. Hundreds of civilians have been killed; as many as half are children. U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura described "new heights of horror." Ms. Power said that "instead of helping get lifesaving aid to civilians, Russia and [Syria] are bombing the humanitarian convoys, hospitals and first responders who are trying desperately to keep people alive."

It goes without saying that this war-crimes-rich offensive, which Syria’s U.N. ambassador said is aimed at recapturing east Aleppo, has shredded the Obama administration’s attempt to win Russian and Syrian compliance with a cessation of hostilities. So naturally reporters asked senior officials as the attack was getting underway how the United States would respond. “I don’t think . . . this is the time to say where we will go from here,” one answered. Said another: “We’re waiting to see what the Russians come back with.”

In other words: Hem, haw.

By Monday, the administration's response seemed clear: It will hotly condemn the assault on Aleppo, but do absolutely nothing to stop it. On the contrary, Secretary of State John F. Kerry insisted he will continue to go back to the regime of Vladi­mir Putin with diplomatic offers, hoping it will choose to stop bombing. "The United States makes absolutely no apology for going the extra mile to try and ease the suffering of the Syrian people," he grandly declared after a meeting Thursday on Syria. By "extra mile," he doesn't mean actual U.S. steps to protect civilians — just more futile and debasing appeals to Moscow.

The Putin and Bashar al-Assad regimes are well aware that the only U.S. action President Obama has authorized is diplomatic, and that they are therefore under no pressure to alter their behavior. They already obtained, via Mr. Kerry, U.S. agreement to the principle that the Assad regime should remain in power while the United States and Russia join in fighting those rebels deemed to be terrorists. The regime then took advantage of a mistaken bombing of Syrian soldiers in eastern Syria to launch the assault on Aleppo, and Russia joined in. If it succeeds, Damascus will have essentially won the civil war and will have no real need for the negotiations Mr. Kerry says the cease-fire should lead to. If the offensive stalls, Mr. Putin can send Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov back to renew the deal with Mr. Kerry. Either way, Russia wins.

The losers are the civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo — 250,000 to 275,000 human beings — who are cut off from supplies of food and medicine and being bombed mercilessly. They are being offered the same choice the regime has successfully imposed on other towns across the country: surrender or starve. Those who try to approach the evacuation corridors Russia says have been established are shot at. They are, indeed, victims of barbarism — but the rhetoric of U.S. diplomats, and continued petitioning to Mr. Putin, won't help them much.

Read more here:

David Ignatius: The U.S.’s Syria policy rests on a treacherous fault line

Jackson Diehl: Putin’s lesson for Obama in Syria

The Post’s View: As Aleppo is destroyed, Mr. Obama stands by