Shortly before the US announcement of its decision to suspend talks with Russia on the ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement reached by US Secretary State Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on 9th September 2016, a clearly well-sourced article setting out US options was published by Reuters.
This article was clearly written on the basis of information provided by senior officials of the US government. It confirms that “staff level” discussions are underway in the US in light of the collapse of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement and the Syrian army’s advances in Aleppo, though as of the date of publication of the Reuters article (29th September 2016) no suggestions of what to do had been made to Obama.
Here is a list of the options apparently being considered
(1) “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””;
(2) “a U.S. air strike on a Syrian air base far from the fighting between Assad’s troops and rebel forces in the north” (the Syrian air base in question is probably the one at Deir Ezzor);
(3) “sending more U.S. special operations forces to train and advise Kurdish and Syrian rebel groups”;
(4) “deploying additional American and allied naval and airpower to the eastern Mediterranean, where a French aircraft carrier is already en route”.
Apparently the idea of supplying more shoulder held surface to air missiles to the Jihadis has been ruled out because “the Obama administration fears (they) could fall into the hands of Islamic State militants or al Qaeda-linked groups”.
As for the idea of a no-fly zone (“a humanitarian airlift to rebel-held areas (NB: this almost certain refers to Aleppo – AM), which would require escorts by U.S. warplanes”) this has apparently been deemed “too risky” and has been “moved down the list”.
This list of options exposes how completely out of options the US really is.
Options (1) and (2) cannot influence the course of the fighting in Aleppo and US officials apparently admit as much. On past experience option (1) is less likely to make the Russians “stop and think” than to make them more determined and more angry.
Option (3) is a case of more of the same. The US has been doing this for years without achieving any results.
Option (4) is essentially symbolic unless it is intended to prepare the way for the declaration of a no-fly zone, which however US officials seem to be ruling out.
If reports are to be believed the Russians may be taking more steps to guard against the possibility of the US declaring a no-fly zone. Fox News is reporting US officials as saying that the Russians have reinforced the S400 anti aircraft missile system they have already deployed to Syria with a number of advanced S-300VM “Antey-2500″ anti aircraft systems.
Whilst the Russians have not confirmed this report, if it is true then it makes any US attempt to impose a no-fly zone even more risky. A sign that the report probably is true is that the Kremlin is pointedly failing to deny it.
The Russians have also pointedly reminded the US that they know the whereabouts of all US military personnel in Syria, including presumably those supposedly present in the various Jihadi headquarters (or “operations rooms”) existing in the country.
This looks frankly like a threat to retaliate against US military personnel if Russian military personnel in Syria are attacked by the US.
There have been unconfirmed reports that the Russians did exactly that by attacking a Jihadi “operations room” partly staffed by US and Western military personnel following the US attack on the Syrian military near Deir Ezzor. If those reports are true then the implied threat the Russians are making to retaliate against US troops in the event of attacks upon their own military is not an empty one.
One way or the other, it is not difficult to see why the US might conclude that imposing a no-fly zone is “too risky” and why this option has been “moved down the list”.
Possibly because the US has no real options short of steps that might threaten a nuclear war with Russia, Kerry spoke twice by telephone to Lavrov over the weekend, presumably in an attempt to get the Russians to get the Syrians to pull back in Aleppo so as to preserve the US’s bluff. However it is clear he found Lavrov immoveable.
Lavrov has instead been issuing a series of statements accusing the US of siding with Jabhat Al-Nusra (ie. Al-Qaeda), questioning whether President Obama is any longer in control of the US military, and calling into question Kerry’s good faith.
Further twisting the knife, Valentina Matviyenko, the Speaker of Russia’s Federation Council (the upper house of Russia’s parliament) and a member of Russia’s top executive body, the Security Council, has dismissively characterised the US decision to suspend work with Russia on implementing the Kerry-Lavrov agreement as the
“…. agony of the ingloriously outgoing administration which has totally failed its foreign policy in the Middle East”
Here I would say that I am personally somewhat baffled by some of the alarm expressed over the US decision to pull out of further talks on implementing the Kerry-Lavrov agreement. Since the agreement has completely collapsed I for once agree with the US that there is little point continuing to talk about implementing it.
The US is not saying that it is suspending all diplomatic contact with Russia over Syria, as some commentators appear to think. On the contrary diplomatic and military contacts between the US and Russia over Syria are continuing as before.
As I have said previously, given the fanatical nature of some of the people in Washington it is impossible to be sure that a dangerous escalation will not happen. Advocates of imposing a no-fly zone and of attacks on the Syrian military and by extension on the Russian military in Syria (eg. Senators McCain and Lindsey Graham and General David Petraeus) are certainly still there.
However the risks seem so wildly out of proportion to the potential gains that it is difficult to believe that such things will happen, and the Reuters report appears to confirm that these madly dangerous ideas are continuing to be ruled out.
The reality is that on any sane assessment it is the Russians who now hold all the cards in Syria. Even a commentator such as the BBC’s Mark Mardell, who is no friend or admirer of Putin’s or of Russia’s, has now acknowledged as much
“No-one I have spoken to can explain to me why Russia will not get its way in Syria and, by extension, how President Assad could be removed from power, unless President Putin wills it.
This may not be a desirable state of affairs but, unless I am missing something profound, it is the state of the world in which we live.”
As time runs out for the Jihadis in Aleppo that is the reality which the paucity of viable US options in Syria exposed by the article Reuters makes increasingly obvious.
POSTSCRIPT: Since the above article was first published the Russian Defence Ministry has confirmed the deployment of advanced S-300VM “Antey-2500” surface to air missiles to Syria.