The new discussions were being held at “staff level,” and have yet to produce any recommendations to President Barack Obama, who has resisted ordering military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s multisided civil war.
But the deliberations coincide with Secretary of State John Kerry threatening to halt diplomacy with Russia on Syria and holding Moscow responsible for dropping incendiary bombs on rebel areas of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. It was the stiffest US warning to the Russians since the Sept. 19 collapse of a truce they jointly brokered.
Even administration advocates of a more muscular US response said on Wednesday that it was not clear what, if anything, the president would do, and that his options “begin at tougher talk,” as one official put it.
One official said that before any action could be taken, Washington would first have “follow through on Kerry’s threat and break off talks with the Russians” on Syria.
But the heavy use of Russian airpower in Syria has compounded US distrust of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical intentions, not only in the 5-1/2 year civil war, but also in the Ukraine conflict and in what US officials say are Russian-backed cyber attacks on US political targets.
The US officials said the failure of diplomacy in Syria has left the Obama administration no choice but to consider alternatives, most of which involve some use of force and have been examined before but held in abeyance.
These include allowing Gulf allies to supply rebels with more sophisticated weaponry, something considered more likely despite Washington’s opposition to this until now. Another is a US air strike on an Assad air base, viewed as less likely because of the potential for causing Russian casualties, the officials told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The options being weighed are limited in number and stop well short of any large-scale commitment of US troops, which Obama, who has only four months left in office, has long rejected, the officials said.
Critics of Obama’s policy in Syria argue that he set a goal – Assad’s departure – without providing sufficient means to achieve it by arming the rebels earlier and more extensively, allowing US allies to do so or using US military might to tip the scales in the conflict.
Further, foreign policy experts inside and outside the administration have said Obama erred when he pulled back from launching air strikes on Syria to enforce a “red line” he set against the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons. The result, they argued, was to diminish US credibility in Moscow, Damascus and elsewhere because the perception took hold that Obama would not keep his word and follow through on his threat.