Russian Intervention in Syrian War Has Sharply Reduced U.S. Options

By DAVID E. SANGERFEB. 10, 2016 – MUNICH — For months now the United States has insisted there can be no military solution to the Syrian civil war, only a political accord between President Bashar al-Assad and the fractured, divided opposition groups that have been trying to topple him. But after days of intense bombing that could soon put the critical city of Aleppo back into the hands of Mr. Assad’s forces, the Russians may be proving the United States wrong. There may be a military solution, one senior American official conceded Wednesday, “just not our solution,” but that of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

That is what Secretary of State John Kerry faces as he enters a critical negotiation over a cease-fire and the creation of a “humanitarian corridor” to relieve starving Syrians besieged in more than a dozen cities, most by Mr. Assad’s forces. The Russian military action has changed the shape of a conflict that had effectively been stalemated for years. Suddenly, Mr. Assad and his allies have momentum, and the United States-backed rebels are on the run. If a cease-fire is negotiated here, it will probably come at a moment when Mr. Assad holds more territory, and more sway, than since the outbreak of the uprisings in 2011.

Mr. Kerry enters the negotiations with very little leverage: The Russians have cut off many of the pathways the C.I.A. has been using for a not-very-secret effort to arm rebel groups, according to several current and former officials. Mr. Kerry’s supporters inside the administration say he has been increasingly frustrated by the low level of American military activity, which he views as essential to bolstering his negotiation effort.

Publicly, Mr. Kerry is circumspect about his dilemma. “We are all very, very aware of how critical this moment is,” he said on Tuesday.

His colleagues in the administration, however, fear that a three-month-long effort to begin the political process is near collapse. If it fails, it will force Mr. Kerry and President Obama, once again, to consider their Plan B: a far larger military effort, directed at Mr. Assad. But that is exactly the kind of conflict that Mr. Obama has spent five years trying to avoid, especially when any ground campaign would rely on forces led by a fractious group of opposition leaders that he distrusts.Without a political solution or a stepped-up military effort, the United States is not only left with little influence over the course of the Syrian civil war, but without a viable strategy to bring all of the warring parties together to fight the Islamic State.

As Mr. Kerry arrived here for another meeting of the 17 nations that agreed last fall on principles for a political solution, several of Washington’s own allies complained bitterly about American policy, saying the United States is absent while the Russians change the nature of the situation on the ground.

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, used the announcement of his imminent retirement to poke holes, once again, in the American plan for Syria, which he called “ambiguous” and absent a “very strong commitment.” Throughout his tenure he has been critical of the United States for not being more aggressive, often to the exasperation of State Department and White House officials, who charged that the French grandstand in public but have been cautious to get into a fight that has no clear outcome.

An open breach erupted with the Turks, who charge that the United States is empowering the Kurds, with whom Turkey believes it is in an existential struggle. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s president, denounced Washington for failing to declare a Syrian Kurdish rebel group a terrorist organization.“Are you on our side or the side of the terrorist P.Y.D. and P.K.K. organizations?” Mr. Erdogan said in an address to provincial officials in the Turkish capital, Ankara, referring to American support for members of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., in their fight against the Islamic State in Syria, and to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K. The United States considers the Kurds the only truly effective fighters against the Islamic State.Then Mr. Erdogan — president of a NATO member nation — turned to taunts. “Hey, America,” he said. “Because you never recognized them as a terrorist group, the region has turned into a sea of blood.”

At the core of the American strategic dilemma is that the Russian military adventure, which Mr. Obama dismissed last year as ill-thought-out muscle flexing, has been surprising effective in helping Mr. Assad reclaim the central cities he needs to hold power, at least in a rump-state version of Syria.

Testifying on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, offered a sobering picture of Russia’s success, even if it proves a temporary one.

“Putin is the first leader since Stalin to expand Russia’s territory,” he told a Senate committee. In Russia’s first major overseas military effort since its humiliation in Afghanistan 35 years ago, he said, “Its interventions demonstrate the improvements in Russian military capabilities and the Kremlin’s confidence in using them.”

While he predicted Mr. Putin would be challenged to afford the commitment over the long term, especially at a moment of falling oil prices, he offered a bleak assessment for Washington. “In Syria,” he said, “pro-regime forces have the initiative, having made some strategic gains near Aleppo and Latakia in the north, as well as in southern Syria.” While Mr. Assad has “manpower shortages,” he said, at least his forces were unified.

Battle maps from the Institute for the Study of War show, in fact, that it is: The Russians, with Iranian help on the ground, appear to be handing Mr. Assad enough key cities that his government can hang on.Current and former administration officials say they see a parallel to Mr. Putin’s strategy in Ukraine: He keeps his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, negotiating cease-fires and slow-progressing political accords, while making inroads on the battlefield. Those inroads have limited Mr. Obama’s options. For example the much discussed “no-fly zone” would now be far harder to enforce, since Russian jets are flying in that airspace.While the official position of the United States remains that Mr. Assad must leave office, Mr. Kerry and his aides will not say when he must leave, or whether he could participate in the process of selecting a new government. Their talk about finding a quiet exile for the Syrian leader has largely ceased.

As a result, it is hard to discern now what kind of end for Syria is now envisioned by the administration. The political document adopted in Vienna three months ago calls for a single, unified state. That seems increasingly unlikely. A fractured nation — part Alawite, part Sunni, part Kurd — is often discussed, but never officially.

Mr. Kerry is turning to the more immediate questions of cease-fire and humanitarian access. That did not impress Abu Youssef, whose farm in Aleppo Province has been hosting dozens of Syrians displaced by the recent fighting nearby. He asked to be identified only by a nickname for his safety.

“Yes, they will have a cease-fire, but after Aleppo it is finished,” he said in an online chat. “They will close off all of Aleppo, destroy the whole area, and then the Russians will negotiate a cease-fire,” he added. “After winning victory they will negotiate.”

Anne Barnard contributed reporting from Gaziantep, Turkey, Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon, and Somini Sengupta from the United Nations.