U.S. Rethinking Syria Plan, State Official Says

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. could end bilateral talks with Russia over the Syrian war, and is mulling over new options for how to end the conflict, a State Department official said Thursday.
     “Yesterday, Secretary Kerry informed the Foreign Minister of Russia that unless Russia takes immediate steps to end the assault on Aleppo and restore the cessation of hostilities, the United States will suspend U.S.-Russia bilateral engagement on Syria, including the establishment of the Joint Implementation Center,” Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.
     In the wake of the unraveling of the Sept. 9 U.S.-Russia ceasefire agreement, senators on the committee pressed Blinken for a plan B.
     “At President [Barack] Obama’s direction, we also are actively considering other options to advance our goal of ending the civil war and starting a political transition in Syria. We continue to maintain close links to the moderate opposition to support their viability,” Blinken said in his written testimony.
     He offered up no specific details to the committee, but said the interagency effort would work through various options in the coming days.
     The hearing on the Syrian conflict came just hours after the Russian government said it would press ahead with its operations in Syria, rejecting U.S. calls for a seven-day ceasefire. Russia has accused the U.S. of siding with “terrorists” in Syria, but indicated Thursday that it would support a two-day cessation of hostilities for aid delivery.
     Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. railed against a perceived lack of leadership from the Obama administration on the Syrian crisis, which is stretching into its sixth year. The conflict has decimated the country, displacing half its population and claiming the lives of more than 400,000 Syrians, sparking a massive humanitarian crisis.
     Republicans have heavily criticized the Obama administration’s Syria strategy, and its inability to influence Russian involvement in the conflict. Corker said without tough consequences for Russia for breaking the agreement, which collapsed about 10 days ago, diplomatic efforts are bound to fail.
     Blinken rejected that charge.
     “Russia has a profound incentive in trying to make this work,” he said.
     Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. asked Blinken what the U.S. is doing to persuade Russia to change its approach in Syria.
     Blinken said that Russia escalated its efforts in Syria because it feared losing its only foothold in the Middle East. Russia cannot get out that easily, and cannot help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad win — it can only help him not lose, Blinken said.
     “The leverage is the consequences for Russia of being stuck in a quagmire that is going to have a number of profoundly negative effects,” he said.
     This could subject Russia to global perceptions that it is complicit in the slaughter of Sunni Muslims, along with Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime, Blinken added, suggesting that perception will only intensify if the civil war gets worse.
     But Blinken’s explanations failed to satisfy committee members who believe the U.S should do more now.
     Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said there is a need for greater U.S. leadership.
     “We need bold U.S.-led actions to protect civilian lives. We need that now,” he said.
     In earlier testimony, Blinken had said that there are no easy answers: “There is no way to look at what is happening on the ground in Syria and not feel profound grief and horror. In the midst of such tragedy, it is tempting to want a neat answer that ends the civil war and eases suffering overnight. But the challenges before us defy silver bullet solutions.”
     Toward the end of the hearing, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., supported that assertion, invoking U.S. foreign policy blunders in Vietnam, Iraq and Libya.
     “At the heart of the most spectacular U.S. foreign policy failures of the last 50 years is hubris, is this idea that there is a U.S. solution – usually a U.S. military solution – to every problem in the world,” Murphy said. “This idea that is sort of being proffered by this committee – frankly on both sides of the aisle – that there are these clear alternatives to the current policy in Syria and Iraq that would lead to a radically different reality on the ground is fantasy.”

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