Defense officials skeptical of military options in Aleppo

Some U.S. defense officials are skeptical that U.S. military power can help as the White House deliberates how to alleviate the suffering Syrian city of Aleppo. 

Syrian regime forces, backed by Russian airpower, have completely encircled the opposition rebels in eastern Aleppo, along with about 250,000 civilians, who are running out of food and water. 

{mosads}The United Nations estimated Thursday that 406 people have been killed and 1,384 wounded from Sept. 23 to Oct. 8. The nonprofit Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations said Friday afternoon that one of the last few operating hospitals in the besieged area was hit by airstrikes. 

Aleppo has become ground zero in the civil war, with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowing on Friday to “keep cleaning” the city of rebels, who he considers “terrorists.” 

“You have to keep cleaning this area and to push the terrorists to Turkey, to go back to where they come from or to kill them. There’s no other option,” Assad told the Russian paper Komsomolskaya Pravda. “Aleppo is going to be a very important springboard to do this move.”

Despite the development of military options to address the situation in Aleppo, some U.S. defense officials believe it may be too late to intervene militarily in Aleppo.  

Some of the military options under consideration include U.S. military strikes on Syrian military bases, arms depots or anti-aircraft assets, and allowing allies to provide more sophisticated weapons to the rebels, U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday. 

Some defense officials say even if those options affected Syrian and Russian air forces’ ability to fly, Syrian regime ground forces have encircled the rebel-held part of the city, and still have ground artillery weapons. 

One defense official disagreed and said it’s not too late, citing intelligence reports that say the regime is having a difficult time defeating the rebels there, even with air power.

Eliminating regime and Russian air power could still help the rebels, the official said. 

However, that official and several others told The Hill that they don’t expect any big changes on the president’s Syria policy in his remaining months in office, which is geared toward fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, instead of confronting the Assad regime. 

A White House statement on a meeting Friday indicated that had not changed. 

“The President emphasized that preventing attacks on the United States and countering terrorist threats from ISIL and al-Qa’ida in Syria remains the top priority,” the statement said, using another acronym for ISIS. 

“Although the United States suspended bilateral channels with Russia in pursuit of a Cessation of Hostilities, the President directed his team to continue multilateral discussions with key nations with a vested interest in the region to encourage all sides to support a more durable and sustainable diminution of violence and, more broadly, a diplomatic resolution to the civil war.”

A White House spokesman pointed to Secretary of State John Kerry’s scheduled meeting on Saturday with counterparts from key countries in the conflict, including Russia, to discuss a diplomatic resolution to the war. 

“This is all consistent with the president’s belief that the situation in Syria can only be resolved diplomatically,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz told reporters. “Both in the meetings in the White House later this afternoon and in Secretary Kerry’s engagements abroad, I think the president’s goals will be front of mind.”

Some experts are urging the administration not to give up on Aleppo. 

“I don’t think that there will be any big fundamental change in Obama’s strategy, but I think it would be a mistake to rule out any possibility of some interesting debate on very specific efforts to alleviate suffering in Aleppo,” said Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon. 

“You can imagine things like the United States basically saying, ‘We’re going to do airdrops of humanitarian relief supplies from an airplane, and we’re going to tell you when it’s coming, and we’re sort of going to, you know, put the onus on you not to shoot it down.'”

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote on Oct. 4: “Here, there’s an opportunity for America to be bold — in a massive mobilization, organized as quickly as hurricane or earthquake relief, that could bring aid to suffering civilians.” 

“Line the relief convoys up at the Turkish, Jordanian and Lebanese borders and dare the Russians to stop them. Air-drop supplies to a besieged, desperate city. Let the world see what Russia’s brutal policies have brought. These are inadequate, imperfect options, but they’re surely better than doing nothing.” 

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