WASHINGTON -– Kiev is burning, but Damascus, Homs and Aleppo are dying.
There’s little the U.S. can do about Ukraine -- it’s literally Russia’s backyard. But the Obama administration is working quietly on a plan to inch up America’s role in dealing with the disaster that is Syria.
Wary of getting trapped in another war in another Muslim country, administration officials and President Barack Obama himself are moving cautiously ahead on a plan to augment and protect humanitarian aid to the millions of “internally displaced” and often starving citizens of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime.
At one White House meeting recently, the idea of using military resources to assure the flow of humanitarian aid was described as “the least-bad option,” according notes given to an official in a cabinet agency that would be involved in carrying out the proposal.
One option -- quickly dismissed –- called for using American airpower to help secure land routes into Syria. It was deemed too risky and too unpalatable to Pentagon brass.
According to high-ranking administration officials, the plan at this point calls for the U.S. to use land-based military assets in Turkey and Jordan, and perhaps Navy ships in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, as staging areas to facilitate the flow of food and medicine.
“We’d stay on the other side of the border,” one official told The Huffington Post, meaning that U.S. soldiers and airmen would not enter or fly over Syria.
The U.N. Security Council is scheduled on Saturday to vote on a resolution demanding the creation of safe, overland “direct routes” to beleaguered Syrian cities. Jordan, a member of the council, is a sponsor.
The resolution doesn’t mention airspace, but the wording wouldn’t seem to bar the use of aircraft to protect the routes.
With or without the backing of a new resolution, the augmented flow of aid would be distributed in country by a network of humanitarian organizations already on the ground, including various U.N. bodies, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and volunteers from the Czech Republic, according to U.S. officials.
It's possible that the Turks and Jordanians would become more directly involved in the shipments, sources said.
The U.S. could well take added steps to help these "protected partners," but the administration declined to specify what they were.
The administration clearly is trying to have it both ways: Showing concern by promising some added level of protection for the flow of relief supplies, yet unwilling to risk putting American forces in harm's way.
"The problem is that Syria is a very slippery slope," a former top Obama security aide told The Huffington Post.
Russia, Syria’s key ally, is deeply suspicious of the humanitarian aid routes idea and is expected to veto the U.N. resolution. The Kremlin sees the resolution as a first step toward U.S. and European direct military involvement in what has been its key client state in the Middle East.
“Attempts are made, including through U.N. mechanisms, to build up tension around the humanitarian situation in Syria,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly complained last month.
The aim, Lavrov said, is to create a “pretext to push forward the idea of so-called humanitarian corridors, no-fly zones and, eventually humanitarian intervention.”
Pentagon officials share Lavrov’s concerns -– at least about providing air cover for the corridors -– though of course from a completely different perspective.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said publicly that enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria would be a perilous, complex and expensive exercise, given Syria’s modern air defenses.
That is why, for now at least, the administration is focusing on assisting in the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria from a safe and less controversial distance.
Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for national security adviser Susan Rice, who accompanied Obama to a recent meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah, declined to comment "on any specific options.”
“As the president has made clear,” Meehan said, “we are constantly looking at what options we can take to resolve the crisis in Syria. We are going to continue to work with all parties concerned to try to move forward on a diplomatic solution.”
Obama declared last week that the U.S. would do whatever it could to help ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Syria short of “military action per se.”
The key words may have been “per se.”
Military resources would be used, but in what the administration would insist was not a military way.
Ideally, but perhaps unrealistically, the U.S. would like to move with allies under the auspices of a U.N. Security Council resolution.
The resolution cites cities that would be aided by the “direct routes”: Homs, Aleppo and a cluster of suburban and rural areas near Damascus.
It “demands that all parties ... promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, including across conflict lines and across borders ...”
Assuming that Russia vetoes the resolution, the U.S. and its allies will have to decide whether and how to move aid into Syria without U.N. sanction.
Besides Jordan and Turkey, another key U.S. ally is France, which has deep colonial and cultural ties to Syria.
French President Francois Hollande has been outspoken about the situation in Syria, and may have more room to maneuver in terms of domestic politics than the U.S.’s erstwhile ally in such matters, Great Britain. Hollande was feted last week at a particularly lavish state dinner at the White House.
The “air cover” idea would face many obstacles besides Russian opposition and lack of U.N. approval.
For one, the Saudis have decided to supply rebel forces in Syria with modern surface-to-air missiles, which may make the airspace situation there even more complex, dangerous and confusing.
While Turkey, France and other countries may be helpful, only the U.S. has the capability to impose a no-fly zone, no matter how narrowly defined or benign the intent.
The former top administration official, who has detailed knowledge of such operations, warned that attempting one in Syria would be a “major undertaking."
It is one the Pentagon has no interest in launching, and it is a step –- so far -– that Obama administration officials insist they are not planning to take.