Secretary of State John Kerry is set to arrive in Lausanne, Switzerland, Saturday to try once more to forge a cease fire in Syria's five-year civil war that will allow humanitarian aid to reach hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting in Aleppo and other cities. Given past failures to achieve a pause in the carnage, the prospects for success this time appear remote at best. Nevertheless the U.S. must at least try to avert an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe, if only to protest the criminal violence being inflicted on innocent civilians by Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
The desperate situation in Aleppo, the country's second-largest city, has become emblematic of the Assad regime's brutality toward its own citizens. Some 250,000 civilians in the rebel-held eastern part of the city have been cut off for months without access to food, fuel, fresh water, medicines or electricity. Syrian government and Russian military aircraft have systematically targeted schools and hospitals in defiance of international law, reducing much of the historic city to rubble. Mr. Kerry and French President Francois Hollande have both suggested the savagery might be grounds for the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into possible war crimes by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian enablers.
After the collapse of last month's U.S.- and Russian-brokered cease fire less than a week after it went into effect, Mr. Kerry is pinning his hopes this time on the combined efforts of diplomats from Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia and the U.S. Mr. Kerry believes that the multilateral pressure from all the countries that have the greatest stake in the conflict might at least make possible an agreement to reimpose a cease fire in Aleppo that eventually could create the conditions for a political resolution of the broader Syrian conflict.
The first task would be ensuring that U.N. aid convoys are permitted to cross Syrian government lines to reach the city's beleaguered civilians in the eastern part of the city. Last month the Assad regime backed down on its pledge to issue the transit papers that would have allowed aid to flow into the rebel held areas. As a result long lines of trucks were left stalled on the roads waiting for permission. Then aircraft from Russia or the Syrian government (the nationality of the planes remains in dispute) attacked the convoys, completely destroying their cargoes and killing dozens of aid workers and others in the area.
Meanwhile, Iran has remained a steadfast supporter of Mr. Assad, providing him with weapons, advisers and fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and Shiite militiamen from Iraq. The overriding goal of Tehran and Moscow appears to be to help the Assad government retake all of Aleppo just as the Obama administration prepares to leave office in order to put themselves in the strongest possible position at any future peace talks convened by the next U.S. president.
Whatever happens at Saturday's talks in Lausanne, the U.S. strategic interest in Syria remains the destruction of ISIS in order to prevent its spread to other countries in the Middle East and beyond. Mr. Kerry ought to do everything he can to help relieve the suffering of civilians in Aleppo and other besieged cities where hundreds have been killed in recent months, but he also must be clear-eyed about what we can and can't accomplish there. And we can expect little help from our hoped-for allies in Moscow and Tehran.
Can the U.S. ever forge a lasting accord with partners who have shown such duplicity and complete disregard for civilized norms of behavior? The Syrian government and Russia have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to keep their word. Much as we want to see the prospects for a major breakthrough in Syria improve, the chances of that happening seem slim so long as the only leverage Mr. Kerry can bring to the table is America's good will.