What is happening in Syria is heartbreaking. The short-lived cease fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia two weeks ago collapsed ignominiously before it was even fully implemented. Meanwhile, Russian and Syrian government aircraft are back in the skies dropping incendiary weapons and bunker-busting bombs on beleaguered civilian populations in Aleppo and other cities. Residents say the savagery of the aerial assault is the worst they have seen during Syria's five-year civil war.
Yet it's clear the extent to which the U.S can alleviate the suffering of ordinary Syrians is limited. Short of toppling the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, there may be no way of swiftly ending the fighting. The events of the last two weeks have shown that Russia can't be trusted to honor a truce in any meaningful way. And it would be a mistake to get ourselves more deeply embroiled in a chaotic conflict with partners whose allegiances are constantly shifting in a country where the U.S. has no direct national interest at stake beyond what we're already doing to degrade and destroy the so-called Islamic State.
Among all the available options, the least bad may be to continue pressing Russia and Mr. Assad to allow humanitarian aid to reach rebel-held areas in east Aleppo and other parts of the country where the fighting has left tens of thousands of civilians without access to food, fuel, medicines and electricity. The United Nations has called on the Syrian and Russian governments to stop the bombing and shelling of schools, hospitals and residential areas, which are being systematically destroyed and where the death toll among civilians reportedly has reached 100 a day.
Washington and Moscow continue to trade accusations over which side was responsible for breaking the Syrian truce, but at this point the argument is academic. Russia is an unreliable partner with an agenda at odds with U.S. goals. Our main objective in Syria is the destruction of ISIS in order to prevent it from exporting jihadist militants to destabilize other countries in the region or to attack targets in Europe and the U.S. How much longer Mr. Assad can cling to power is a secondary issue, however much we might wish to see him gone.
The resumption of fighting in Syria has prompted calls for the U.S. to take stronger action against the Assad regime, but none of the alternatives put forward seem likely to advance our vital national interest there within a reasonable time frame or at an acceptable cost. Some have suggested giving U.S.-backed rebel groups anti-aircraft weapons to defend themselves and exact a toll on Russian and Syrian planes and pilots; others — including Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — want the U.S. to use its air power to create safe zones for Syrian refugees or set up buffer zones along the country's borders with Turkey and Iraq.
But giving shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to rebel groups could easily backfire if those weapons were lost, stolen or otherwise fell into the hands of rival fighters who could then use them to down a U.S. warplane or a commercial airliner. There've been too many cases in which weapons intended for U.S.-backed forces on the ground ended up being used against us or our allies. Likewise, the problem with safe zones is that enforcing them risks U.S planes coming into conflict with Syrian or Russian aircraft in the country's crowded airspace, and possibly setting off an international incident that makes an already bad situation worse.
The U.S. can try to lower the impact of the violence on ordinary Syrians by backing local cease fires wherever possible to allow humanitarian aid to reach areas besieged by the government, and when it does its assistance should be unstinting. It can also shore up support for strategic allies in the region like Jordan and urge restraint by Turkey in its feud with the Kurds, who have been among the most effective fighters against ISIS. But above all the U.S. needs to keep pounding the Islamic State in order to bring about its swift demise. That, at least, is within our power to achieve.