In the latest, and most dramatic - if perhaps entertaining - escalation of diplomacy between the US and Russian, earlier today Secretary of State John Kerry threatened to cut off all contacts with Moscow over Syria, unless Russian and Syrian government attacks on Aleppo end. Kerry issued the ultimatum in a Wednesday telephone call to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Kerry told Lavrov the U.S. was preparing to "suspend U.S.-Russia bilateral engagement on Syria," including on a proposed counterterrorism partnership, "unless Russia takes immediate steps to end the assault on Aleppo" and restore a cease-fire.
As the AP reported, in the telephone call with Lavrov, Kerry "expressed grave concern over the deteriorating situation in Syria, particularly for continued Russian and Syrian regime attacks on hospitals, the water supply network and other civilian infrastructure in Aleppo," Kirby's statement said. Kerry also told Lavrov the U.S. holds Russia responsible for the use of incendiary and bunker-buster bombs in an urban area.
It was unclear what effect Kerry's words would have. There have been many threats lobbed at Russia over the years for the duration of the Syrian conflict, now in its 6th year, and most warnings have gone unfulfilled, including President Barack Obama's declaration that the U.S. would take military action if Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed the "red line" of using chemical weapons. Furthermore, Syria has repeatedly stressed that it is in its right to try to retake Aleppo from rebel forces.
"The burden remains on Russia to stop this assault and allow humanitarian access to Aleppo and other areas in need," Kerry told Lavrov, according to State Department spokesman John Kirby.
According to western-based sources, government shelling and airstrikes landed near a bread distribution center and two hospitals in Aleppo on Wednesday. Activists and medics reported several people killed. They said at least one of the medical facilities was no longer operable, leaving the country's biggest city with only six functioning hospitals.
Ironically, despite Moscow's military engagement in the war alongside Assad's government, Washington has been working with its former Cold War foe in hopes of securing a cease-fire and a peace process, most recently a "landmark" ceasefire deal, which however collapse just a week later after US-coalition forces "mistakenly" bombed a Syrian army position. Still, despite the most recent collapse in diplomatic relations, current coordination to ensure U.S. and Russian planes stay out of each other's way will continue no matter what, the Pentagon said. The U.S. and its coalition partners are flying missions in Syria against IS; the U.S. also has a small contingent of special forces on the ground.
As AP notes, Kerry's threat aside, the U.S. has few other options beyond engaging Moscow to end the fighting between Assad's forces and rebels. Obama has made clear he won't authorize military action against Syria and the presence of Russian air assets alongside Syrian forces makes such a scenario all the more unlikely. The U.S. is similarly uncomfortable ramping up military support for anti-Assad rebels given the close ties even the so-called "moderate" groups maintain with al-Qaida-linked militants.
Making matters worse, peace efforts without Russia are unlikely to win over Assad. And green-lighting Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey or other countries to provide more weapons to the rebels could only make the war deadlier. Already, as many as 500,000 people have been killed.
Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry presented a different version of the call, which focused on Lavrov's demand that the U.S. compel opposition forces to separate themselves from extremist groups. He told Kerry that many U.S.-backed groups have merged with the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and said Nusra was getting U.S. weaponry that way. He made no reference to the "ultimatum" showing how seriously Russia is taking it.