What’s next for U.S. involvement in Syria?

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: The French government today announced a renewed push for a cease-fire in Syria, after a previous deal failed. The two architects of that accord, Secretary of State Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, spoke again today by phone.

Meantime, the push by Syrian forces to retake Aleppo's rebel-held sectors continued, as a humanitarian catastrophe mounted.

As rescuers on the ground in Eastern Aleppo sifted through the ruins by hand, United Nations satellite images from high above showed the sweeping destruction. The Syrian military announced today it's reducing the land and air bombardment to let some 275,000 civilians evacuate.

Pablo Marco leads the Doctors Without Borders mission in Syria. He spoke, via Skype, from Amman, Jordan:

PABLO MARCO: Unfortunately, we have got at different moments promises from the Russian government and also from the Syrian government about the cease-fires, truces, a reduction of fighting, and, honestly, we need to see it happen before believing it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Prospects for peace were briefly brighter last month, when Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brokered a cease-fire.

But Syrian and Russian airstrikes quickly resumed in a new and devastating offensive against Aleppo, and an aid convoy was bombed near the city.

On Monday, the State Department severed direct contact with Russia on the issue of Syria.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: Together, the Syrian regime and Russia seem to have rejected diplomacy in furtherance of trying to pursue a military victory.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the White House today, top advisers grappled with what to do next. The Washington Post reported military strikes against Syrian government forces are an option.

So far, President Obama has refused to go that far, and The New York Times obtained a recording of Secretary Kerry voicing frustration last month to the Syrian opposition.

JOHN KERRY: I have argued for use of force. I stood up. I'm the guy who stood up and announced we're going to attack Assad because of the weapons. And then, you know, things evolved into a different process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Syria is also echoing across the presidential campaign, as in last night's vice presidential debate.

GOV. MIKE PENCE (R), Vice Presidential Nominee: The United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime.

SEN. TIM KAINE (D), Vice Presidential Nominee: The notion is, we have to create a humanitarian zone in Northern Syria. It's very important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the ravaged landscape of Aleppo begs the question: If peace ever does come, will there be anything left to save?

And to talk about what comes next in Syria, I'm joined now by Derek Chollet. He's a former assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration. He's now at the German Marshall Fund. Randa Slim, she's director of the Track II Dialogues initiative at the Middle East Institute. And New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

And welcome all three of you to the program.

Let me just each one of you to say in brief, how did we get to this point five years in, half a million people dead in Syria, millions more displaced? How did we get here, Derek Chollet?

DEREK CHOLLET, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense: Well, it's a very difficult confluence of issues.

It's a proxy war that is being fought by many countries in the region, and, of course, the Russians, with many different interests at play. It's a brutal regime, in the Assad regime, that is willing to take any measure, no matter how immoral or war criminal acts, to persecute its goals.

And it's very much driven by fears in the United States, legitimate fears, I believe, about escalation of any U.S. military involvement, and what that may lead to in terms of an enduring U.S. commitment, military commitment, inside of Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nick Kristof, how did we get here?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF, The New York Times: Well, I think that President Obama resisted the suggestions by Hillary Clinton, by David Petraeus, and others to become more engaged, partly because it seemed plausible, in 2012 or even 2013, that Assad was going to fall anyway.

And, you know, why get engaged if what we want is going to happen anyway? And that was, indeed, plausible, but it also proved wrong. And I think also, more broadly, in a place like Syria, you know, there are no good options. And in a situation like that, it's always easiest in any given day, if you don't have a good option, to say, well, let's see what we're going to do tomorrow.

And that's how bit by bit you end up losing half-a-million lives with no end in sight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Randa Slim, how do you see this? How did we get here?

RANDA SLIM, Middle East Institute: I think we started, the administration, putting the right set of objectives in 2011, when the president said that Assad must step aside, because it was rightly diagnosed that the primary driver of the conflict, and still is the case today, is the Assad regime.

However, I think the administration proved unwilling and — to put together the strategy and to deploy the necessary tools to make that happen. I think, as Nick said, there was a strong assumption that Assad will fall or that Assad can be convinced to transition out. I think time and again, this has proven to be a wrong assumption.

But, also, I think the other factor is that we were facing an opponent with a coalition supporting it that has been willing to endorse and to engage in any kind of tactic, in any kind of awful kinds of intervention to stay in power.

And so we have this coalition now made up of Russia, made up of Iran, made up of Hezbollah, supporting Assad that is very — has a clear — I would say, that has a clear objective, that has a clear strategy, and that is willing to deploy any tool at its disposal, no matter what — how onerous it is, to achieve that objective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me turn back to Derek Chollet.

Given all this, given where we are, what is the path forward? And can the U.S. do something on the own?

DEREK CHOLLET: Well, it's very difficult to see a clear path forward, given the extent to which the Russians are now involved in this situation and the brutality that Assad has shown.

That said, I think it's important for your viewers to remember the United States military has been bombing Syria every day for the last two years. Now, the targets the U.S. military has been hitting and the special operators on the ground have been in support of the Kurds and Arab tribes in Syria. The targets are counter-ISIL.

And there are some things to do that we could do in terms of expanding the aperture of the airstrikes, perhaps putting some of the regime targets at risk that would be risky, but I believe would limit the risk of escalation that the president has rightly been concerned about.

There's no question the U.S. military has the capability to take out a regime. We have shown three times over the last 15 years that the U.S. military can take down regimes. We did it in Afghanistan. We did it in Iraq. We did it in Libya.

The challenge is — Judy, as you suggested in your opening piece, is, what comes next, and what can the U.S. do about what comes next? And I think that has been a limiting factor on the president's decision to get more involved militarily in trying to bring about a transition inside Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nick Kristof, you have written about this extensively. What realistically is the path forward for the U.S.? We are late in the Obama administration. There is going to be another president in the next few months. What is a realistic path forward?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Well, I mean, I think what we need to aim for is a cease-fire and a kind of de facto partition of Syria among the sides, with at least the fighting stopping, and then wait, and maybe some time down the road, one can put the pieces back together again.

But to get that cease-fire, to stop the killing, then you need leverage. The Syrian government has responded only — not to moral appeals, but only when it feels threatened. And so, in 2013, when it feared that it was going to be — it was going to suffer airstrikes then, indeed, it agreed, you know, we will have hand over chemical weapons.

Many, many of the members of Parliament in Syria fled the country because there was a credible military threat. And so I think that John Kerry feels legitimately that his efforts to negotiate a cease-fire were enormously undercut because the White House wouldn't give him that kind of leverage.

And, you know, look this is hard. It may not work. But we have in fact imposed a de facto no-fly zone over parts of Northern Syria to protect U.S. military advisers on ground. We could crater runways, for example, that Syrian military aircraft take off of.

And these aren't perfect solutions, but I think they're better than letting hundreds of thousands of people die in the coming years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Randa Slim, is any of this realistic? We heard the vice presidential nominees last night bring up solutions. We just heard what Derek and Nick have said.

Does any of this, does it show any relation of what could, politically, realistically take place?

RANDA SLIM: To what realistically takes place in the United States?

I don't think that, with this administration, given the time frame that's left in its tenure, you know, five weeks, less than five weeks away from the election, I don't think that this administration would engage in any kind of military option that bears risks, and especially high risks.

And any option right now in Syria is going to be a risky option. I think what we need to do and what is realistic is to alleviate the human suffering. There is — for example, we have now 250,000 to 270,000 people that are under siege by the Syrian regime and its supporting coalition in Eastern Aleppo, and that are being basically starved to death.

And so airdrops of humanitarian aid, airdrops over this region of medicine, of food, massive airdrops of medicine and food in the short-term, could help at least alleviate the human suffering of these people.

I think we also need to, in the short-term, to enable the armed groups, the opposition that's still in Eastern Aleppo to stay there, and we need to enable the armed groups that are fighting against ISIL and that are fighting against the regime to continue to fight against ISIL, against the regime.

But there is this element here that we always are forgetting, that there are regional parties that have high stakes in this conflict, either the United States or Russia today. And these are countries that are going to continue to wage their proxy wars in Syria and to, in a way, help change the dynamics on the ground in ways that best serve the interests of the Syrian parties.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

So, given that, Derek Chollet, is the next president going to have any more success than this one did? And we recognize the next president could have a different approach to Syria.

DEREK CHOLLET: Well, I think, as Nick Kristof said, this is a very difficult problem.

And there have been never been easy, risk-free solutions in Syria, whether we're talking in 2011, 2012, or today. There are a set of options that the next president will — I'm certain will consider, in terms of the attackers that targets that we're hitting with our airstrikes, in terms of the kinds of support we're giving the Syrian option, the kinds of weapons we are providing them, in terms of the targets we are directing the Syrian opposition the hit, in terms of the number of special operators on the ground to work with the Syrian opposition to try to make them more cohesive and capable.

But none of those measures are going to take away the fundamental difficulty of the situation and the dilemma that we're facing, nor is it going to take away the significant risk that's entailed with any sort of U.S. military engagement in Syria.

And I think that's a risk we all need to be honest about and aware of as — because I think — as we potentially escalate further into this conflict with no end in sight perhaps.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, very quickly, just to give both Nick and Randa time for a final comment, at least will there be a time for an opportunity for a fresh start with a new president?

Quickly to Nick and then to Randa.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Well, you know, I think there is going to be an opportunity, but I think Russia and Syria are both frantically trying to change the attacks on the ground, so that there is less room for the next president to maneuver.

But, at the end of the day, I mean, I guess — I think that President Obama had a plausible strategy a few years ago, but one that, in retrospect, just has failed. And after a half-a-million deaths, after the rise of ISIS, after a global refugee crisis, then I think the one thing that should be pretty clear now is that it's time to reevaluate and look for a new approach.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Randa Slim, what do we look for?

RANDA SLIM: I think — as Nick said, I think the next president will be evaluating what we need to do in Syria. But also, as Nick said, I think the next president will be facing less options to deal with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meaning what? Meaning that — because the Russians are now…

RANDA SLIM: Meaning — meaning that there will be — I mean, meaning, if Aleppo were to fall in the next — in the next few weeks, I think that will create a new fait accompli that will make the regime and that will make the coalition supporting the regime less willing to engage in the political process which the American administration has always wanted and advocated for.

I think it means that at — that this next president needs to explore carefully, but also seriously, what kind of military tools could be deployed to create the conditions on the ground for this political process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's complicated, and it's painful. And, as all three of you said, it is hard.

Derek Chollet, Randa Slim, Nicholas Kristof, we thank you.

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