The Obama administration is under intense pressure to take more aggressive military action to stop the bloodshed in Syria this week — but it's coming at a moment when many analysts say those options have never been harder to pull off.
At last night's vice presidential debate, both Tim Kaine and Gov. Mike Pence expressed support for some form of military response to the horrors of daily bombardment in the embattled city of Aleppo. "The United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo," Pence said.
Kaine, for his part, called simply for the "establishment of humanitarian zones" in parts of Syria — something that would also necessitate the deployment of additional military force, although he didn't mention it.
The U.S. has already played a significant military role in the nearly six-year-old civil war in Syria, sending large quantities of aid and arms to opposition groups, attempting to train rebel armies, and dispatching fighter jets and special forces to the north of the country.
But much of that effort has been narrowly focused on the war against the Islamic State militants, near the border with Iraq. In other parts of the country, like Aleppo, the U.S. has opted to pursue diplomatic means to end the fighting, working primarily with President Bashar al-Assad's ally Russia to create ceasefires and humanitarian breaks in the fighting.
But this week, after yet another failed ceasefire, the U.S. broke off talks with the Russians, saying the country "failed to live up to its own commitments."
Now, administration officials are reportedly once again considering military options — but none of them seem to offer any certainties.
No fly, no-fly zone
The main instrument being discussed of late, a no-fly zone, is not actually new. Hillary Clinton called for one more than a year ago, and the Obama administration has weighed it almost from the start.
Administration officials have long expressed skepticism about the utility of a no-fly zone, or any other significant ramping-up of military activity, saying they would only be a first step without clear next moves.
"A no-fly zone in Syria would not solve the problem," Ben Rhodes, Obama's top foreign policy advisor, said in an interview last year after Clinton publicly endorsed the plan. "A no-fly zone might create some additional ability to manage some of the refugee flows and brush back some of the Syrian regime's air attacks on civilians, but frankly that violence could just manifest itself in different ways on the ground or migrate to different areas."
More recently, independent groups have been drawing up more comprehensive schemes.
A working group at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank in New York, recently proposed a series of steps it described as "enhanced containment": stepping up military intervention but with the limited goal of protecting civilians and forcing all sides back to the negotiating table.
And Charles Lister, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, this month set out a week-by-week prospectus on the military and other steps the administration might take to bring about a resolution.
But both plans required a certain degree of cooperation with the Russians — or at least accepting the prospect of U.S. military action coming into direct conflict with that of Russia, which also has troops in the country. The possibility of open clashes between the two superpowers has been enough to make some experts see the military option as virtually moot.
"In such volatile times, it is best to remain calm and sober," wrote Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, in a recent essay for the Financial Times. "The American president owes it to himself to make sure that a U.S.-Russian collision does not happen on his watch. And Mr. Putin must honor his pledge to avoid turning Syria into a new Afghanistan for Russia."
Emile Hokayem, a Syria analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says that "honest advocates" for a new U.S. policy must reckon with the graver threats posed by direct U.S.–Russia military escalation. But he faults the Obama administration for this turn of events.
"The U.S. maneuvered itself into the worst possible place," he told VICE News. "Their decisions over the past couple years have basically made every option riskier, costlier, and harder to do."
Hokayem believes this has been something of a trend: The administration reluctantly proposes something, such as building a rebel army, then waits too long, backs it with too little resources, and when it fails simply says they never thought it would work anyway.
"They did this to themselves!" Hokayem said. "Over the past few years Obama has been saying other options wouldn't work — and now he cornered himself."