The conflict in Syria has grown increasingly dire as diplomatic efforts to stem the tide of violence come up short. On Thursday, the Russian government rejected U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s demand for an end to bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo, a key battleground in the fight between the Syrian government and rebel forces.
Kerry denounced the bombing of Aleppo as “inexcusable,” and “beyond the pale,” on Thursday at the Washington Ideas Forum, presented by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute. The secretary of state defended the administration’s attempts to seek a political settlement to the conflict, but did not present an optimistic view that diplomacy will prevail anytime soon. “Under those kinds of circumstances, it is not possible to cooperate,” he told Steve Clemons, referring to the bombing of Aleppo. Kerry added: “We’re on the verge of suspending the discussion. It’s irrational in the context of the kind of bombing taking place to be sitting there and trying to take things seriously.”
The United States and Russia announced a cease-fire agreement earlier this month, but the deal has since crumbled. An intense campaign of Syrian and Russian airstrikes in Aleppo began at the end of last week. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Thursday proposed a 48-hour pause in fighting, which, The New York Times reports, the U.S. is “likely to reject.”
The unfolding humanitarian crisis is devastating. The Washington Post reported that “entire families sleep in one room” in Aleppo “because they prefer to die together than to create orphans, widows or bereaved parents.” Amid pauses in the bombings, the Post reported, “rescue workers venture out, navigating the rubble and craters left by earlier bombings, to dig out victims without headlights or lamps. They haul them to hospitals swamped with patients being treated on the floor by doctors who barely sleep and must choose which lives to save and which to let go.”
Kerry described the situation in dire terms on Thursday. “I’m very, very dissatisfied with where we are in Syria,” he said, adding that he feels “extremely concerned about where it is going and what will happen to the people of Syria … if a more rational and moral-based common-sense approach is not found to deal with the situation.” At the start of the conversation, Kerry remarked: “I’ve taken on a lot of challenges, but Syria is as complicated as anything I’ve ever seen in public life.”
Republicans in Congress have mocked the administration’s efforts as ineffective. “Finally, a real power move in American diplomacy,” Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said sarcastically in a statement Wednesday. “Secretary of State John ‘Not Delusional’ Kerry has made the one threat the Russians feared most—the suspension of U.S.-Russia bilateral talks about Syria.”
For his part, Kerry defended U.S. efforts. “I make no apology, nor does President Obama, none whatsoever, for trying to reach out and find out if there’s a way to achieve a political settlement,” Kerry said. He conceded, however, that diplomatic efforts in Syria have been “marred by these breaches of the ceasefire and the destruction and Russia’s persistent support of [Syrian President] Assad in a way that is beyond the seeking of a political settlement.”