WASHINGTON: With diplomacy faltering and Aleppo under siege, President Barack Obama is considering fresh Syria sanctions that could claw deeper into the regime and target its Russian backers.
Officials and diplomats said the strategy is still being thrashed out, but initial efforts could focus on passing UN sanctions against those implicated in chemical weapons attacks.
The move comes while the Syria’s military announced in a surprise move Wednesday that it is scaling back its bombardment of rebels in devastated Aleppo. It had declared an all-out assault nearly two weeks ago to capture the city. Some 270 people, including 53 children, have been killed in the campaign.
The Syrian military said on Wednesday the bombardment would be reduced “after the success of our armed forces in Aleppo and cutting off all terrorist supply routes into the eastern districts”.
“The military command has decided to reduce the number of air strikes and artillery on terrorist positions to allow civilians that want to leave to reach safe areas,” said a statement.
It was not immediately clear what was behind the move, or if Russian air strikes would also be reduced.
The announcement came as Russia’s TASS news agency said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US counterpart John Kerry discussed Syria by phone on Wednesday.
Washington had earlier announced it would halt bilateral efforts with Moscow aimed at reviving a ceasefire, accusing Russia of trying to bomb civilians “into submission”. But Moscow said Wednesday the “responsibility for the collapse of the truce lies with the US” given its decision to suspend contacts.
Meanwhile, a UN-backed panel is expected in the next few weeks to present new findings about deadly chemical attacks in 2014 and 2015.
The panel — formed by the United Nations and the independent Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — has already pinned the blame on the Syrian Air Force.
But the latest report, due before October 27, is expected to go into more detail about who is responsible, paving the way for targeted sanctions.
Supporters say the sanctions would send a signal that despite years of fighting, innumerable atrocities and at least 300,000 deaths, some small measure of accountability in Syria remains.
And while most of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle and top military aides are already the subjects of US travel bans and assets freezes, officials believe that targeting lower-level military officers would have a chilling effect on Syrian military morale.
But the greatest impact may be diplomatic.
A demand for sanctions would put Russia in the uncomfortable position of defending chemical weapons use by its ally, and could force Moscow to wield its veto in the UN Security Council.
The report had earlier been delayed, partly to provide space for US and Russian efforts to broker a ceasefire.
Those have now failed, heaping pressure on Obama to act to stop the carnage in Syria.
“What we are doing now is a different type of diplomacy — one which might be more robust — it could be resolutions which are designed to put pressure on them,” a Security Council diplomat said.
“The strategy that we are on is to try to change Russian behavior and let’s face it we have not been very successful at that in the year that they have been militarily supporting Assad,” the diplomat added.
“There is already work going on a draft resolution to take forward the 3rd and further 4th report in terms of what we do about it.”
If the UN route fails, attention is likely to turn to sanctions agreed by the United States, the European Union and other allies.
Officials indicated the scope could be broad, covering not only Syrians but also Russian firms that provided the means to carry out the bombing of civilian areas.
That would be intended as a strong signal to Moscow that it is not immune and continued support for the regime would come at a price.
The sanctions would be targeted at specific firms — aircraft parts suppliers or chemicals producers — to overcome opposition in European capitals to broad sanctions against Russia, a major trading partner.