Secretary of State John Kerry conceded Tuesday he cannot guarantee Russia will stick to a new Syrian cease-fire plan that Moscow and Washington jointly agreed to this week. But he warned that the U.S. military was considering a “Plan B” and would continue supporting rebel efforts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the absence of Russian cooperation.
“This can get a lot uglier,” Kerry said, raising the possibility of sustained U.S. and allied support for Sunni and Kurdish rebels inside Syria.
“Even if Russia took Aleppo … holding territory has always been difficult,” he said, referring to the country’s rebel-held stronghold, which has come under siege in recent weeks by Syrian troops aided by Russian air power. “Russia has to be sitting there evaluating that.”
Kerry’s remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came a day after the new “cessation of hostilities” agreement was announced to end fighting between Syrian rebels and Assad’s regime. Plans for a previous cease-fire failed to take hold last Friday. The truce does not cover military actions against the Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front. Both groups have been targeted by U.S. and Russian warplanes.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed skepticism Tuesday that the agreement would bring about a sharp reduction in Russian airstrikes against rebel targets.
“I just hope it’s not a rope-a-dope deal” said Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.
“What happens if in fact this cease-fire doesn’t hold?” asked Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “I don’t think Russia believes that anything is going to happen.”
Kerry, rather than endorsing the agreement, sold it as the best path forward among many bad options.
“I’m not going to say this process is sure to work because I don’t know,” he said. “But I know that it’s the best way to end the war, and it’s the only alternative available to us if indeed we’re going to have a political settlement.”
Kerry declined to detail any specifics of the administration’s “Plan B,” saying it wasn’t an appropriate time to discuss military measures. But he noted newspaper reports that said advanced planning is underway: On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, and CIA Director John Brennan have proposed a plan to increase covert support for Syrian rebels.
While such a plan may deter Russian aggression, it also risks prolonging the bloodletting in Syria and dragging the U.S. further into another multi-faceted proxy war in the Middle East. The White House has yet to say if it will adopt the plan.
During the hearing, Kerry also defended the State Department’s budget proposal, which includes a $3.8 million increase for upgrades to the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Kerry said the funds would help support the embassy’s operations, including a 50 percent increase in staff, expanded travel for American diplomats throughout Cuba, and resources toward accommodating the uptick in American travelers to the island.