HANGZHOU, China — The image of a 5-year-old Syrian boy, dazed and bloodied after being rescued from an airstrike on rebel-held Aleppo, reverberated around the world last month, a harrowing reminder that five years after civil war broke out there, Syria remains a charnel house.
But the reaction was more muted in Washington, where Syria has become a distant disaster rather than an urgent crisis. President Barack Obama’s policy toward Syria has barely budged in the last year and shows no sign of change for the remainder of his term. The White House has faced little pressure over the issue, in part because Syria is getting scant attention on the campaign trail from either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
That frustrates many analysts because they believe that a shift in policy will come only when Obama has left office. “Given the tone of this campaign, I doubt the electorate will be presented with realistic and intelligible options, with respect to Syria,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former adviser on Syria in the administration.
The lack of substantive political debate about Syria is all the more striking given that the Obama administration is engaged in an increasingly desperate effort to broker a deal with Russia for a cease-fire that would halt the rain of bombs on Aleppo.
Those negotiations moved on Sunday to China, where Secretary of State John Kerry met for two hours with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, at a Group of 20 meeting. At one point, the State Department was confident enough to schedule a news conference, at which the two were supposed to announce a deal.
But Kerry turned up alone, acknowledging that there were still “a couple of tough issues” dividing them. “We’re not going to rush,” he said, “and we’re not going to do something that we think has less than a legitimate opportunity to get the job done.”
Kerry said he would stay in China another day to keep trying. But his boss, Obama, voiced skepticism. “If we do not get some buy-in from the Russians on reducing the violence and easing the humanitarian crisis, then it’s difficult to see how we get to the next phase,” he said, after a meeting with the British prime minister, Theresa May.
Whatever progress Kerry has made, officials said, could easily be unraveled by external events, whether a new offensive by Turkey or the Nusra Front — which until recently had publicly aligned itself with al-Qaida — or intensified bombing raids by the government of President Bashar Assad. And it is clearer than ever that if Kerry’s latest attempt at diplomacy falls short, there is no Plan B.
Obama, White House officials said, has become increasingly skeptical about one of the major fallback options advanced by officials in the administration: expanding military aid to rebels vetted by the United States to put more pressure on Assad to compromise. With Nusra fighters playing a more dominant role in the rebellion, they said, the president has deepened his resistance to providing the rebels with more powerful weapons. (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) In October, Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, proposed enforcing a partial no-fly zone over Syria to create safe zones for civilians in places like Aleppo. She has said little about the plan in recent months, and people close to her say she now acknowledges that the complexity of the battlefield — with Russian planes flying raids — would make it far more difficult.
Clinton, these people said, would be open to other measures to ground Assad’s air force. They did not offer details, but officials in the Obama administration, including 51 State Department employees who signed a “dissent channel” memo on Syria, have pressed privately for the United States to carry out airstrikes to hit Assad’s planes on the ground and their runways.
In another election season, these are the kinds of questions that would be hotly debated. But the foreign policy debate has instead revolved mainly around the fitness of the Republican nominee, Trump, to be commander in chief. Clinton, analysts said, has other reasons for not being drawn out on Syria.
“A clear imperative for the Clinton campaign is to stay as close as possible to President Obama,” Hof said. “That means neither looking for, nor emphasizing, areas of disagreement, such as Syria.”
And yet, Clinton’s aides say, Syria remains a priority for her. At a private fundraiser in the Hamptons last week, Clinton delivered, unprompted, a lengthy policy prescription for what to do in Syria, including a gentle critique of the Obama administration for not pursuing her original proposal of a no-fly zone, according to a person who attended and described her remarks on the condition of anonymity.
The views of Clinton — and Trump, for that matter — are critical. As Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted, “Everyone in the region is just waiting for the next U.S. administration.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.) In the meantime, Kerry is persevering with his diplomacy, while the situation in Syria is growing ever murkier. A particular point of contention is the central role that the Nusra Front has played during the pitched battles against the Syrian military.
The Nusra fighters are commingled with rebels supplied by the CIA and other Arab nations. The Russians have used the presence of Nusra fighters to justify airstrikes around Aleppo, saying the city is an important front in its campaign against terrorism.
The fact that the Nusra Front was not a party to past cease-fire agreements, allowing the group to continue its attacks on Syrian government troops during the fragile pauses in violence, has given added fuel to the Russian argument.
The “marbling” of the various rebel groups with more extremist groups has been a sticking point in the negotiations. U.S. officials insist that they give no support to Nusra fighters despite the group’s name change and split with al-Qaida.
“Nusra is al-Qaida,” Kerry said. No name change, he said, “hides what it really is.”
The Russians have been pressing their advantage in recent months, bolstering Assad’s military as it claims more territory from the CIA-backed rebels and the Nusra Front and gaining leverage as the diplomacy proceeds at a glacial pace.
Still, both the United States and Russia have shown an inclination to dial back the temperature of a proxy war that, for the first time since Afghanistan in the 1980s, has seen fighters backed by the CIA in a direct confrontation with the Russian military.
“The four-way fight in eastern Syria is heating up, and our forces are right in the middle, in this instance some actually on the ground,” said Robert S. Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria.
Military analysts say Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, would recognize the folly in waging an open-ended war in Syria, and in having to prop up Assad indefinitely. Russia’s military successes in Syria since the campaign began last year, they said, could be solidified by a political settlement, and Moscow could gradually extricate itself from direct military involvement.
Some outside analysts see Kerry’s determination to broker a cease-fire as driven by their assessment that the Russian offensive has reversed the fortunes of Assad’s military, sending the U.S.-vetted rebels into retreat and owning a shrinking patch of territory in northern Syria.
The back and forth of the conflict continues, with insurgents making major gains against the government in central Hama province over the weekend. On Sunday, however, Syrian troops and pro-government militias, backed by Russian airstrikes, cut off rebels in east Aleppo by recapturing a road. And Turkish troops along with Syrian rebels seized that last stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border controlled by the Islamic State. (STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.) Any “cleareyed” interpretation of Kerry’s actions, said Michael Kofman, an expert on Russia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, would read this as a public admission that the United States is bowing out of continuing the proxy war against the Syrian army, seeing a negotiated agreement as “the best means of saving what little is left of the moderate opposition.”
If he fails, though, Obama will be left with little more than the news release his national security adviser, Susan Rice, issued last week, in which the White House took credit for achieving its goal of taking in 10,000 refugees from Syria, more than a month ahead of schedule — but only a small fraction of the 5 million Syrians who have fled their country.