(Adds Kerry and Brennan comments on more military options,
paragraphs 9, 14-20)
* Intense fighting in and around Aleppo
* Moscow to consider ways to normalise city
* U.S. says not ready to cut off diplomacy yet
* Obama has few options, officials and analysts say
By Dmitry Solovyov and Ellen Francis
MOSCOW/BEIRUT, Sept 30 Russia is sending more
warplanes to Syria to ramp up its air campaign, a Russian
newspaper reported on Friday, as the United States said
diplomacy to halt the violence was "on life support" but not
Fighting continued to intensify a week into a new
Russian-backed Syrian government offensive to capture rebel-held
eastern Aleppo and crush the last urban stronghold of a revolt
against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in 2011.
Moscow and Assad spurned a U.S.-Russian brokered ceasefire
agreed to this month and launched attacks on rebel-held areas in
Aleppo in potentially the most decisive battle in the Syrian
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by telephone for a third straight
day, with the top Russian diplomat saying Moscow was ready to
consider more ways to normalise the situation in Aleppo.
But Lavrov criticised Washington's failure to separate
moderate rebel groups from those the Russians call terrorists,
which had allowed forces led by the group formerly known as the
Nusra front to violate the U.S.-Russian truce agreed on Sept. 9.
The United States made clear on Friday that it would not, at
least for now, carry through on the threat it made on Wednesday
to halt the diplomacy if Russia did not take immediate steps to
halt the violence.
"This is on life support, but it's not flat-lined yet,"
State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. "We have
seen enough that we don't want to definitively close the door
In a 40-minute discussion with Syrians, diplomats and others
on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting
in New York last week, Kerry said the administration had failed
to make any threat of military force that give him leverage with
"I think you're looking at three people, four people in the
administration who have all argued for use of force, and I lost
the argument," Kerry told the group, according to a recording of
the session obtained by The New York Times.
NO ALTERNATIVE TO DIPLOMACY?
U.S. officials and analysts argued the White House has few
alternatives. "If we do walk away from this diplomatic process,
as ... moribund as it is, what are the options?" Toner asked.
"They can't afford to," said Chas Freeman, a retired U.S.
ambassador. "You can't do international business with silence
The White House put on hold for now proposals to end the
talks despite the possibility that continuing them would erase
whatever credibility Washington has on Syria, risk encouraging
Assad and his Russian backers to continue the carnage, and
prompt Saudi Arabia and other Assad opponents to arm rebel
groups with better weapons without consulting Washington.
It also would leave the United States vulnerable to attacks
that it failed to intervene to halt war crimes, proponents of
ending the diplomacy argued, according to officials familiar
with the internal discussions.
According to the tape, however, Kerry told the Syria group
last week that as the bombing of Aleppo had escalated, "There's
a different conversation taking place."
CIA director John Brennan said in an interview on Friday
that Russia's actions in Syria over the last several weeks have
shown that Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been serious
about negotiating a political solution to the conflict.
"I think that pushing back against a bully is appropriate,"
Brennan told Reuters. "I think that is very different than
rushing in and bombing the hell out of a place."
Military options that administration officials say are still
being discussed include providing more sophisticated arms,
logistical support, and training to Syrian rebel groups, though
not shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, either directly or
via Gulf Arab states or Turkey, these officials said.
Another idea, they said, was first to attempt humanitarian
relief flights over Aleppo or other embattled areas, escorted by
fighter jets, to see how the Russians and Syrians respond.
Further down the list would be launching an air or cruise
missile strike on a Syrian base, with a tentative list already
drawn up of what one official said was "slightly more than a
dozen" Syrian airbases, barrel-bomb factories and other targets.
However, senior officials concluded there is no alternative
to leaving the door open to talks for now because any immediate
action would risk provoking an open conflict with Russia.
According to the tape of his meeting with the Syrian group
in New York, Kerry warned that if the U.S. started using muscle,
"then everybody ups the ante, right? Russia puts in more, Iran
puts in more; Hezbollah is there more and Nusra is more; and
Saudi Arabia and Turkey put all their surrogate money in, and
you all are destroyed."
SU-24 AND SU-34 AIRCRAFT
Western countries accuse Russia of war crimes, saying it has
targeted civilians, hospitals and aid deliveries in recent days
to crush the will of 250,000 people trapped inside the besieged
rebel-held sector of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city before the
Moscow and Damascus say they have targeted only militants.
Russia joined the war a year ago, tipping the balance of
power in favour of Assad, who is also supported by Iranian
ground forces and Shi'ite militia from Lebanon and Iraq.
The Kremlin said on Friday there was no time frame for its
military operation in Syria. The main result of Russian air
strikes over the past year is that "neither Islamic State, nor
al Qaeda nor the Nusra Front are now sitting in Damascus",
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Russia's Izvestia newspaper reported that a group of Su-24
and Su-34 warplanes had arrived at Syria's Hmeymim base.
The Su-25 is an armoured twin-engine jet that was
battle-tested in the 1980s during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
It can be used to strafe targets on the ground, or as a bomber.
Russia's defence ministry did not immediately respond to a
request from Reuters for comment. The U.S. State and Defense
Departments declined comment on the Izvestia report.
Syrian government forces and rebels fought battles on Friday
in the city centre and north of Aleppo, where government troops
had recaptured a Palestinian refugee camp on Thursday that
already had changed hands once since the start of the attack.
The sides gave conflicting accounts of the outcome of
Friday's fighting. North of the city, the military said it had
captured territory around the Kindi hospital near the refugee
camp. Rebel sources denied the army had advanced
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Angus McDowall, Lisa
Barrington in Beirut; David Alexander, Eric Beech, Arshad
Mohammed, David Rohde and John Walcott in Washington, Dmitry
Solovyov in Moscow; writing by Peter Graff and Arshad Mohammed;
editing by Peter Millership and Tom Brown)