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September 20, 2017

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Obama without a response to Aleppo siege

WASHINGTON--With Syria's Russian-backed military appearing close to seizing total control of Aleppo, U.S. officials concede they have little to no chance of securing a diplomatic breakthrough to halt the five-and-a-half-year civil war in President Barack Obama's last weeks in office. Given Donald Trump's promises of closer cooperation with Russia, the U.S. has lost what limited leverage it had.

Until recently, top U.S. officials still dangled the threat of reviving any of the various Syria plans Obama long had rejected, from a no-fly zone over opposition-held territory and more weapons to the rebels to sanctions on Moscow for aiding Syrian President Bashar Assad. Such talk has disappeared since Trump's surprise election victory three weeks ago.

And the sense of U.S. powerlessness is so profound right now that even Obama's Plan A — diplomatic efforts with Russia — doesn't seem to be taking on added urgency. Discussions in Geneva involving senior diplomats are occurring regularly, though not daily. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have been talking by telephone a couple of times each week. The specter of the fall of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, isn't changing the American approach.

"The United States continues to work diplomatically," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday, crediting Kerry with redoubling "efforts to try to bring about that kind of solution because we know that it's just impossible to impose a military solution."

Blocks away in Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters: "To suggest ... that there's some sort of frantic or frenetic last-ditch efforts here in the remaining weeks that he has in office just simply doesn't comport with the facts."

U.S. officials stressed that they haven't given up, pointing to the negotiations with Russia and several other countries directly or indirectly involved in Syria's war as evidence of continued diplomatic engagement. The negotiations have made little progress, conceded the officials, who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the discussions and demanded anonymity.

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