Washington: Borne on a drone, the camera pans over the shattered city of Homs, just inside Syria's western border with Lebanon – entire city blocks, each with dozens of apartment buildings, fractured and hollowed out; each stripped entirely of all that was personal or familial, but still vaguely reminiscent of the vast humanity that has been displaced and destroyed by five years of relentless civil war.
Three young boys wander a street. Their gait suggests a casual errand – as though this barbaric desolation is their normality. The boys pause. One of them looks up at the drone in flight, seeming more curious than desperate. He's watching us watching him and frighteningly, he seems to get it: yes, the eyes of the world are on him, but he should not expect help any time soon.
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Kerry: world powers to expand Syria aid
Major powers have agreed to accelerate and expand delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria "beginning immediately" according to US Secretary of State John Kerry.
On Thursday, Munich became the latest whistle stop in a frustrating global diplomatic shuttle.
At a late-night press conference, US Secretary of State John Kerry and others who met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov resorted to tortured language to explain the outcome of talks – aid deliveries would resume within a week and there had been "progress" towards a "cessation of hostilities", but seemingly the Russians refused to stop the bombings – an outcome that will be greeted with derision by rebel fighters and the people living in northern Syria.
As the envoys huddled in Munich, the fate of Syria's biggest city – Aleppo – hung in the balance.
On the heels of recent rebel losses in the Latakia region, on the Mediterranean coast, and in Daraa, in the south, regaining Aleppo, the country's commercial capital in peacetime, would be a massive victory for Bashar al-Assad – and set off a new round of questions over the long-term viability of rebel forces which at the best of times are under-funded, under-resourced and prone to turning on each other.
"Recently over 20 rebel militia leaders have been assassinated, most by a breakaway faction of the Victory Army, [and] the militias that the US trained and armed at great expense have been crushed – not by Assad, but by other rebels." Syria expert Josh Landis notes in Foreign Affairs.
And the Middle East Institute's Daniel Serwer blogs: "Assad has long wanted the contest in Syria to be seen as a fight between his regime and extremists. He's getting close to driving the relative moderates off the battlefield, fulfilling his own prophecy."
In congressional testimony this week, the Defense Intelligence Agency's chief, Lieutenant-General Vincent Stewart, said: "The Russian reinforcement has changed the calculus completely, [putting Assad] in a much stronger negotiating position than he was just six months ago."
Alluding to Washington's oft-stated view that only a political solution can bring peace to Syria, a senior US official told The New York Times that maybe there could be a military solution, "just not our solution", but one designed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the face of Assad's bid to sever the last viable supply route north from Aleppo to the Turkish border, in which aid agencies say he is assisted by as many as 200 Russian air strikes a day, the UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned on Tuesday: "It would leave up to 300,000 people still residing in the city cut off from humanitarian aid … and local councils in the city estimate that some 100,000-150,000 civilians may flee."
A report this week by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research says that 11.5 per cent of Syria's population has been killed or injured, the country's national wealth, infrastructure and institutions have been "almost obliterated", with 14 million Syrians losing their livelihood, and 45 per cent of them have been displaced, internally and abroad.
Reports from villages within an hour's drive of Damascus say that entire local animal herds have been eaten and children are too weak to attend school.
The United Nations estimates that 800,000 civilians are in communities that are besieged by Assad's forces; another 200,000 are locked down by Islamic State; and that 11 million are "hard to access", living either in areas under rebel, Islamic State or Kurdish control.
It can take up to three months to negotiate access for a single aid convoy. Reports from villages within an hour's drive of Damascus say that entire local animal herds have been eaten; families have resorted to making soup from grass; and children are too weak to attend school.
At the UN in January, a Russian envoy dismissed demands for humanitarian relief as "all this unnecessary noise". Already host to an estimated 2.5 million refugees and fearing the arrival of a million more, Turkey refuses to open its border to the new flood from Aleppo.
More than a catastrophic humanitarian failure, Syria represents a failure of policy for most of the countries that have involved themselves, in particular the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
European Council on Foreign Relations policy fellow Julian Barnes-Dacey predicts that given the dire straits in which the rebel opposition forces find themselves, their Turkish and Saudi backers "can now be expected to step up their game".
"After five years of brutal conflict it's almost inconceivable that Saudi Arabia and Turkey ... will walk away from the fight, accepting an Assad victory, [because] Syria remains too important, and has become too personalised for the leaders to simply walk away," he writes.
Yet a constant in the Syria crisis is that even long-term allies cannot be relied upon. As he left office on Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius took a swipe at Washington, arguing that "ambiguous" policies by "the main pilot of the coalition" were a large part of the problem.
Turkey, a NATO ally, has also proved unreliable. The increasingly autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is whipping himself into a lather over US and Russian support for the Syrian Kurds – one of the few effective forces taking the fight to the Assad regime and IS.
Erdogan's anxiety hangs on the possibility that Syrian Kurdish autonomy added to existing Kurdish self-rule in Iraq equals fresh political impetus for Kurdish separatism in Turkey. In a speech on Wednesday, Erdogan harangued Washington: "Are you on our side or the side of the terrorist [Kurds]? Hey, America – because you never recognised [the Kurdish PYD in Syria] as a terrorist group, the region has turned into a sea of blood. We have written proof! We tell the Americans, 'it's a terror group'. But the Americans stand up and say: 'No, we don't see them as a terror group'."
There's a consensus among analysts that US President Barack Obama's hands are tied – as much by his own reading of the absence of American appetite for another Middle Eastern war as by the tactical limitations imposed on him by Moscow's enthusiastic leap into the fire.
Obama does not want to fight the Assad regime – either from the air or from the ground; and in Syria, he'll confront IS only from the air and with just a handful of Special Operations forces on the ground, his much-maligned training programs for rebel fighters and supplies of light weapons.
Some of the knots that bind Obama's hands are of his own making, from a time when the tempo of the conflict was slower. Obama issued a "red line" warning of "dire consequences" if Assad used chemical weapons. The regime used them and there was no US military response. The imposition of a US-patrolled no-fly zone, which Obama rejected early in the conflict, is now impossible because Russian aircraft share Syrian airspace.
Russia can make emergency food drops to communities trapped by the war, because the weapons provided by the US and its allies to rebel forces are insufficient to threaten Russian aircraft – but regime forces are equipped with powerful anti-aircraft weapons which could bring down US and allied aircraft.
John Kerry talks about an unspecified Plan B, which some analysts presume to be a more muscular military option if the current round of diplomacy fails to break the impasse.
But after years of limited and often ineffectual US assistance, Syrian rebel forces will most likely only get more US weapons – possibly enough and of sufficient calibre to keep them in the fight but not to let them win, because Washington fears that if the regime was to fall, IS might seize control of the whole country – and the arms.
As Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations concludes: "In the end the moral dilemma is this: there is no politically acceptable military approach that offers a viable path towards securing the protection and humanitarian access the Syrian people desperately need, without risking a wider war."