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US reluctant to alter course after an array of bad options in Syria

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This photo shows a general view of the Syrian border town of Assal al-Ward that is held by government forces, Syria. Hezbollah fighters have been spearheading an attack along with President Bashar Assad's troops against Sunni insurgents in Syria's rugged mountainous region of Qalamoun. (photo: AP)
This photo shows a general view of the Syrian border town of Assal al-Ward that is held by government forces, Syria. Hezbollah fighters have been spearheading an attack along with President Bashar Assad’s troops against Sunni insurgents in Syria’s rugged mountainous region of Qalamoun. (photo: AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The disintegration of diplomatic talks with Russia has left the Obama administration with an array of bad options for what to do next in Syria.

Despite harrowing scenes of violence in Aleppo and beyond, President Barack Obama is unlikely to approve any dramatic shift in strategy before handing the civil war over to his successor early next year.

The options under discussion at the White House — limited strikes, sanctions, more weapons for rebels, multi-party talks — have one thing in common: None appears likely to halt the bloodshed in the short-term. The more aggressive proposals come with the added risk of pulling the U.S. into direct confrontation withRussia, a threat illuminated by a string of recent taunts from Moscow.

Obama has wrestled for years with the Syria crisis and is deeply reluctant to entangle the U.S. in another Mideast war. After insisting the only viable path forward wasU.S.-Russia-brokered talks that have since fallen apart, Obama faces the prospect of leaving office as a bystander to a carnage that has killed an estimated 500,000 people and created 11 million refugees — half of Syria’s pre-war population.

“Obama’s practically lame-duck status only reinforces the argument for maintaining the current policy,” said Jonathan Stevenson, a former senior Mideast adviser to the president. “It’s true, of course, that presidents on their way out are not always risk-averse, but maybe they should be.”

Proponents of a more muscular U.S. approach, including Secretary of State John Kerry, are clamoring for a stronger response after the Syrian and Russian assaults onAleppo punctured the veneer of a productive diplomatic track, and the U.S. withdrew from talks with Russia last week.

Evidence of the collapse of relations abounded Friday. The U.S. formally accused Russia of trying to meddle in the U.S. election by hacking U.S. political groups, and Kerry accused the Kremlin of war crimes in Syria. Russia, meanwhile, has suspended deals with the U.S. on nuclear research cooperation and disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.

The turn of events has led the White House to cautiously reconsider proposals that had been largely ruled out, including economic sanctions on Russia that the U.S. would have to orchestrate with Russia’s larger trading partners. Senior U.S. officials said the administration was discussing options with European countries while U.S. intelligence agencies map out companies and individuals that could be targeted.

Under another proposal, the U.S. would take narrow, short-term action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s , such as its assets, officials said. The goal wouldn’t be to eliminate Assad’s ability to attack opposition groups, but rather to scare Syria and Russia into returning to the negotiating table, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly about internal deliberations and requested anonymity.

Yet officials from multiple U.S. agencies said chances appeared slim that Obama would approve the strikes. Such a move would likely trigger at least a short-term uptick in violence, they noted, with long-term prospects for starting a peace process unclear.

Moreover, there is no U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing strikes against Syria, leaving the U.S. without a clear legal basis to act. Russia, meanwhile, has beefed up its capabilities in Syria with state-of-the-art S-300 missile defense systems, while warning it could fire back if Assad’s assets come under U.S. attack.

Russia launched its campaign in Syria last year to help Assad’s forces fight the opposition. The U.S. and its partners are only targeting the Islamic State group and other extremists in the country.

Even with diplomatic talks ended, Russia and the U.S. are maintaining -to- “de-confliction” contacts to prevent an accidental confrontation in Syria’s crowded skies. But Russia’s warned ominously this week that it wouldn’t have enough time to use the “hotline” before shooting back.

“Both parties will try to avoid any sort of escalation that may entail unpredictable consequences, but various things may happen,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of Council for Foreign and Policies, an association of top Russian political experts. “The risks are high, especially now when mutual aversion is strong.”

In sanctions, too, the U.S. sees potential drawbacks.

The U.S. had blamed Moscow of being either unable or unwilling to persuade Assad to abide by the most recent cease-fire. But it is holding out hope that Moscow has a change of heart — perhaps in response to sanctions.

The White House and State Department had argued to Congress that new sanctions legislation could undermine efforts with Russians to forge a cease-fire between Assad and rebel groups. Lawmakers responded last month by canceling a vote on a bipartisan bill requiring Obama to impose sanctions on anyone who does business with Syria’s government or central bank, its aviation industry or energy sector.

While the Russia talks have collapsed, the administration maintains concerns about the sanctions might also hurt Iran, another Assad supporter, giving Tehran an excuse to renege on the U.S.-brokered nuclear deal. The administration also demanded that lawmakers strip out mandatory requirements so that Obama can waive sanctions at his discretion, congressional aides said.

The U.S. already has legal authority to target Russian entities over support for Syria, but there have been no Russia sanctions to date for its actions in Syria. The White House has argued that because the U.S. does little trade withRussia, U.S. sanctions would be ineffective unless European countries join.

The administration also has long considered allowing Saudi Arabia and other Assad opponents to arm the Syrian opposition with more sophisticated weaponry. But there’s widespread concern about weapons reaching extremists, given intermingling across Syria’s battlefields by various groups fighting Assad.

That leaves renewed diplomacy, through the U.N. or the 20-nation International Syria Support Group, as the most probable focus. Both formats include Russia.

AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington and Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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