State Department spokesman John Kirby indicated Wednesday there will be no immediate consequences for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad violating the cessation of hostilities agreement in Syria, saying the United States is instead gathering more information on the violations to create a database while pushing for a political solution to the ongoing civil war there.
Kirby acknowledged at the State Department daily press briefing that Assad, with help from the Russian military, has broken the spirit and intent of the cessation of hostilities by denying humanitarian access to civilians and continuing to conduct military offensives to expand the Syrian regime’s territory.
"We continue to be concerned about what is a worrisome trend in humanitarian access; it’s not going in the right direction," Kirby told reporters. "We continue to urge the [Assad] regime to allow unfettered and sustained humanitarian access, which it hasn’t been doing, and we continue to press that case with Russian counterparts because they have influence over the Assad regime."
"So do you regard that [as] a violation of the spirit if not the letter of the cessation of hostilities?" asked Matt Lee, a reporter for the Associated Press.
"Sure, I think it’s fair to say the constant, continued withholding or impeding by the regime of humanitarian access is, in fact, violating both the intent and the spirit of the agreement," Kirby responded.
Lee then asked if the State Department also regards the ongoing Assad regime offensive into the northern city of Aleppo as a violation of the agreement.
"To the degree that they are targeting and going after opposition groups or civilians, absolutely," Kirby said.
Lee then asked what the consequences are for these violations, to which Kirby said the main repercussion is that it keeps a political solution to the conflict out of reach.
Kirby added that the U.S. will continue to collect information on the Syrian regime’s violations of the cessation, acknowledging Assad is breaking the agreement throughout Syria and not just in Aleppo.
"We‘re continuing to work through the task force to collect the information and the data to analyze it, to create a record here, and, at the same time, doing everything we can to press … the Russians to use their influence to try to get Assad to stop this activity," Kirby said.
Russia has helped the Syrian army gain back territory with airstrikes, which have mainly targeted the non-jihadist Syrian opposition, much of which the U.S. supports, as well as civilians since intervening in Syria last September to prop up Assad’s weakening hold on power.
"So the consequence then is that you get written down in a book someplace?" Lee asked Kirby. "Is the plan somehow to prosecute or to go after those at some point who violate the cessation of hostilities. Because otherwise, what is the incentive [for Assad to stop]?"
"There could be ramifications down the road," Kirby responded. "Right now, we’re focused on monitoring and assessing these violations and keeping an accurate record." He also repeated that there are continued efforts to influence the Syrian regime and Russia to change their behavior.
"I"m not going to rule anything out at this point about other methods or measures of accountability, which may occur in the future," Kirby added.
Lee continued to push Kirby on the question, asking, "I just don’t understand; how do you expect to convince people to respect the cessation of hostilities when there is no consequence for doing it?"
Kirby did not directly answer the question but said the cessation of hostilities is still mostly holding, and the level of violence in Syria is down, but he acknowledged there have been violations throughout the country.
"This is a cessation of hostilities in name only; the hostilities haven’t ceased!" Lee exclaimed.
"No, I would disagree with that," Kirby responded.
Critics of the Obama administration’s approach to Syria say their focus on forging a diplomatic outcome to the Syrian civil war is flawed because they are unwilling to impose costs on Assad or Russia for continuing to launch attacks and reclaim territory. They argue the regime is changing facts on the ground to give it leverage in the ongoing diplomatic efforts, giving them no reason to negotiate in good faith with Washington.
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have said a diplomatic effort to lead to a political transition in Syria is the only way to to resolve the conflict, arguing against greater military involvement.
The five-year-old conflict has thus far claimed approximately half a million lives and driven millions more from their homes, mainly at the hands of the Assad regime.