- By David FrancisDavid Francis is a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covers international finance. An award-winning journalist, David has reported from all over Europe, Nigeria, Kenya, Mexico, and Afghanistan on terrorism, national security, the geopolitics of energy, global economics, and the European financial crisis. His work has been published in outlets including the Christian Science Monitor, the Financial Times Deutschland, Slate, and SportsIllustrated.com.
Over at the State Department’s official “DipNote” blog, John Kirby, the spokesperson for the department, is heralding Foggy Bottom’s 2015 accomplishments with the hashtag, #2015in5Words. In some cases, it’s a bit that works: For instance, the blog appropriately marks the thaw in relations with Cuba with, “Diplomatic Relations Re-established With Cuba.” However, in the case of Syria, the five words State used to describe the past year seem at the very least inappropriate and at the worst delusional.
The Syrian entry, dated Christmas eve, is entitled, “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria.” Kirby’s entry notes that the conflict there “has continued to unfold in tragic ways over the course of 2015,” including the humanitarian crisis forcing refugees to flee the Syrian civil war, and human rights violations by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Kirby continues, “The United States and many members of the international community have stepped up to aid the Syrian people during their time of need,” and argued that Secretary of State John Kerry is leading the push to get Assad out of office, and pressed the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution designed to begin the political transition from the Syrian strongman.
On the one hand, it’s understandable that State would note Syria in its 2015 roundup. The war there dominated headlines throughout the year, and leaving it off the list could draw more attention than actually including it.
On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that the United States brought any significant “peace” or “security” to the Syrian people. According to the United Nations, as of October 2015 some 250,000 people have been killed in more than four years of civil war (casualty figures for 2015 alone are not yet available). More than 11 million refugees have left the region, many of whom swelled onto European shores in the fall of 2015; it’s not clear how many will ever get asylum in Europe, or elsewhere around the world, including in the United States. A March 2015 UN report also noted that four in five Syrians are now living in poverty.
The Barack Obama administration, meanwhile, has struggled to keep pace with the rapidly deteriorating situation there. After spending years prioritizing Assad’s departure, Washington has now hinted that he could stay in power longer to aid in the fight against the Islamic State. The White House has also reluctantly found itself battling the Islamic State alongside Russia and Iran, staunch Assad supporters whose ultimate goals in Syria are unlikely to match those of the United States. After long promising there would be no American boots on the ground in Syria, meanwhile, President Obama signed off on the deployment of dozens of U.S. Special Operations personnel there. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the commandos are active in northern Syria, and are focused on building an anti-Islamic State partnership with Syrian Arab rebels.
Diplomats are ever careful in the language they use to describe international affairs. When it comes to Syria, “peace” and “security” might not be the best choice to describe what the United States delivered there in 2015. With Russia now complicating U.S. war plans for the region, it might be a long time coming until those two things can be established in a nation destroyed by years of war.
Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images
Correction, Dec. 28, 2015: A previous version of this article mistakenly said the State Department brought “stability,” not “security,” to Syria in 2015.