Report

Diplomats’ Dissent Bolsters Calls for U.S. Assault on Assad

A leaked memo reflects deep frustration inside the State Department over Obama’s Syria policy. Will the next president be more open to military action against Assad?

Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karm al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014. The United States has begun reconnaissance flights over Syria and is sharing intelligence about jihadist deployments with Damascus through Iraqi and Russian channels, sources told AFP.   AFP PHOTO/AMC/ZEIN AL-RIFAI        (Photo credit should read ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karm al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014. The United States has begun reconnaissance flights over Syria and is sharing intelligence about jihadist deployments with Damascus through Iraqi and Russian channels, sources told AFP. AFP PHOTO/AMC/ZEIN AL-RIFAI (Photo credit should read ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)

Long-festering discontent inside the State Department over the White House’s Syria policy finally boiled over in a leaked memo signed by 51 officials calling for military strikes against Damascus. U.S. officials said the dissent of midlevel diplomats was unlikely to sway the White House, but the blistering missive could lay the groundwork for the next president to take a more hawkish approach to the 5-year-old civil war.

For the past several years, the Obama administration has tried to avoid directly intervening in the conflict by either using force against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad or dramatically ramping up aid to the moderate rebels working to unseat him. The White House has justified the inaction by pointing to the disarray among the Syrian opposition, fears that U.S. weapons would wind up in the hands of the Islamic State, and questions about what punitive strikes on the Syrian government would actually achieve.

During her time as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was a vocal advocate for arming the rebels. Now, as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Clinton has advocated a much more aggressive response to Assad that would include the creation of a no-fly zone in northern Syria to shield civilians from the Damascus regime.

The widely publicized leak of the “dissent channel cable,” which presses for the use of “standoff” weapons to force Assad to make concessions in peace talks, could provide ammunition for her case inside and outside Washington.

As the top U.S. diplomat during President Barack Obama’s first term, Clinton and the rest of Obama’s war cabinet favored arming the rebels while they had a battlefield advantage over Assad. Obama rejected the idea in 2012 and it was only taken up again two years later with the emergence of the Islamic State. Today, the United States has 50 Special Operations forces on the ground and plans to deploy an additional 250 troops, while weighing the provision of more powerful arms to rebel forces beyond the anti-tank weapons and small arms already given to opposition fighters.

As a candidate, Clinton has embraced the bulk of Obama’s legacy while subtly distancing herself from his Syrian policy. “Nobody stood up to Assad and removed him,” she said in a televised April debate when asked about the war-torn country.

On the campaign trail, she has repeatedly urged creating a no-fly zone in northern Syria to protect civilians against regime air power and barrel bombs, though she has offered few details on what she has in mind or how she would avoid potential dangers like the downing of an American plane over Islamic State-held territory or an altercation between U.S. and Russian aircraft.

In potential fodder for Clinton’s stance, the memo argues for expanding support for opposition fighters, saying a stronger rebel force would turn “the tide of the conflict against the regime” and “increase the chances for peace by sending a clear signal to the regime and its backers that there will be no military solution to the conflict.” The existence of the memo was first reported by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

It’s unclear if presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, a proud Washington outsider, would take heed of a memo drafted by bureaucrats deep within the bowels of the State Department. But the real estate tycoon’s Syria policy, such as it is, has emphasized collaboration with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to defeat the Islamic State. Trump has also hinted that he would be ready to accept Assad’s staying in power rather than pursue the riskier and costlier goal of unseating him.

In a speech Monday, Trump specifically said the United States shouldn’t push for regime change in Syria. “No more nation-building. It’s never going to work,” he said.

For now, the Obama administration seems inclined to agree. A U.S. official who did not sign the memo but read it told Foreign Policy that the document was unlikely to influence Oval Office policy due to the relatively low rank of the signatories. None of the officials have reached the level of assistant secretary and some are not directly involved in Syria issues on a daily basis — though the list does include the consul general in Istanbul and a Syria desk officer.

The Obama administration has also repeatedly made clear that it believes strikes would merely add to the bloodshed without improving the political situation on the ground, while potentially getting ensnared in a decades-long conflict. Despite stinging criticisms from Arab and European allies, Obama has expressed no regrets about his handling of Syria in public comments and there was no sign Friday that the White House was ready to radically alter its strategy or tactics.

In a briefing with reporters on Air Force One, White House Deputy Secretary Jennifer Friedman said Obama “has been clear and continues to be clear that he doesn’t see a military solution to the crisis in Syria.”

“That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be discussions or a variety of conversations and a variety of opinions,” she added, “but that fundamental principle still remains.”

Still, Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Syria who resigned in protest over White House policy, said the dissent shows that “there’s a very broad consensus among working-level people that are trying to address different pieces of the Syria crisis that … the policy is not succeeding and will not succeed, and that the administration needs to change course.” He noted that it is “remarkable” to see 51 signatures on a cable that rarely gets more than four.

The memo is also a vivid reminder that Secretary of State John Kerry and the diplomats who work for him have consistently pushed for a more militaristic approach to the conflict than their colleagues at the Pentagon. During closed-door meetings in the past year and a half, Kerry has repeatedly pushed Obama to launch airstrikes at Syrian government targets — calls the White House rejected. His pleas were so routine that Obama reportedly announced at a National Security Council meeting last December that only the defense secretary would be allowed to offer proposals for military strikes.

Obama and Kerry clashed in 2013 when the president pulled back at the last moment from threatened military strikes against the Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons, even though Obama had declared a “red line” over the issue. Kerry’s aides were miffed because the secretary of state just a few days earlier had given a muscular speech virtually promising a military response to Assad’s use of the weapons.

The protest memo appeared aimed not at the secretary of state but at the president and his aides who have remained steadfastly opposed to any direct confrontation with the Assad regime.

“The White House will make the final decision, but this looks to me like a complaint not about John Kerry’s approach but a complaint to John Kerry about the approach,” Ford said.

In part, administration officials fear that strikes on Assad would put the United States on a collision course with Russia, which is deeply entrenched in Syria, providing training, equipment, advice, and airstrikes for the regime. On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “calls for the violent overthrow of authorities in another country are unlikely to be accepted in Moscow.”

“The liquidation of this or some other regime is hardly what is needed to aid the successful continuation of the battle against terrorism,” Peskov said. “Such a move is capable of plunging the region into complete chaos.”

The cable argues that only limited military action — and ramped-up support for opposition rebels — can ensure sufficient pressure on the Assad regime to persuade it to pursue a political settlement. Since Iran expanded its military support of Damascus and Russia began carrying out bombing raids in support of the regime last year, the Syrian regime has regained some ground on the battlefield against opposition forces — giving it little incentive to cut a deal at the negotiating table. Assad also has struck a more confident tone in his rhetoric, vowing this month to take back “every inch” of the country.

For months, the United States and other Western powers have tried to establish a cease-fire in Syria between the rebels and Damascus, but the Assad regime, bolstered by Russian air power, has repeatedly violated the truce. The authors of the dissent cable argue that imposing a military cost on the Assad regime would help enforce the cease-fire and improve the prospects for the beleaguered U.N.-brokered peace talks.

The cable was transmitted through the State Department’s “dissent channel,” a conduit for diplomats to vent grievances and provide alternative viewpoints without reprisal. Established in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, the channel was designed to give rank-and-file officials a chance to express dissent to senior leadership.

Over the years, the channel’s relevance has ebbed and flowed.

The dissent over Syria resembles internal protests in the State Department in the 1990s, when a number of midlevel diplomats resigned in protest over Washington’s decision not to intervene in the war in the former Yugoslavia. In that case, officials grew disillusioned with then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher, accusing of him of passivity in the face of a genocidal campaign against Bosnia’s Muslim population. President Bill Clinton eventually opted for military action in 1995.

The union that represents U.S. diplomats — the American Foreign Service Association — has long prized the dissent channel as a means of cutting through bureaucracy. On Friday, AFSA President Barbara Stephenson said she was pleased that the channel “has, once again, become a vehicle for the thoughtful professionals of the State Department to take a principled stand on a vitally important foreign policy issue.”

“We applaud the individuals who had the intellectual courage to express their dissent,” she told FP.

FP‘s Molly O’Toole contributed to this report.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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