A Humanitarian Intervention in the West Wing
The State Department's Syria dissenters realize it’s time to plan for a post-Obama Middle East.
The decision of 51 State Department officials to sign a document dissenting from President Barack Obama’s Syria policy elevates perspective over distortion. These officials resuscitated the artificially depressed reputation of the United States in the eyes of despairing and disgusted Syrians, their neighbors, and American allies in Europe. They killed the White House pretense that critics of the administration’s Syria policy are partisan politicians, war-mongering neoconservatives, and clueless think tankers. Although their dissent will not likely alter the Obama administration’s failed policy over its final six months, it’s a meaningful gesture that might help to restore U.S. honor.
Those who signed the document exhibited courage and character. Secretary of State John Kerry and his media spokesman have forthrightly defended those who dissented in the right way in the proper channel. Still, by speaking out, these diplomats knowingly put their careers on the line. When the document and the names of its authors become public — as they inevitably will — those who felt morally compelled to dissent will be subjected to all manner of abuse and harassment by back-shooters lurking anonymously in the digital world and, more quietly, in the corridors of the government. One can only hope the White House will not count among those questioning their motives and qualifications.
Because the dissenters have offered their president a much-needed opportunity to rethink his approach to a problem from hell. The essence of the administration strategy to date has been to divide, artificially and ineffectively, the problem of Syria in two: an Islamic State half, and a Bashar al-Assad half. The former has been harassed with coalition air attacks and ground operations by a Kurdish militia. The latter has been left free to conduct an unlimited campaign of civilian eradication, one that has benefited the Islamic State incalculably in terms of local and worldwide recruitment while creating a humanitarian catastrophe and a migrant crisis. Assad and the Islamic State are inescapably two sides of the same coin, one purchasing the destruction of Syria and the dispersal of its people.
Obama has vowed to degrade and destroy the Islamic State. His director of central intelligence, John Brennan, just told Congress that this is not going so well. How can it — at least in Syria — with Assad piling onto his own citizenry endless war crimes and crimes against humanity? Since late September 2015, Russia has joined the regime and Iran in both facilitating and committing crimes against civilians. Moscow, incidentally, loses no sleep over Syrians emptying into Turkey and Western Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys and promotes the resulting nativist, populist drift of European (and American) politics.
None of the foregoing is disputed by the administration. Barely a day goes by without some senior American official or spokesperson condemning a civilian-centric military campaign by the Assad regime supported by Russia and Iran, one that guts the Geneva peace process on which Obama has bet everything. But the likelihood of peaceful political transition for Syria and the protection of its civilians (two issues that are inextricably linked) have been left entirely at the disposal and discretion of three parties: Assad, Iran, and Russia. Kerry earnestly implores these parties to show mercy. He may as well speak to a mirror. His boss has given him nothing beyond a smile and a shoeshine with which to work.
It would be reasonable to conclude that Obama has reluctantly accepted mass murder in Syria as a cost of doing nuclear business with Iran. No doubt he hates it. No doubt he wants it to stop. But to push back against Assad — to take limited military steps to make his attempts at mass murder slightly more difficult — risks angering Tehran and perhaps causing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to abandon the nuclear agreement. Indeed, while the agreement was being negotiated the president assured his Iranian counterpart in writing that Tehran’s murderous client — a person who has put Syria at the service of Iran’s Hezbollah militia in Lebanon while breathing oxygen into the lungs of the Islamic State — would not be attacked as the United States chased the Islamic State in eastern Syria.
No doubt resisting mass murder in Syria would offend Iran. Would it be enough to cause Tehran to renounce the nuclear agreement and the economic benefits connected thereto? My assessment is probably not, although the risk is not zero. Preserving the ability of Hezbollah to menace Israel and imprison Lebanon is of paramount importance to Tehran. Iran knows that Assad is essential to its grand strategy: Even Syrian army officers reportedly cringe at their country’s subordination to foreigners, and surely Syria’s humiliation would not last long in a post-Assad era. Khamenei has had no problem pursuing policies and practices in Syria that undermine the fight against the Islamic State and threaten America’s regional partners, even as he authorized closure on the nuclear agreement. It is Washington that has been unable to walk and chew gum simultaneously, with millions of people paying the price.
All of this requires urgent review by the U.S. government. The State Department dissenters have proposed a specific military methodology with cruise missiles to make it hard for the Assad regime to kill on an industrial scale where and when it wants. Although such action might well complicate and frustrate some aspects of civilian slaughter, the real center of gravity in this matter lies with the intent and leadership of the American commander in chief. If he decides that U.S. passivity in the face of a monumental massacre causing lethal political fallout is no longer sustainable, he must make clear his desires to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and demand from the Pentagon a range of options aimed at making it hard for Assad to do his worst. It might be that cruise missiles aimed at Syrian military aircraft bases would top the list. But this is a matter for military professionals to sort out and for the president to decide.
There are, to be sure, risks associated with changing course and protecting civilians — at least some of them — from mass homicide. These risks cannot be swept under the carpet. Yet neither can the risks associated with leaving 100 percent of leverage in the hands of mass murderers — Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime — be ignored. The progressive emptying of Syria caused by the symbiotic Assad-Islamic State relationship cannot be permanently contained by Turkey and other neighbors of Syria. And as long as civilians are on the bull’s-eye the prospects for diplomacy and political compromise are zero.
Fifty-one State Department officials who have loyally helped to implement a dysfunctional White House policy have finally said, “Enough.” Even if Obama is content to bequeath to his successor a humanitarian abomination and geopolitical catastrophe, these officials have placed before the world the proposition that the United States can and ultimately will do its duty. They have rendered a powerful service. They deserve the thanks of the nation.
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