On Thursday, The New York Times obtained a draft version of a State Department memo that sharply criticizes the Obama administration’s Syria policy and calls for limited military strikes against that country’s government. The memo, signed by 51 diplomats, was sent through an agency “dissent channel” that was established during the Vietnam War to air internal criticism.
Because the memo is written by and for government officials, its language can be difficult to parse. What follows is an annotation of 10 key lines, many of which were marked SBU, for “sensitive but unclassified” (U is unclassified).
Discussion of the memo has focused on the dissenters’ indictment of their own leader’s policy. Many of their points have been debated inside the administration for years, and there are complicated arguments on both sides.
While their proposed solution excludes some significant points, there is a core truth in this document: Current policy has little answer for how to break out of a status quo that is disastrous and steadily getting worse.
An internal fight becomes public
SUBJECT: (U) Dissent Channel: Syria Policy
1. (U) The following is a Dissent Channel message from the abovementioned Department officers to the Director of Policy Planning (S/P).
2. (SBU) We are State Department officers who have been involved in the U.S. government’s response to the Syria crisis in varying capacities over the past five years. Despite the Secretary’s efforts to deescalate the violence and forge ahead with the political track, we believe that achieving our objectives will continue to elude us if we do not include the use of military force as an option to enforce the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) and compel the Syrian regime to abide by its terms as well as to negotiate a political solution in good faith.
State Department officials have been pushing for years for a limited military intervention in Syria along these lines. The Central Intelligence Agency joined the department in backing airstrikes in internal administration discussions in 2012 and 2013; the Pentagon and National Security Council were opposed.
President Obama has decisively ruled out such strikes, in part out of concern for the absence of popular support for American involvement in another war in the Middle East. But the fighting — and its devastating humanitarian toll — has ground on and in some cases expanded, so the rationale for deploying United States military power has, in the eyes of the dissenters, grown only more urgent.
A case for airstrikes
3. (SBU) Asad’s systemic violations against the Syrian people are the root cause of the instability that continues to grip Syria and the broader region. None of us sees, or has seen, merit in a large-scale U.S. invasion of Syria or the sudden collapse of Syrian institutions. But we do see merit in a more militarily assertive U.S. role in Syria, based on the judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hardnose U.S.-led diplomatic process, leveraging the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG), to: end the daily mass killing of civilians and egregious violations of human rights, cajole the warring parties to make necessary compromises at the negotiating table, bolster moderate rebel groups’ role in defeating Da’esh, and help bring an end to the broader instability the conflict generates.
“Stand-off weapons” are things like cruise missiles launched from far enough away that Syria could not retaliate. The dissenters’ stated goal of using them, along with airstrikes, is not to topple President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, but to pressure him toward a peace deal.
Proponents of such a plan often cite the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, which helped push that country’s leaders to reach a diplomatic agreement over the conflict in Kosovo. Some say that parallel is flawed because of the active involvement of Russia and Iran in this war, suggesting that those countries might escalate their activity in support of Syrian forces to counterbalance any American strikes. (The memo here also refers to Daesh, an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.)
Moral imperative or ‘do-somethingism’?
4. (SBU) With over 400,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands still at risk from regime sieges, and 12 million people from a population of 23 million displaced from their homes, we believe the moral rationale for taking steps to end the deaths and suffering in Syria, after five years of brutal war, is evident and unquestionable. The regime’s actions directly result in broader instability and undermine the international system responsible for protection of civilians, prevention of mass atrocities, and accountability for grave violations. The strategic imperatives for taking steps to end the bloodshed are numerous and equally compelling.
This line indicates both why these diplomats are speaking up and why their dissent is being met with skepticism. Because the White House has chosen to emphasize diplomacy, the State Department is being asked to pursue a strategy it does not fully support. Citing the war’s toll is a way for the diplomats to express their frustration with that arrangement. It is also a way to draw attention to the costs of allowing the status quo to continue.
However, opponents of intervention argue that just because the status quo is bad does not mean that bombing Syrian government forces would improve things. Some accuse State Department officials like these dissenters of “do-somethingism”: a reasoning that the situation is so awful that something must be done, and airstrikes are something, therefore airstrikes are a good policy.
Forcing a stalemate
5. (SBU) First, with the regime deploying tactics that overwhelmingly target civilians (barrel bombs and air strikes in cities) to achieve battlefield objectives and undermine support for the moderate opposition, impeding or ending such atrocities will not only save lives but further our political objectives. While the regime maintains the advantage, an undeterred Asad will resist compromises sought by almost all opposition factions and regional actors. Shifting the tide of the conflict against the regime will increase the chances for peace by sending a clear signal to the regime and its backers that there will not be a military solution to the conflict.
This statement argues that airstrikes will entrench Syria in an unsolvable stalemate, thereby giving the Syrian leader no choice but to negotiate.
The latest peace efforts have gone nowhere at a time when Mr. Assad, backed by Russian forces, is winning on the battlefield. If Mr. Obama wants to negotiate an end to the conflict, the dissenters say, the United States and its allies have to show a willingness to match Russian muscle and give Mr. Assad a clear signal that he cannot win a meaningful victory solely on the ground.
This approach risks worsening the war’s toll in the short term, and there is no guarantee that the United States could break the Syrian president’s will soon. But the memo highlights the fact that Russia’s expanded military involvement changed the status quo, and the United States has not found a way to change it back, leaving the administration with less leverage.
Striking Assad to defeat ISIS
6. (SBU) Secondly, a more assertive U.S. role to protect and preserve opposition-held communities, by defending them from Asad’s air force and artillery, presents the best chance for defeating Da’esh in Syria. The prospects for rolling back Da’esh’s hold on territory are bleak without the Sunni Arabs, who the regime continues to bomb and starve. A de facto alliance with the regime against Da’esh would not guarantee success: Asad’s military is undermanned and exhausted. Kurdish YPG fighters cannot — and should not — be expected to project power and hold terrain deep into non-Kurdish areas. And, crucially, Syria’s Sunni population continues to view the Asad regime as the primary enemy in the conflict. If we are to remain committed to countering Da’esh in the Levant without committing ground forces, the best option is to protect and empower the moderate Syrian opposition. Tolerating the Asad regime’s gross human rights violations against the Syrian people undermines, both morally and materially, the unity of the anti-Da’esh coalition, particularly among Sunni Arab partners. Failure to stem Asad’s flagrant abuses will only bolster the ideological appeal of groups such as Da’esh, even as they endure tactical setbacks on the battlefield. As brutal as Da’esh is, it is the Asad regime that is responsible for the vast majority of the thousands of victims in this conflict.
Airstrikes against Syrian government forces, the memo argues, would also help defeat the Islamic State. Most analysts agree that Mr. Assad’s abuses and the Syrian civil war have both fueled the Islamic State’s rise, as the memo says.
But while these dissenting diplomats argue that a peace deal would allow Syria’s government and Syrian rebels to join together to fight the Islamic State, others worry that rebels — including the Kurdish YPG, or People’s Protection Units — would turn against one another to fight for power. This happened in Afghanistan in 1992, when rebels who had defeated the government began a yearslong civil war among themselves, and likewise in Libya in 2011.
An optimistic case for a no-fly zone
7. (SBU) Third, putting additional constraints on the regime’s ability to bomb and shell both fighting forces and the unambiguously civilian targets would have a direct, mitigating impact on the refugee and IDP crisis. This crisis has deeply affected Syria’s neighbors for years and is now impacting our European partners in far-reaching ways that may ultimately jeopardize their very character as open, unified, and democratic societies. Even in the United States, the crisis in Syria has lent credence to prejudiced ideologies that we thought had been discredited years ago. Furthermore, the calm that would ensue after the regime’s warplanes are grounded would lessen the importance of armed actors, strengthen civil society throughout the country, and open the space for increased dialogue among communities.
The memo suggests that, were the United States to impose a no-fly zone over Syria, the fighting would cool — and that this, in turn, would lessen the suffering of Syrians (including refugees and I.D.P., or internally displaced persons) and open more space for peace talks.
This is an ambitious prediction. Research by Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations found that airstrikes account for only a fraction of deaths in Syria. Mr. Zenko also found that no-fly zones tend to escalate wars rather than calm them.
Syria would be particularly tricky, given that many airstrikes are carried out by Russian rather than Syrian warplanes. The memo does not address whether a no-fly zone would apply to Russia or how Washington could enforce it without risking a major conflict.
Gaining some leverage
8. (SBU) Perhaps most critically, a more muscular military posture under U.S. leadership would underpin and propel a new and reinvigorated diplomatic initiative. Despite the dedication and best efforts of those involved, current CoH and related diplomatic processes are disjointed and largely tactical in nature. Instead, a singularly focused and disciplined diplomatic effort — modeled on the process established for the Iran negotiations strategy led by the Secretary [of State, John Kerry,] and former Under Secretary [Wendy] Sherman with full White House backing — should be adopted to (i) ensure regime compliance with the CoH (or a similar ceasefire mechanism) and prevent civilian casualties, and (ii) advance talks involved internal and external actors, to include the Iranians and Saudis, to produce a transitional government.
This makes two sharp points about why Syria peace talks never seem to go anywhere. First, the United States has little leverage to force Syria to make concessions or keep its promises. Second, negotiations have involved several countries and groups, each with its own agenda. The Obama administration has been unable to address either of these factors.
The memo contrasts this with the Iran nuclear deal, which worked in part because the United States imposed economic sanctions and also because talks were streamlined between two sides, with Iran on one and the United States mostly leading the other.
This is an important critique of the president’s choice of diplomacy over intervention: It is difficult to see any path for peace talks unless Washington finds a way to assert far greater leverage. The United States missed a window to assert such leverage earlier in the conflict because of internal foot-dragging and a mistaken White House conclusion, in 2012, that Mr. Assad was about to fall without being further pushed.
Putting America at the center of negotiations
9. (SBU) U.S. military power would serve to promote regime compliance with the CoH, and in so doing save lives and alter battlefield dynamics. The May 17 IISG [International Syria Support Group] declaration states, “Where the co-chairs believe that a party to the cessation of hostilities has engaged in a pattern of persistent non-compliance, the Task Force could refer such behavior to the ISSG Ministers or those designated by the Ministers to determine appropriate action, including the exclusion of such parties from the arrangements of the cessation and the protection it affords them.” Making clear our willingness to impose consequences on the Asad regime would increase U.S. negotiating leverage with regard to all parties, rally partners around U.S. leadership, and raise the costs for others to continue obstructing a sustainable end to the conflict. We are not advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia; rather, we are calling for the credible threat of targeted U.S. military response to regime violations to preserve the CoH and the political track, which we worked so hard to build.
Airstrikes, the memo argues, could be the leverage the United States needs to commandeer the negotiations and force Syria to compromise. This intervention would need to be forceful enough to overpower not only Mr. Assad, but also his Russian and Iranian backers, who have so far shown a willingness to escalate their involvement to keep their ally in power. The only way for the Obama administration to out-leverage Syria’s allies is to surpass their commitments, which at this point could require something as extreme as a ground invasion.
What is left out
10. (SBU) We recognize that military action is not a panacea, and that the Asad regime might prove resilient even in the face of U.S. strikes. We further recognize that the risk of further deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations is significant and that military steps to stop the Asad regime’s relentless bombardment of the Syrian people may yield a number of second-order effects. Nonetheless, it is also clear that the status quo in Syria will continue to present increasingly dire, if not disastrous, humanitarian, diplomatic, and terrorism-related challenges. For five years, the scale of these consequences has overwhelmed our efforts to deal with this conflict; the United States cannot contain the conflict with the current policy. In this regard, we firmly believe it is time for the United States, guided by our strategic interests and moral convictions, lead a global effort to put an end to this conflict once and for all.
The most revealing aspect of this memo is what it excludes. It does not address how to resolve the deep disagreements even among allies about what a peace deal should look like. It does not offer a legal basis for war against Syria, which Russia would surely block at the United Nations. It does not say how to remove Mr. Assad without letting the Syrian government collapse.
The memo is as much about registering frustration, even outrage, with the current policy as it is about offering a detailed alternative. In that sense, it is also as revealing about matters internal to Washington — questions of blame and responsibility — as it is about the prospects for ending Syria’s nightmare.
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