More than 50 State Department diplomats signed a dissent memo recently that blasted US policy on Syria, but a former ambassador to the country cautioned Monday that there are no easy options left to end the civil war that has dragged on for five years.
The memo, obtained by The New York Times last week, called for increased use of “military force” to enforce a ceasefire between the Syrian regime and the opposition, in the hopes that it would lead to a political solution.
But ramping up US military action in Syria could come with its own set of problems.
“I just wouldn’t go first to the US military,” Robert Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who was the US ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, told Business Insider. “I’d like to see if we can’t get the Syrians themselves to put the pressure on the Assad government.”
The Syrian civil war started in 2011 as an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Since then, extremist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra have taken control of large swaths of the country.
The US has been aiding rebels who are fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda, but so far the Obama administration has been more reluctant to militarily challenge Assad directly.
The dissent memo stated that “initiating targeted military strikes in response to egregious regime violations” of the ceasefire “would raise the cost for the regime and bolster the prospects for a real ceasefire.”
But it could also escalate tensions between the US and Russia, which is intervening in the Syrian civil war to support the Assad regime.
“If we start undertaking US military actions against the Syrian government, the Russians will counter-escalate and it spirals up,” Ford said. “That sometimes can be hard to control. So military action is not my first choice.”
The memo addresses this somewhat.
“We are not advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia,” the memo stated. “Rather, we are calling for the credible threat of targeted US military responses to regime violations to preserve the [ceasefire] and the political track, which we worked so hard to build.”
President Barack Obama famously backed away from his “red line” in Syria in 2012 when he declined to strike the Assad regime despite evidence that the regime had used chemical weapons against civilians. Obama had previously said Assad using chemical weapons would provoke a response from the US military, but he ultimately allowed the regime to cut a deal brokered by Russia to avoid US airstrikes.
But Assad’s atrocities against civilians continued.
Assad’s brutality has led some to question whether he’d be willing to negotiate with the opposition he’s spent years trying to crush.
Ford still thinks it’s a preferable alternative to more military intervention.
“Some very good analysts … have told me that I’m nuts thinking Bashar al-Assad will ever negotiate,” Ford said. “And they may be right. It is a tough, tough, regime.”
He also warned that getting too deeply involved in Syria militarily could lead to another Iraq.
“I spent so long in Iraq trying to get the US military out of Iraq and to turn the problems in Iraqi over to Iraqis,” Ford said. “I don’t want to see the US military substituting for actions that should be undertaken by Syrians.”
Ultimately, the US is short on good options.
“There is no quick fix,” Ford said. “There is no surefire solution. Everything we think about doing going forward has potential downsides. And we just have to live with that. There’s no risk-free, cost-free way forward in Syria.”
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