A dissent cable signed by 51 mid- to high-level State Department officials calling for US airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad is unlikely to spur a military incursion into Syria in President Barack Obama’s last months in office.
As The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe pointed out, “few things frustrate President Obama more than what he calls the ‘Washington playbook’ — a view that US military firepower is the solution to most of the toughest foreign policy problems.”
Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, made that point clear in a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine. He referred to Washington’s foreign-policy establishment “the blob” and described the lengths to which the administration has gone to circumvent the beltway’s agenda.
But some experts say the cable, which the White House says Obama has not read, will at least show Syrians and US allies in the Middle East that many in the administration are deeply unhappy with Obama’s Syria policy — and that they will advocate for a new approach once he leaves office.
“I think it’s useful in terms of telling Syrians, their neighbours, the regime and its supporters that there are indeed American officials who care deeply about the humanitarian abomination that’s taken place and want to do something about it,” Fred Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department, told Business Insider in an email.
“That said, I doubt it will have any effect at all on President Obama and his White House entourage,” he added.
Most analysts agree that the cable will have no effect on Obama’s current policy, which is focused on defeating the Islamic State in Syria via a US-backed coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The CIA has operated a separate train-and-equip program that supports anti-Assad rebel groups largely associated with the Free Syrian Army, but those factions have at times clashed with the Pentagon-trained SDF fighters. Their divergent military objectives and ethnicities have bred mistrust and fighting that is ultimately counterproductive to the cause of the revolution.
Still, “what these 51 signatories have done is spoken truth to power,” Richard Haass, the former director of policy planning for the State Department and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the Financial Times.
He continued: “And even if what they have to say is rejected now, it might be welcomed by the next occupant of the White House — especially if it were to be Hillary Clinton, who, as secretary of state, showed considerable willingness to use military force in pursuit of US foreign policy aims.”
Clinton, the former secretary of state and the presumptive 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, has said that she would support the implementation of a no-fly zone inside Syria.
“I personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air, to try to provide some way to take stock of what’s happening, to try to stem the flow of refugees,” Clinton said last October.
The cable also reportedly echoed echo Secretary of State John Kerry’s position on how the US’ Syria policy should look, as well as his frustration with Obama’s unwillingness to act more forcefully against Assad.
The cable does not specifically mention a no-fly zone. But it calls for “a more assertive US role to protect and preserve opposition-held communities, by defending them from Assad’s air force and artillery.” It also calls for “targeted military strikes in response to egregious regime violations of the Cessation of Hostilities.”
That cessation, brokered by the US and Russia at the end of February, has been violated repeatedly by both the government and the rebels — Assad loyalists with airstrikes, and rebels with shelling — and is crumbling as peace talks falter in Geneva.
“With the repeated diplomatic setbacks of the past five years, together with the Russian and Iranian governments’ cynical and destabilizing deployment of significant military power to bolster the Assad regime, we believe that the foundations are not currently in place for an enduring ceasefire and consequential negotiations,” the cable read.
Regardless of whether those foundations are ultimately established with US military intervention, however, the dissenters who signed it evidently thought participating in this kind of revolt was worth the very real risk it could pose to their careers.
“Death by suffocation is unlikely to be the fate of the Syria memo, both because of the press attention it garnered following its leak and because the large number of signatories is so noteworthy,” former diplomat Joseph Cassidy wrote recently in Foreign Policy.
Dissenting, moreover, “is a difficult and emotional decision, and fear of retaliation is widespread,” Cassidy said. And “while there are formal ‘whistleblower’-type protections built into the Dissent Channel regulations, the State Department personnel system is so subjective, and an unblemished reputation is so essential to promotion and good assignments, that the potential for stealthy retaliation is significant.”
Ultimately, the cable’s signatories may feel it is worth having their name on something that makes explicit their frustration with the US’ decision to refrain from intervening against Assad, whose brutality has fuelled a civil war that has killed more than 400,000 people in just over five years and created the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
“Fifty-one State Department officials who have loyally helped to implement a dysfunctional White House policy have finally said, ‘Enough,'” Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote in Foreign Policy on Monday.
He added: “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.”
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