Since at least August 2013, a variety of senior administration officials have expressed opposition to President Obama’s hands-off approach to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
So when a group of 51 mostly mid-level State Department diplomats this week called for a more aggressive approach, it raised the question, why now?
According to some Syria diplomats and regional experts with close ties to diplomatic circles, their motivations include: a last-ditch effort to sway policy in the waning months of the Obama administration; a desire to air objections to a diplomatic approach the dissenters assert is only serving America’s adversaries in the conflict; and hopes of prompting debate on Syria policy in the presidential campaign.
Perhaps more than anything else, the memo is based on what the signatories view as the clear evidence of the past five years: that Mr. Assad will only flout a policy that is all diplomacy and no teeth.
“Under the current approach Assad has become more rigid than ever, and that is not what the US wanted,” says Andrew Tabler, an expert in Syria and US policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Mr. Tabler, who has close contacts inside the State Department’s Middle East circles, says the memo should be seen as a sign of rising alarm over a crumbling diplomatic effort in Geneva. Instead of curbing Assad and Syria’s violence, it has enabled the regime to pursue the opposition and recover from a point of near-collapse.
“If we’re seeing this dissent now it’s because the negotiations in Geneva are not going well and have ended up providing Assad with the space to pursue his aims,” Tabler says. “Every day provides more proof that rather than any cease-fire, all we’ve got is a slowing down of the war that has allowed the Assad regime to step up its violations of the cessation of hostilities.”
Indeed, some say Assad’s recent show of bravado and contempt for his adversaries (including the US) was a “last straw” that prompted the diplomats to launch their call for adding military muscle to the pressure on Assad to negotiate. Last week he vowed to return “every inch” of Syrian territory to his control.
The Assad regime has established a pattern of relenting after weeks of pressure to allow humanitarian aid into besieged areas – only to “start barrel-bombing the places that just got aid,” says Tabler.
“That’s the kind of thing,” he adds, “that has caused this outrage.”
The dissent channel
The 51 diplomats submitted their criticism via the State Department’s “dissent channel.” The avenue for diplomats to convey their opposition to US policy was established during the Nixon administration, when many diplomats had objections to US policy in Southeast Asia, particularly to the Vietnam War.
One of the issues that first prompted use of the channel was the Bangladesh War of Independence to break away from Pakistan. Diplomats both in the field and in Washington used the channel to convey their objections to an official policy that in their view favored Pakistan at the expense of human rights and the right to self-determination.
In their memo, the diplomats call for a reenergized Syria policy that would include military strikes on Assad regime targets. The strikes would be launched from “stand-off” weaponry like bombers and naval vessels but would not entail the deployment of US troops. The threat of force is a necessary component of a policy meant to pressure a leader who has demonstrated time and again that he responds to little else, the diplomats said.
White House officials counter that the current approach has indeed worked. The four-month-old cessation of hostilities has reduced the level of violence in Syria, they say. US officials also warn that any shift in American policy to military involvement would antagonize Russia and run the risk of spawning a confrontation between the two powers – a point raised by some diplomats who have dismissed the memo as naïve and too little, too late.
The dissent memo’s signers appeared to anticipate this objection, saying their intention was not to encourage a “slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia” but rather to rein in Assad.
But other former officials have come out in support of the dissenters' initiative, saying it underscores widespread dissatisfaction with Obama's hands-off approach and signals to Syrians in particular that America has not forgotten them.
"Anyone in the White House tempted to question the motives of these decent American officials should first pause and reflect on what these dissenters have done to restore and uphold American credibility and honor," said Frederic Hof, the State Department's former special adviser for transition in Syria.
Ambassador Hof, who is now at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said in a statement that he viewed the memo as "one last attempt to convince the President that 'Never Again' is indeed applicable to Syria, and that peace negotiations are utterly futile as long as Assad is perfectly free to do his absolute worst to civilians."
Nearly 300,000 people have been killed in the four-year conflict, which has contributed to the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
The red line
The memo is certainly not the first show of internal administration opposition to Obama’s Syria policy.
Robert Ford, the US diplomat who was ambassador to Syria during the Arab Spring and as the Syrian opposition erupted, resigned from the Foreign Service in 2014 over his opposition to the president’s approach to the deepening war.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both said they lobbied unsuccessfully for more robust action against Assad, with Secretary Gates calling Obama’s decision not to act on his “red line” over Assad’s use of chemical weapons a “serious mistake” that damaged US credibility in the region and beyond.
The Washington Institute’s Tabler says his hunch is that the memo was not just about airing long-held objections to Syria policy but was aimed at influencing the direction of Syria policy in the future. With one administration drawing to a close, he says the memo’s signers are looking to foster debate and trigger a change in direction from the next administration.
“These are people who were willing to stick their necks out,” Tabler says, “and these are people who will be working on Syria policy no matter who wins the presidency.”