Obama feels heat from State Department to act in Syria

An internal memo decries President Obama's reticence to use force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, stating action would force diplomatic negotiations.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
President Obama walks down the stairs from Air Force One. A State Department internal memo criticizing his Syrian policy was released to the public this week.

President Obama received a strong message of dissent from 51 State Department officials yesterday, who called for more heavy-handed action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has repeatedly violated internationally brokered cease-fire agreements during the country's five-year civil war.

The internal memo asks for a "hard-nosed US-led diplomatic process" in addition to more air strikes, according to The New York Times, who received a copy. This approach would force a diplomatic negotiation, the signers argue. 

So far, Obama has side-stepped from directly striking against Mr. Assad's government, which has been responsible for the deaths of more Syrians than the Islamic State, according to widely cited data collected by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a group working on the ground in Syria. 

"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 memo said, according to the Times.

The memo's release comes after President Assad vowed last week to retake "every inch" of the country. The Times reports that Assad has not respected the restrictions and deadlines for conflict de-escalation of violence laid out over the past six moths by Secretary of State Kerry and others in the multinational International Syria Support Group.

The internal State Department memo is only the latest in America's political and diplomatic tug-of-war about whether to militarily oppose Assad, a debate that has unfolded alongside the Syrian civil war.

In 2012, Obama said that Assad's chemical weapon use by the Assad regime would be a "red line" that, if crossed, would change his "calculus" and potentially necessitate direct action. But in 2013, when that line was crossed, the US president asked Congress to decide about force instead of calling for it himself. That Congressional vote was preempted by diplomatic talks with Russia

In a conversation with The Atlantic, published this year, Obama brings up the sponsorship of Assad's army by the "two large states" Russia and Iran as deterrents to US involvement.

"The notion that we could have – in a clean way that didn't commit U.S. military forces – changed the equation on the ground there was never true," he said.

For some observers, Obama's Syria stance is in line with his repeated calls for cautious but engaged foreign policies. He ran for office with the promise of getting the US out of Iraq and Afghanistan, repeating a mantra to avoid "stupid wars." He reduced ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan from 180,000 when he took office to 15,000.

"Our foreign policy has to be strong, but it also has to be smart," he said earlier this month at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado, while denouncing also isolationism. 

But how to deal with Syria continues to be controversial even within the president's own administration. US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who has written a book focusing on leaders who failed to intervene in genocide and human rights violations, has said of Syria: 

"We should agree that there are lines in this world that cannot be crossed and limits on murderous behavior, especially with weapons of mass destruction that must be enforced. If we cannot summon the courage to act when the evidence is clear, and when the action being contemplated is limited, then our ability to lead in the world is compromised."

However, Obama, in his foreign policy interview with the Atlantic, offers a counter-thought, "There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights."

The Obama administration has yet to comment on the memo, which was submitted to a special dissent channel that exists for State Department members to express serious disagreement with policy. State Department spokesman John Kirby commented only that it had been received and would be reviewed.

"This is an important vehicle that the Secretary, as well as the department institutionally, values and respects," he told CNN

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