More than 50 mid-to-high level State Department officials have signed an internal document critical of the government’s policy in Syria and calling for military strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The officials had been discussing sending it for some time, but they finally decided to move forward because the Geneva negotiations on political transition in Syria have all but collapsed and the fragile ceasefire continues to disintegrate. The memo suggests a more robust military approach to force a transitional government in Syria.
The document calls for «targeted military air strikes» against Assad's government, as reported by the Wall Street Journal which broke the story first on June 16, citing copies of the cable.
The cable says that US policy in the Middle East has been «overwhelmed» by the continuing violence in Syria. It calls for a «judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed US-led diplomatic process».
The memo calls on the United States to create a stronger partnership with moderate rebel forces to battle both Assad's forces and IS, which would change the tide of the conflict against the Syrian government and «increase the chances for peace by sending a clear signal to the regime and its backers that there will be no military solution to the conflict». The cable also echoes the growing impatience among US Gulf allies with the lack of military intervention targeted at the Damascus government to force President Bashar Assad to resign and make way for a transitional government.
The internal document was sent throughout the «dissent channel», a mechanism for State Department officials to offer alternative views on foreign policy without retaliation. It was established in the 1960s during the Vietnam War to ensure that senior leadership in the department would have access to alternative policy views on the war. It also warns that as the regime «continues to bomb and starve» Syria’s Sunni population, the US will lose potential allies among Syria’s Sunni population to fight IS. Moreover, it says, US failure to stop the regime’s abuses «undermines both morally and materially the unity of the anti-Daesh coalition» and «will only bolster the ideological appeal of groups such as Daesh, even as they endure tactical setbacks on the battlefield».
There are no high-level names but they reflect a widespread view in the State Department that tougher military action in Syria is needed to force Assad to negotiate a diplomatic solution.
Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford believes that such dissent channel cables are not unusual but the number of signatures on this latest document is very large.
«That is an astonishingly high number», said Ford, who resigned in 2014 over policy disagreements and is now at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington.
The State Department acknowledged the existence of the cable, but wouldn’t comment on its contents until top officials had a chance to review it. The US diplomats’ document was revealed on the same day that John Brennan, the CIA director, told a congressional hearing that Assad is in a stronger position than he was a year ago, thanks to Russian air strikes.
President Barack Obama has so far resisted wading deeper into the Syria conflict, but officials familiar with the memo said, the State Department officials could be trying to force a policy debate in the upcoming elections. No doubt, the cable may also be an attempt to shape the foreign policy outlook of the next administration. Hillary Clinton has promised a tougher policy toward Assad, while Donald Trump has promised to get tough on IS but would work with Russia.
On June 15, US State Secretary John Kerry warned the Syrian regime and Russia to respect «frayed» ceasefire and said that its «patience was not infinite» amid mounting death toll. «Russia needs to understand that our patience is not infinite, in fact it is very limited with whether or not [Bashar] al-Assad is going to be held accountable», Kerry said after meeting defense ministers from Syria, Iran and Russia in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, in an effort to halt the raging fighting, especially in Syria’s northern province of Aleppo where dozens died in the past few days as a result of al-Nusra Front breaking the ceasefire agreement.
«It is very clear that the cessation of hostilities is frayed and at risk and that it is critical for a genuine cessation to be put in place. We know that, we have no illusion», he added.
This is an unusually tough statement that can be easily interpreted as a drastic shift in US stance on Syria.
The administration needs a foreign policy success before the presidential election while the Syrian policy has been a major setback. Separate CIA and Pentagon programs to train and equip Syrian Arab rebels have failed to produce a large ground force to fight IS. So far, the US has stationed about 300 special operations forces on the ground in Syria, training «moderate» Syrian rebel groups and targeting Islamic State (IS) but not the Assad government. There has been no tangible result achieved as yet.
The US has consistently refused to join forces with Russia in Syria against IS ever since Moscow launched its campaign of air strikes in September 2015.
Russia has warned against a call by US State Department officials for strikes against the Syrian government, saying Moscow is opposed to a military solution. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that calls for the violent overthrow of authorities in another country are not acceptable for the Russian government. According to him, «[t]he liquidation of this or some other regime is hardly what is needed to aid the successful continuation of the battle against terrorism. Such a move is capable of plunging the region into complete chaos».
«It is not a secret to us that there are political forces in the US who favor a military solution [to the Syrian crisis]. But this is not our method,» Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on June 17.
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Despite the obvious tensions between Russia and the United States, their views on the Syrian conflict have been converging, laying the basis for a joint approach to defeating IS and ending the war. Doing away with the jihadist threat is now an overriding aim for Russia and the US. The Russia-supported Syrian government forces have made a great contribution to the fight against the common enemy by liberating Palmyra. It is entirely possible that the Russia-backed Syrian government troops will move to retake both Raqqa and Deir-al-Zour while the US-backed coalition is gradually gaining ground against IS in Iraq. The United States has nobody else to join together with in Syria. The Turkish and Saudi governments do not really share America’s goals there. Turkey’s primary mission is defeating the Kurds – the US most capable allies in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Gulf states want to see the overthrow of the Assad regime as part of their regional struggle with Iran. Under the circumstances, coordinating efforts, if not cooperating, with Russia is a natural thing for the US to do.
It may be hard for Russia and America to act together in the Middle East as they confront each other in Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, even at the height of the Ukrainian crisis, Washington and Moscow did manage to work together on the Iranian nuclear deal.
Rivalries and mutual mistrust do divide the countries, but it is crucial that they find a way to work together on crisis management in Syria and defeating IS. If not, the crisis will linger on for many years. The policy of unilateral military actions against the Syrian government is fraught with dire consequences. An accident may trigger a dangerous confrontation or even a conflict. That’s definitely not what common Americans need. The calls to strike the Russia-supported Syrian government are pushing the US government to adopt the policy of balancing on the brink of uncontrollable flare up in Syria instead of joining together with Russia to intensify diplomatic efforts and make progress at the UN-sponsored Geneva talks.