Diplomats’ Syria dissent is a signal to Clinton, Russia

Margaret Talev and Nafeesa Syeed, Bloomberg

A "dissent memo” signed by dozens of State Department officials urging U.S. airstrikes on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces is a message to their former boss Hillary Clinton — and a warning to Assad and the Russians — that career diplomats want President Barack Obama’s successor to take a harder line against the dictator.

The memo calls for limited U.S. airstrikes on Assad’s forces in response to the collapse of a tentative cease-fire in Syria’s five-year civil war, according to a person who has been briefed on the letter. Assad said this month that he would take back "every inch" of Syria from opposition forces. The 51 officials who signed the document argue that U.S. military action would force Assad and his ally, Russia, to make concessions in negotiations to resolve the conflict.

Clinton, the former secretary of state who’s now the Democrats’ presumptive nominee for president, already has signaled a preference for a more aggressive course in Syria than Obama, including enforcement of a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians. Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has said he would order more aggressive military action against Islamic State but not Assad.

Former diplomats and Syria policy analysts said the memo is unlikely to force a change in Obama’s strategy toward Assad. A White House spokeswoman, Jen Friedman, on Friday acknowledged dissenting views on Obama’s Syria policy and said the administration is "always open to new or different ideas." She didn’t know if Obama had seen the dissent memo.

"The president has always been clear that he doesn’t see a military solution to the crisis in Syria and that remains the case," she told reporters aboard Air Force One.

For a QuickTake explaining the Syrian civil war, click here.

Robert Ford, who resigned as Obama’s ambassador to Syria in 2014 and has called for greater pressure on Assad, said in an e-mail that in three decades at the State Department he never saw a dissent memo signed by more than three or four officials.

51 Signatures

"To get 51 signatures on a dissent channel message is remarkable and suggests a very broad consensus at the working level responsible for implementing policy decisions, that the current policy is failing and is destined to keep failing," said Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

State Department spokesman John Kirby declined to discuss the contents of the memo, which was disclosed late Thursday by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, but acknowledged that it was unusual for such a document to garner so many signatures. The “dissent channel,” created in 1971 during the Vietnam War era, is intended to encourage “candid and unvarnished views” within the department, he said.

The themes of the memo — that the U.S. should apply more pressure to Assad and do more to protect Syrian civilians — "are consistent with remarks during the past year by Secretary Clinton," Ford said. Clinton’s campaign declined to immediately comment.

There is disagreement about whether U.S. military action can change the course of the Syrian war. Robert Powell, a senior Middle East analyst with The Economist Intelligence Unit in New York, said the opportunity was probably lost when Obama chose not to attack Assad’s forces in retribution for his use of chemical weapons in 2013.

"I’d be surprised if Hillary agrees to do much more and risk going to war with Russia,” Powell said. “It’s too late for a military action by the U.S. There was a time that the U.S. could have an impact in the civil war against Assad but that time is long gone.”

Exacts a Price’

Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the memo’s signers argued not for expansive attacks against Assad but pointed strikes that would increase the risk of his regime collapsing in retaliation for his flouting of the cease-fire.

"It exacts a price on the regime for noncompliance," Tabler said. He agreed that Obama is likely to be unswayed. "This will help shape the policy of the next administration," he said.

Kerry has at times suggested that the U.S. might turn to a more muscular Plan B if Syria fails to cooperate in a cease-fire and negotiations on the country’s future, although those vows have so far gone unfulfilled.

"It would be a mistake for anybody to calculate that President Obama is going to decide that, if this doesn’t work, there isn’t another set of options," Kerry told a Senate committee in February. “Anybody who thinks that there is impunity for violating this going forward is mistaken.”

Depth of Discord

The memo also illustrates the depth of discord within the Obama administration over Syria, said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

"It also indicates that at this time, diplomats believe that they will not be punished for speaking out as we will be getting a new commander-in-chief soon," one who Landis said in an e-mail may be "well-disposed to a more muscular" foreign policy.

Obama, though, may have a better feel for popular opinion.

"If the rise of Trump tells us anything, it is that most Americans agree that our Middle East interventions have been a bad deal,’" Landis said. "The U.S. has spent trillions of dollars and has little to show for it but perpetual wars, failing infrastructure and bad schools."

—With assistance from Kambiz Foroohar and Nicholas Wadhams To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Washington at mtalev@bloomberg.net, Nafeesa Syeed in Washington at nsyeed@bloomberg.net. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Craig Gordon at cgordon39@bloomberg.net, Alex Wayne, Larry Liebert

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