In response to the State Department dissent memo signed by 51 officials who have worked on Syria in recent years, the White House probably won’t change its approach to the broad Syrian conflict. After nearly two years of American military operations in Syria, after an estimated 400,000 or more dead in Syria, and after Syrian refugee flows have raised questions about European unity itself—the unity that was a goal of American foreign policy dating back to Truman—the memo is right to urge we review how can we achieve secure our strategic objective in Syria. The discussion is all the more urgent since there are no sure-fire solutions and no options without risks.
The dissent memo supports the administration’s goal of ending the conflict by having Syrians negotiate the establishment of a new government that could rally Syrians to fight extremists like the Islamic State. The memo doesn’t call for regime change; it doesn’t say that Bashar al-Assad has to go. That’s an issue for Syrians to negotiate in what surely would be very hard talks.
Those talks have never really started mainly because of constant Syrian government violations of the ceasefire. In a reminder of Richard Holbrooke’s use of NATO air power to change the calculations of Serbia and its Bosnian Serbian allies, the memo urges deterring the Syrian government from further violations by destroying some Syrian military assets with stand-off strikes. Once Assad understands the ceasefire is for real, and he can’t win militarily, the memo reasons that real political talks about Syria’s future can finally begin.
Some critics of a more muscular American approach warn that this is a recipe for Iraq 2003 redux or a replay of Libya 2011 when regimes fell and chaos ensued. George W. Bush didn’t seek a transition negotiation with Saddam. Qadhaffi had an ICC indictment waiting for him; Assad doesn’t. The future of Assad and his inner circle is an issue for Syrians to negotiate. The Syrian opposition even hinted once that it might drop the issue of holding Assad accountable if he steps down. The larger point is that the majority of the armed opposition is willing to negotiate a new government but the Syrian government isn’t.
Other critics of greater American involvement warn that it is naïve to think Assad will ever negotiate. Like the Fuhrer he’d rather go down in a fiery Gotterdamerung if abandoned by his allies (presumably his inner circle all would agree). Since the Russians and Iranians won’t abandon Assad, the Americans and their regional friends must instead abandon the opposition. These analysts haven’t explained why regional actors like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or even Turkey, as uncomfortable as it is with Syrian Kurdish expansionism, would find this change to be in their interest.
More importantly, these analysts haven’t explained how millions of Syrians would be reconciled to an unrepentant Assad government and if, as likely, they cannot reconcile, and how much larger numbers of Syrians would rally around Assad to fight the many extremists in their midst. The State Department dissent memo warns that if local Sunni Arab communities don’t rally to fight the Islamic State and al-Qaida, then we will not contain the extremists over the long-term, and American military operations will never end. The question is how to get that local Sunni Arab support. The memo rightly asserts that stopping the Assad government attacks on civilian communities and resolving the larger Syrian conflict are key. The Obama administration focus on the Islamic State, and not the larger civil war, is misplaced.
Moreover, those wanting to accept Assad say international funding should appear, like magic, to rebuild Syria, but they don’t explain where it would come from. Is it realistic to think that the international community would rally around Assad to raise the absolutely enormous sums required for a reconstruction program his bloody, corrupt government would direct? Without national reconciliation and without national reconstruction, how will the millions of Syrian refugees go home and how will pressure on our European friends be eased? Proponents of accepting the Assad government as it is are really just saying there is no chance to stabilize Syria or address our broader interests. The dissent memo should receive credit for at least trying to figure out a better way forward.
Finally, some reject even limited U.S. military strikes because of the risk of direct confrontation with Russia. Striking Russian military assets in Syria would create such a risk. Hitting Syrian government targets is different; the Israelis appear to have hit targets in Syria with no vigorous Russian response. Moreover, the Russians have hit American-backed opposition groups. They set the precedent. If presented with an American military fait accompli, might the Russians respond by escalating with more bombing, more military aid to Damascus or even troops? Very likely they would. That would pose questions then about additional U.S. strikes if Damascus, counting on Russian backing, continues its violations. We could expect multiple rounds of Syrian, American and Russian tits for tats before any serious political talks—a riskier, less tantalizing proposition.
Other analysts, myself included, argue that before using still more American military force in Syria, we should first figure out how to boost the moderate opposition. The dissent memo itself urges empowering the moderate opposition. However, Defense Department and CIA efforts now are separate and have distinct goals. We should consider program resources, how to structure programs so that they are not blank checks to opposition groups but rather are part of a broader political opposition outreach effort, and how to channel our efforts in a mutually reinforcing manner. What is more absurd than Pentagon-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters attacking CIA-backed Syrian Arab fighters or a NATO ally shelling fighters (linked to a terrorist group) whom the Pentagon is arming? That suggests incoherence in Washington aggravating, not resolving, contentious agendas in Syria. We can do better.
Attaining the U.S. objective of a negotiated new government in Syria needs cooperation from Russia and Iran who must understand that they and Assad won’t be able to impose a political deal with only cosmetic changes that the majority of the Syrian opposition cannot and will not accept. That’s not an American dictate—it’s a Syrian one. The dissent memo should wake us up that the current approach ensures we will not secure our national interest in Syria, that broader U.S. interests will suffer as a consequence, and we need to reconsider our approach.