Syria and the “Dissent Channel”

 

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are both reporting today that they have obtained or seen a draft copy of a State Department internal memo, signed by more than 50 diplomats, “urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its persistent violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war.”

Neither have published the whole memo, which is frustrating: It’s impossible to evaluate an argument you can’t read. But the Times says it calls for “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.” The memo was apparently filed in the so-called “dissent channel,” established during the Vietnam War so that State Department employees could protest policies made by high-level officials without fear of reprisal. According to the Times,

While there are no widely recognized names, higher-level State Department officials are known to share their concerns. Mr. Kerry himself has pushed for stronger American action against Syria, in part to force a diplomatic solution on Mr. Assad. The president has resisted such pressure, and has been backed up by his military commanders, who have raised questions about what would happen in the event that Mr. Assad was forced from power — a scenario that the draft memo does not address.

The memo apparently acknowledged that military action would have risks, although it isn’t clear about exactly what its authors believe those risks to be. The risks, according to the Times, include, “not least,”

further tensions with Russia, which has intervened in the war on Mr. Assad’s behalf and helped negotiate a cease-fire. Those tensions increased on Thursday when, according to a senior Pentagon official, Russia conducted airstrikes in southern Syria against American-backed forces fighting the Islamic State.

There are, as far as I can see, two massive risks: The first is chaos if Assad is forced from power, which could permit ISIS or other jihadi actors to prevail in the ungoverned spaces. The second is a direct confrontation with Russia. Apparently, the dissenting State Department officials insisted in the memo that they were not “advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia,” but rather “a credible threat of military action to keep Mr. Assad in line.”

I don’t know how representative this memo is of State Department thinking generally, nor do I know how if the Times’ assessment of the views of the military are accurate. But the impression they give is of a sharp disjunct between the military’s assessment and that of State Department rank-and-file, with Obama on the side of the military.

Thoughts?

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  1. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville
    @KCMulville

    That’s the problem with a threat: you have to be ready to carry it out. You can’t start a military skirmish and expect it to end at some point you’d be comfortable with.

    Again, like Claire, I’m working with imperfect information. But I’d guess that the military is against stronger strikes because they don’t have much trust in the forces they’re supporting. We’re working predominantly through proxies, and from what I’m reading they’re not very good ones, nor are they reliably on our “side.” Even if they ousted Assad, it’s not as if they could hold on for very long.

    I can’t help but wonder if this is also a sign that our own military doesn’t trust Obama, either. After all, getting deeper into a fight requires a commitment to see it through, which no one believes of Obama. Why put your derriere in the line of fire if you lose any support when the going gets tough?

    • #1
  2. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    We have armed the Jordanians, Turks, Egyptians, and Gulf states to the hilt. Their combined air force would exceed our entire naval aviation capability more than five fold.

    There is no reason for us to do anything other than help in coordination.

    To do otherwise is to repeat the lie of the First Gulf War. Kuwait and Saudi were well armed by us on the pretext of protecting themselves from Iraq and Iran but did nothing because in their minds they really possessed those arms for the ultimate war against the Crusaders and Jews.

    Of course, the counter-counter argument is that we should not let them hone their skills against Syria for ultimate use against us.

    • #2
  3. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Why is Kerry leaking this now? Or are the President’s partisans having a go at Kerry by revealing this wish for an escalation of virtue-signalling from hashtags to drones and “standoff” weaponry?

    • #3
  4. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Diplomats from where?  Because if they’re from Saudi or Israel it’s self interested lobbying, iow toilet paper.

    • #4
  5. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Zafar:Diplomats from where? Because if they’re from Saudi or Israel it’s self interested lobbying, iow toilet paper.

    American diplomats. From the State Department.

    • #5
  6. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    (I still read this as ‘the “Disney Channel”‘.)

    • #6
  7. Austin Murrey Inactive
    Austin Murrey
    @AustinMurrey

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Zafar:Diplomats from where? Because if they’re from Saudi or Israel it’s self interested lobbying, iow toilet paper.

    American diplomats. From the State Department.

    Which countries are they diplomats to or have they spent most of their careers at? Not to throw stones, but having spoken to people inside State a lot of diplomats think their job is to represent the country they’re stationed in to the US and not the other way around.

    Which explains why our foreign policy is such a mess if you ask me.

    • #7
  8. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    These sound like the same idiots who treated the use of our military in SE Asia as units of bargaining currency for the use of diplomats, much the way LBJ used pointless, highly constrained air attacks as a bargaining inducement with Hanoi instead of part of a strategy to win.

    The Obama Syria policy is not just an embarrassment  but a global tragedy. However, it does not sound like the “dissident” would-be advisers within State had much to offer either.  Confronting expressly evil regimes requires an ability to operate and communicate on a level people like that will understand.

    • #8
  9. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Zafar:Diplomats from where? Because if they’re from Saudi or Israel it’s self interested lobbying, iow toilet paper.

    American diplomats. From the State Department.

    Ah.  Then it’s not toilet paper.  It’s on toilet paper.

    • #9
  10. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville
    @KCMulville

    It’s worth noticing that it’s diplomats who are calling for more military action, not generals. Diplomacy and force are supposed to work together, and this request indicates that diplomacy is stalled. The diplomats want the military to shake things up, and I’m sure the military doesn’t want to risk the consequences.

    Which leads me to ask: what are they negotiating about? This war has been going on for a while now. By now, Assad has shown that he’s not going to step down voluntarily, and neither the rebels nor ISIS nor any of the other opponents are likely to back down, either. Not knowing what the letter actually argues, I’m curious as to what they think they can accomplish that will be advanced by more aggresive action.

    • #10
  11. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    genferei:Why is Kerry leaking this now? Or are the President’s partisans having a go at Kerry by revealing this wish for an escalation of virtue-signalling from hashtags to drones and “standoff” weaponry?

    I would be very surprised if Kerry were the source.  The State Dept leaks like a sieve.  Fighting turf battles at Georgetown cocktail parties and in the NYT and WaPo is SOP.  As another failed administration winds down, careerists are getting their I-told-you-so memos on the record.

    • #11
  12. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Claire,

    I like this post very much because it is so clearly defined. The intransigence is coming directly from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Obama has had plenty of wake-up calls before. He has had plenty of the most experienced most objective people try to talk to him rationally. Obama is not rational. He is ideological. Here are a couple of my posts. If he isn’t going to listen to them he surely isn’t going to listen to me but here goes anyway.

    When Does Indispensable Become Exceptional? A Tale of Two Adjectives.

    The Exceptional Indispensable Nation

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #12
  13. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    “There are, as far as I can see, two massive risks: The first is chaos if Assad is forced from power, which could permit ISIS or other jihadi actors to prevail in the ungoverned spaces. The second is a direct confrontation with Russia.”

    Agree, Claire. We should stay out except to fight those who attack us, meaning in this iteration ISIS and Al Qaeda. We can’t police every miscreant. There are too many of them around the world.

    • #13
  14. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Zafar:Diplomats from where? Because if they’re from Saudi or Israel it’s self interested lobbying, iow toilet paper.

    Zafar,

    Obviously, 50 diplomats are not going to be just from Israel or Saudi Arabia. What this shows is that we are not talking about some discreet action. If one wanted to lead a broad coalition to take over Syria and split it into zones (as in Germany after WWII), the coalition could easily be formed. The coalition is asking the American government to form it and lead it.

    The point is Obama doesn’t want to. There is nothing else involved.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #14
  15. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    genferei:Why is Kerry leaking this now? Or are the President’s partisans having a go at Kerry by revealing this wish for an escalation of virtue-signalling from hashtags to drones and “standoff” weaponry?

    Kerry is the master of the “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”

    • #15
  16. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    For the record, unbelievably small, limited kinds of effort have unbelievably small, limited kinds of results.

    Unless they kick off World War IV. That can happen too.

    • #16
  17. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I would love to think this is the start of a subtle mutiny, however small. I can’t help considering the timing of this memo (assuming it’s real) since we’ve heard from John Brennan who is again contradicting the administration and pushing for more aggression.

    • #17
  18. Robert Zubrin Inactive
    Robert Zubrin
    @RobertZubrin

    The point to note is that on issue in question Trump is even worse than Obama. The whole State Department is up in arms over the disasterous consequences of Obama’s appeasement of Assad. But Trump says he would support Assad. Obama is weak in defending the West. Trump is on the other side.

    • #18
  19. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Zafar:Diplomats from where? Because if they’re from Saudi or Israel it’s self interested lobbying, iow toilet paper.

    American diplomats. From the State Department.

    Well that should teach me to click on and read the link before commenting!

    The NYT has added (?) a link to an excerpt of the memo – no names, but ten points, including the conclusion.

    It refers repeatedly to strengthening the moderate Sunni opposition in order to force Assad to take a US led peace initiative seriously.

    Isn’t this an iteration of a policy that essentially failed because there was no moderate Sunni opposition left in the country?  Where are they? Who are these people?

    Was the memo written and signed by people responsible for that policy in the first place?

    The wiki article on the Syrian Civil War includes a map which shows who controls what parts of the country.  It doesn’t differentiate between populated areas and desert, which is a flaw, and it’s from wiki, so fwiw, but:

    Syria 3 June

    The white bits are Jabhat an Nusra – which is definitely not moderate, but which also seems to control big and strategic chunks of Western Syria.

    Also via wiki, a map showing population density in Syria in 1993:

    Syria_pop

    It’s surely changed, but still.

    • #19
  20. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    James Gawron:

    If one wanted to lead a broad coalition to take over Syria and split it into zones (as in Germany after WWII), the coalition could easily be formed. The coalition is asking the American government to form it and lead it.

    Hi Jim – who would be in the Coalition – which countries want to be in it? Nobody seems too eager to go into Syria – it isn’t just the US that’s a bit invasion shy post Iraq.  Rgds.

    • #20
  21. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Zafar:Isn’t this an iteration of a policy that essentially failed because there was no moderate Sunni opposition left in the country? Where are they? Who are these people?

    I think at this point we’re considering any non-ISIS, non-JAN Sunni as “moderate opposition.” There are still many left, but they’re diminished in numbers because the Russians have been bombing them. The incursion of Kurdish forces (loathed by Arabs) has reportedly been causing Sunni Arabs to consider joining ISIS, which was predictable, and anyone who told Americans otherwise was guilty of wilful malpractice.

    • #21
  22. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Robert Zubrin: Obama is weak in defending the West. Trump is on the other side.

    I think that’s correct, to the extent I can sense anything consistent at all in Trump’s proposals. I don’t know if he knows enough to be on the other side in any meaningful way.

    • #22
  23. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Robert Zubrin: Obama is weak in defending the West. Trump is on the other side.

    I think that’s correct, to the extent I can sense anything consistent at all in Trump’s proposals. I don’t know if he knows enough to be on the other side in any meaningful way.

    I invite you both to flesh out an argument here:

    http://ricochet.com/is-trump-worse-than-obama/

    Now the #NeverTrump folks, who will not soil themselves voting for a person of whom they do not approve, have come unhinged not with primary fever, but with full I-hate-this-arguably-human-piece-of-trash mania, pledging their sacred honor to never vote for the nominee. Man, what a change from criticizing Trump for at first not wanting to sign “the pledge”.

    • #23
  24. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Ball Diamond Ball: I invite you both to flesh out an argument here:

    Thanks for the invitation. I’ll pop around on that thread later today. For this thread, I’d actually like to have a discussion about whether there can be any meaningful anti-ISIS strategy with Assad left in power. The argument from State, as I understand it, is confused. But I think it’s plausible to say that so long as he remains in power, the war will continue, allowing ISIS to claim it’s the only force that will defend Sunnis against the Alawites and the Russians. Inaction here also carries massive risk.

    Your thoughts?

    • #24
  25. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    Hullo, Claire.  I’m afraid I’m a more disengaged observer than you might wish on this front.  My opinion is pretty firm and not so nuanced as to require minute study of options and counter-options, wheels within wheels.

    More useless than crying over spilt milk is trying to sponge it back into the container.

    • #25
  26. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    And I agree that this is a miserable place for an anti-Trump screed.  Far be it from me.

    • #26
  27. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    I think at this point we’re considering any non-ISIS, non-JAN Sunni as “moderate opposition.” There are still many left, but they’re diminished in numbers because the Russians have been bombing them. The incursion of Kurdish forces (loathed by Arabs) has reportedly been causing Sunni Arabs to consider joining ISIS, which was predictable, and anyone who told Americans otherwise was guilty of wilful malpractice.

    I’ve been obsessively checking this map (don’t know how accurate) of on-ground changes in Syria.

    It’s been said that Kurdish forces in Syria are now making local alliances with Arab tribes where they advance into Arab areas, and not advancing till these alliances are in place – because they know they can’t hold areas indefinitely as conquerers. (This could just be PR, but it’s possible?)

    Sunni Arabs may have had one view of the ISIS possibility while being ruled from Baghdad, and another view after experiencing ISIS rule themselves.  I think it’s hard to tell for the group – we’re sort of limited to interview/anecdote which can be skewed.

    And – Syria was a multiethnic multiconfessional society – especially in places like Damascus and Aleppo.  I find it hard to believe that Sunnis who were comfortable then under Assad wouldn’t prefer to be under Assad now rather than ISIS. Ditto Kurds.  Ethnicity and religion aren’t the only things that define a relationship to power – Kurds/Sunnis/Alaouites/Christians aren’t monolithic groups.

    • #27
  28. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Which also makes me wonder (o oracle) whether there aren’t as many factors which encourage Kurdish organisations to remain large fish in small national ponds (Syria, Iraq [x2], mebbe Turkey one day)  rather than merging and giving up their own power in favour or a joint Kurdistan Govt?  Meaning, the whole Federal Syria thing that they’re pushing may not only be a good idea, but something that’s in their own interest. ??

    • #28
  29. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Ball Diamond Ball: My opinion is pretty firm and not so nuanced

    I don’t see this as a thoroughly arcane or esoteric question. I’m not sure how the question, “What’s the best way to defeat ISIS?” was relegated to the “only for pointy-headed, effete academics” category. I’d like to hear your opinion, nuanced or not.

    From past discussions, I think your view will be on the order of, “We’ve proven that we don’t have the stomach to see anything through, so we should stay entirely out of this.” Is that correct?

    • #29
  30. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Zafar:

    It’s been said that Kurdish forces in Syria are now making local alliances with Arab tribes where they advance into Arab areas, and not advancing till these alliances are in place – because they know they can’t hold areas indefinitely as conquerers. (This could just be PR, but it’s possible?)

    It’s very, very difficult to figure out what’s real and what’s propaganda. But YPG operations have been widely reported to have resulted in ethnic cleansing, the razing and burning of whole villages, and other atrocities. The US is perceived now to have allied itself with Kurdish and Shia militias who are not only as bloodthirsty as ISIS, but of a different ethnicity or sect from Sunni Arabs. (Or at least, this is according to many sources.) Where are you reading that Kurdish forces have been successful in making alliances with Arab tribes? I’d guess that it varies from village to village.

    Sunni Arabs may have had one view of the ISIS possibility while being ruled from Baghdad, and another view after experiencing ISIS rule themselves. I think it’s hard to tell for the group – we’re sort of limited to interview/anecdote which can be skewed.

    Exactly.

    And – Syria was a multiethnic multiconfessional society – especially in places like Damascus and Aleppo. I find it hard to believe that Sunnis who were comfortable then under Assad wouldn’t prefer to be under Assad now rather than ISIS.

    Oh, I don’t. You’ve seen the photos of Aleppo. People have lost their families; their wives have been raped; their children have been tortured — I find the hatred of Assad entirely understandable.

    Ditto Kurds. Ethnicity and religion aren’t the only things that define a relationship to power – Kurds/Sunnis/Alaouites/Christians aren’t monolithic groups.

    No, but the polarization grows with every atrocity.

    • #30
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