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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.