October 25, 2016

Dozens of U.S. diplomats urge military strikes against Syria’s Assad

Smoke and flame rise after what fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) said were U.S.-led air strikes on the mills of Manbij where Islamic State militants are positioned

More than 50 State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo sharply critical of U.S. policy in Syria, calling for military strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s government to stop its persistent violations of a civil war cease-fire.

The “dissent channel cable” was signed by 51 mid- to high-level State Department officers involved with advising on Syria policy. It was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The cable calls for “targeted military strikes” against the Syrian government in light of the near-collapse of the cease-fire brokered earlier this year, the Journal reported, citing copies of the cable it had seen.

Military strikes against the Assad government would represent a major change in the Obama administration’s longstanding policy of not intervening directly in the Syrian civil war, even as it has called for a political transition that would see Assad leave power.

One U.S. official, who did not sign the cable but has read it, told Reuters the White House remained opposed to deeper American military involvement in the Syrian conflict.

The official said the cable was unlikely to alter that, or shift Obama’s focus from the battle against the persistent and spreading threat posed by the Islamic State militant group.

A second source who had read the cable said it reflected the views of U.S. officials who have worked on Syria, some of them for years, and who believe the current policy is ineffective.

“In a nutshell, the group would like to see a military option put forward to put some pressure … on the regime,” said the second source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

While dissent cables are not unusual, the number of signatures on the document is extremely large.

“That is an astonishingly high number,” said Robert Ford, who resigned in 2014 as U.S. ambassador to Syria over policy disagreements, and is now at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

“For the last four years, the working level at the State Department has been urging that there be more pressure on Bashar al-Assad’s government to move to a negotiated solution” to Syria’s civil war, he said.

Ford noted that this is not the first time the State Department has argued for a more activist Syria policy. In the summer of 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed arming and training anti-Assad rebels. The plan, which had backing from other Cabinet officials, was rejected by President Barack Obama and his White House aides.

The dissenting cable discussed the possibility of air strikes but made no mention of adding U.S. ground troops to Syria. The United States has about 300 U.S. special operations forces in Syria carrying out a counter-terrorism mission against Islamic State militants but not targeting the Assad government.

“We are aware of a dissent channel cable written by a group of State Department employees regarding the situation in Syria,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in an email. “We are reviewing the cable now, which came up very recently, and I am not going to comment on the contents.”

Kirby said the “dissent channel” was an official forum that allows State Department employees to express alternative views.

Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan told a congressional hearing on Thursday that Assad was in a stronger position than he was a year ago, bolstered by Russian air strikes against the moderate opposition.

Brennan also said Islamic State’s “terrorism capacity and global reach” had not been reduced.

The names on the memo are almost all mid-level officials – many of them career diplomats – who have been involved in the administration’s Syria policy over the past five years, at home or abroad, the New York Times said.

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