State Department officials slammed America’s generally obedient diplomatic establishment this week with an internal memo urging U.S. military action against Syria’s government with the goal of pressing head of Syrian regime Bashar Assad to accept a cease-fire and gaining the upper hand on him in future talks on a political transition.
The U.S. administration tried on Friday to contain the consequences of this memo, yet showed no sign it was willing to consider military strikes against Assad forces called for in the letter signed by dozens of American diplomats.
Several U.S. officials said that while the White House is prepared to listen to the diplomats’ dissenting viewpoint, it is not expected to spur any changes in President Barack Obama’s approach to Syria in his final seven months in office.
One senior official said that the test for whether these proposals for more aggressive action are given high-level consideration will be whether they “fall in line with our contention that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria.”
The document – sent through the State Department’s “dissent channel,” a conduit for voicing contrary opinions meant to be confidential – underscored long-standing divisions and frustrations among Obama’s aides over his response to Syria’s five-year-old civil war.
Obama’s Syria policy has been predicated on the goal of avoiding deeper military entanglements in the chaotic Middle East, and has been widely criticized as hesitant and risk-averse. Obama’s limited intervention has focused on fighting the Islamic State militant group that controls a swathe of Syria and Iraq and which has inspired attacks on U.S. soil.
A draft of the cable, signed by 51 State Department officers, calls for “targeted military strikes” against Assad’s government – something Obama has long opposed – to stop its persistent violations of a ceasefire with U.S.-backed anti-government rebels that is largely ignored by Syria and its Russian supporters.
The document, initially crafted in secret by a small group before their State Department bosses were made aware, was intended to “spark internal discourse” toward a policy shift but was not meant to be made public, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Obama’s critics quickly seized upon the letter, which also calls for a political transition that would usher Assad out.
“Even President Obama’s own State Department believes the administration’s Syria policy is failing,” said Ed Royce, Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committee. “Iran, Russia and Assad call the shots in Syria, ignoring the ceasefire and allowing Assad to continue war crimes against his own people.”
In what other officials called an attempt to limit any damage to Obama’s policies, one senior U.S. official stressed that it is only natural that “on a subject as complex and complicated as Syria that we have a diversity of views.”
White House spokeswoman Jen Friedman said Obama is open to a “robust discussion” on Syria but insisted that deliberations by Obama’s aides have already looked closely at a range of options.
At least 250,000 people have died in Syria’s civil war, while more than 6.6 million have been internally displaced and another 4.8 million people have fled the country.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had only seen media reports about the memo, but asserted: “Calls for the violent overthrow of authorities in another country are unlikely to be accepted in Moscow.”
When asked about the leaked memo during a visit to Washington, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir told reporters: “We have been arguing from the beginning of the Syrian crisis that there should be more robust intervention in Syria.”