The former U.S. ambassador to Syria says it is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for more than 50 State Department diplomats to sign an internal diplomatic cable critical of U.S. administration policy.
Robert Ford commented to VOA on Friday after a draft document for the department’s “Dissent Channel” emerged, in which 51 officials called for the use of targeted airstrikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of an effort to pressure it into pursuing political talks.
“In my experience dating back to 1985 in the Department of State,” Ford said, “I have never heard of a Dissent Channel message that had 10 signatures, much less one that had 50.”
He said the high number of signatures was an indication that the officials responsible for implementing policy measures on the ground in Syria, pushing for a negotiated political solution and dealing with the refugee crisis, did not believe they could meet objectives under the current policy.
"They are warning that the way that it is going now, it is never going to succeed and there needs to be, therefore, a change,” said Ford, who is now a Middle East Institute analyst.
Dramatic changes unlikely
But he added that President Barack Obama was unlikely to make dramatic changes to his Syria policy so late in his administration.
Atlantic Council analyst Fred Hof said the high number of signatures was an indication of deep dissatisfaction with the U.S. status quo for Syria.
“Fifty-one loyal and effective officials have risked their careers to protest a policy that is profoundly wrong and fully counterproductive,” Hof said.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Obama “sets Syria policy” and if he wasn’t persuaded by criticisms voiced by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and other senior officials, “I don’t think what 51 diplomats say will do the trick."
Within the administration, disagreement over Syria policy is nearly as old as the five-year-old conflict itself.
While some senior State Department officials have long favored more aggressive action against the Assad government, the White House has resisted those calls out of fear of pushing the U.S. into another war. Instead, it has focused on a military campaign against the Islamic State group.
The White House’s opposition to armed intervention in the Syrian conflict stems from U.S. experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, said Steven Hydemann, the Janet Wright Ketcham chair of Middle Eastern studies at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
“It sees Syria through the lens of those earlier experiences,” Hydemann said of the Obama administration.
State Department spokesman John Kirby also acknowledged that it was unusual for a Dissent Channel message to have so many signatories.
“It tells us clearly that Syria matters to a lot of the people who work here at the State Department,” Kirby said. “It says to me that we need to keep on working just as hard as we can for better outcomes.”
A draft of the cable, initially revealed to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, asks the Obama administration to employ a "judicious use of stand-off and air weapons" to directly engage the Syrian army in a bid to hasten an end to the civil war.
"The moral rationale for taking steps to end the deaths and suffering in Syria, after five years of brutal war, is evident and unquestionable,'' it reads. "The status quo in Syria will continue to present increasingly dire, if not disastrous, humanitarian, diplomatic and terrorism-related challenges.''
The call for the stepped-up U.S. military engagement against the Syrian regime contrasts sharply with the administration's current policy, which has focused largely on aiding rebels in a bid to oust Islamic State and supporting diplomatic efforts for a political transition in the country.
However, it comes at a time when the U.S. and its allies have seen an erosion of a February cessation of hostilities, setbacks in efforts to hold political talks between the government and rebels, and roadblocks in delivering food and medicine to Syrians in besieged communities.
“No one is content with the status quo,” said Kirby in a Friday briefing.
He added that as the administration looked at other options, “none of those other options are better than the one that we are pursing.”
With U.N.-sponsored talks aimed at ending the conflict broken down and a cease-fire signed in February repeatedly violated, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has taken a tougher stance toward Syria and Russia.
'Patience is not infinite'
Earlier this week, Kerry warned Syria and Russia to respect a cease-fire agreement that the three nations signed this year.
"Russia needs to understand that our patience is not infinite. In fact, it is very limited with whether or not al-Assad is going to be held accountable," Kerry said Wednesday following a meeting with Iranian officials.
Kerry’s tone appeared to have toughened in recent days, but the question that remained was “will there be anything more meaningful than that," Hydemann said.
The memo was signed by mostly midlevel employees at the department. After it is distributed to high-level officials, Kirby said, the employees will receive a reply, but that reply will not be made public.
Earlier Friday, Kerry told reporters in Copenhagen that he would discuss the memo when he returned to Washington.
"I haven't had a chance to see it yet, but I agree with the process. It's a great process," he said, referring to the Dissent Channel.
White House deputy press secretary Jennifer Friedman said she had not read the memo, but “the administration welcomes a strong deliberation on the foreign policy challenges that face our nation.”
Impact on campaign
Even if the memo does not sway the Obama administration into taking greater military action in Syria, it may have an impact on the 2016 presidential campaign.
Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump could use it as ammunition to criticize the administration’s Syria policy, while Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is likely to use it in support of her call for a more vigorous approach toward the Syrian conflict.
Clinton has called for the creation of a no-fly zone over rebel-held areas in Syria and a more forceful delivery of humanitarian assistance, among other measures.
“I think it matters a great deal in the upcoming electoral debate,” Brookings' O’Hanlon said. “By critiquing the administration’s Syria policy, they’ve invigorated the debate and added a neutral voice to the debate.”