The Diplomats’ Letter On Syria

Last week, fifty-one members of the State Department forwarded a memorandum through the Department’s “dissent channel” to Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry has met with the authors of the letter. President Barack Obama has said that the United States strategy in Syria will not change.

The situation in Syria is horrible. President Bashar al-Assad met peaceful protests in 2011 with violence, which led to civil war. He has targeted hospitals and markets. He has used chemical weapons; when he gave up his chemical weapons stocks, he turned to chlorine, which is necessary for water purification and thus was not removed. Horrendous photos of dead and injured civilians, some of them children, show up on Twitter every day. Refugees are testing the ability of neighboring states and Europe to deal with them.

The fighters in Syria belong to many factions, whose allegiances can be hard to discern. ISIS has used the conflict to expand its holdings in eastern Syria. Russia has joined on the side of the government; it is also willing to target civilians and factions that oppose the government, including some backed by the United States. The United States has tried to use limited airstrikes to push ISIS back.

Recently, a “cessation of hostilities,” avoiding the word “ceasefire,” was declared, but it was broken by Syrian and Russian forces. The cessation of hostilities was to have led to peace talks.

A draft version of the memo was published in the New York Times. Max Fisher has published an explainer on the memo, which provides good background for this post. I list questions about what is proposed in the memo. I won’t attempt to answer the questions; some have no answer or many possible answers. We can’t know the future, but I think a weakness of the memo is that it does not consider the many possibilities. I quote portions of the memo and follow with bulleted questions. Boldface is as in the memo.

2. … Despite the Secretary’s efforts to deescalate the violence and forge ahead with the political track, we believe that achieving our objectives will continue to elude us if we do not include the use of military force as an option to enforce the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) and compel the Syrian regime to abide by its terms as well as to negotiate a political solution in good faith. Asad’s systematic violations against the Syrian people are the root cause of the instability that continues to grip Syria and the broader region. None of us sees, or has seen, merit in a large-scale U.S. invasion of Syria or the sudden collapse of existing Syrian institutions. But we do see merit in a more militarily assertive U.S. role in Syria, based on the judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hardnosed U.S.-led diplomatic process, leveragint the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG), to: end the daily mass killing of civilians and egregious violations of human rights, cajole the warring parties to make necessary compromises at the negotiating table, bolster moderate rebel groups’ role in defeating Da’esh [ISIS], and help bring an end to the broader instability the conflict generates.

  • What are the objectives to be achieved? Implicitly, the last part of the first bolded section and the last sentence of the paragraph. Will the use of stand-off and air weapons achieve these goals?
  • What are the targets of those weapons to be? How will that targeting move toward the goals?
  • What collateral damage is expected? Will civilians be killed?
  • How are Assad and Russia likely to respond?

3. Initiating targeted military strikes in response to egregious regime violations of the CoH would raise the cost for the regime and bolster the prospects for a real ceasefire – without cities being bombed and humanitarian convoys blocked – and lead to a more serious diplomatic process, led by the United States. A reinvigorated CoH would help the political process to mature as we press for the formation of a transitional government body with full executive powers that can start to rebuild Syria and Syrian society, with significant assistance from the international community. With the repeated diplomatic setbacks of the past five years, together with the Russian and Iranian governments’ cynical and destabilizing deployment of significant military power to bolster the Asad regime, we believe that the foundations are not currently in place for an enduring ceasefire and consequential negotiations.

  • What cost is high enough to make the regime stop its violations of the CoH? How does Russia’s involvement play into that calculation?
  • Why should the diplomatic process be led by the United States?
  • What would that transitional government body look like? How will support for it be built among the wide variety of warring factions?

Paragraph 4 states that the moral case for intervention is “evident and unquestionable.” It also introduces the strategic case in the following paragraphs.

  • Although the moral case for ending the atrocities of war may be “evident and unquestionable,” does it extend to the use of force proposed in the memo?

5. First, with the regime deploying tactics that overwhelmingly target civilians (barrel bombs and air strikes in cities) to achieve battlefield objectives and undermine support for the moderate opposition, impeding or ending such atrocities will not only save lives but further our political objectives. While the regime maintains the advantage, an undeterred Asad will resist compromises sought by almost all opposition factions and regional actors. Shifting the tide of the conflict against the regime will increase the chances for peace by sending a clear signal to the regime and its backers that there will not be a military solution to the conflict.

  • The cost and targeting questions above are relevant.
  • Will shifting the tide of the conflict lead to regime collapse? How can this be monitored?
  • Will a weakening of the regime lead to fighting among the many factions for power?

6. Secondly, a more assertive U.S. role to protect and preserve opposition-held communities, by defending them from Asad’s air force and artillery, presents the best chance for defeating Da’esh in Syria. The prospects for rolling back Da’esh’s hold on territory are bleak without the Sunni Arabs, who the regime continues to bomb and starve. A de facto alliance with the regime against Da’esh would not guarantee success: Asad’s military is undermanned and exhausted. Kurdish YPG fighters cannot – and should not – be expected to project power and hold terrain deep into non-Kurdish areas. And, crucially, Syria’s Sunni population continues to view the Asad regime as the primary enemy in the conflict. If we are to remain committed to countering Da’esh in the Levant without committing ground forces, the best option is to protect and empower the moderate Syrian opposition. Tolerating the Asad regime’s continued gross human rights violations against the Syrian people undermines, both morally and materially, the unity of the anti-Da’esh coalition, particularly among Sunni Arab partners. Failure to stem Asad’s flagrant abuses will only bolster the ideological appeal of groups such as Da’esh, even as they endure tactical setbacks on the battlefield. As brutal as Da’esh is, it is the Asad regime that is responsible for the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of victims in this conflict.

  • The proposed actions are described as “best” chance and option. Have other alternatives been evaluated? What are the criteria for “best”? By how much?
  • How uniform are the views attributed to the Sunni population? What are the views of the Sunni militias?
  • Will the proposed actions stem Assad’s abuses? Will the actions themselves be perceived as abuses by the Sunni population?

Paragraph 7 addresses the refugee crisis. It assumes that the actions proposed will lead to grounding of Assad’s air force. All the questions above are relevant.

8. Perhaps most critically, a more muscular military posture under U.S. leadership would underpin and propel a new and reinvigorated diplomatic initiative. Despite the dedication and best efforts of those involved, current CoH and related diplomatic processes are disjointed and largely tactical in nature. Instead, a singularly focused and disciplined diplomatic effort – modeled on the process established for the Iran negotiations strategy led by the Secretary and former Under Secretary Sherman and with full White House backing – should be adopted to (i) ensure regime compliance with the CoH (or a similar ceasefire mechanism) and prevent civilian casualties, and (ii) advance talks involving internal and external actors, to include the Iranians and the Saudis, to produce a transitional government.

  • How will the Iranians, Saudis, and Russians feel about US strikes weakening Assad? Will they cooperate as the parties to the Iran talks did? What are their interests in doing so?
  • Beyond the bombing, what are the steps to this diplomatic effort?

9. … We are not advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia; rather, we are calling for the credible threat of targeted U.S. military responses to regime violations to preserve the CoH and the political track, which we worked so hard to build.

  • What happens if a miscalculation or accident provokes a tactical confrontation with Russia, even if it is not intended?
  • It appears that the CoH is pretty much gone at this point. What is the best way to build back to it – targets, statements, within the framework proposed?

10. We recognize that military action is not a panacea, and that the Asad regime might prove resilient even in the face of U.S. strikes. We further recognize that the risk of further deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations is significant and that military steps to stop the Asad regime’s relentless bombardment of the Syrian people may yield a number of second-order effects. Nonetheless, it is also clear that the status quo in Syria will continue to present increasingly dire, if not disastrous, humanitarian, diplomatic, and terrorism-related challenges. For five years, the scale of these consequences has overwhelmed our efforts to deal with this conflict; the United States cannot contain the conflict with the current policy. In this regard, we firmly believe it is time the United States, guided by our strategic interests and moral convictions, lead a global effort to put an end to this conflict once and for all.

  • Given all the questions above and the histories of Libya and Iraq, how can we be sure that a US-led effort can put an end to the conflict for once and for all?

It’s useful to contemplate questions both to judge the soundness of a proposal and, perhaps, to come up with new ideas for dealing with the situation. The Fisher explainer contains facts that I would add in to a discussion of the questions I’ve put.

Some of my questions may have been addressed by the writers of the memo in their daily work. But much in the memo makes me wonder. Paragraph 10 lists the downsides: a resilient Assad regime, deterioration of US-Russia relations, collateral damage from bombing. The writers of the memo implicitly judge those downsides to be worth risking for their proposed actions, for which they consider only positive consequences. That kind of judgment must be made in national affairs, but I would like to see evidence that the authors have considered the ramifications more thoroughly.


Photo: US Marines in the Arabian Gulf


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