Fifty-one American diplomats issued a “dissent cable” last week to top State Department officials urging a radical change in US policy toward Syria: They want the government to intervene militarily in the civil war and undertake strikes against the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. The cable, reported by The New York Times—which posted a draft of the memo online—and The Wall Street Journal and signed by mostly mid-level career Foreign Service officers, urged “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 cable has found support among well-respected figures in the foreign-policy community, and rumors swirl that Secretary of State John Kerry agrees with the general thrust of their dissent.
Let’s stipulate a few things about these revelations. First, career Foreign Service officers like those who signed this cable are more often than not the good guys of foreign policy. They hold deep knowledge about the places on which they work and, usually, their policy leanings tilt not toward war but toward, well, diplomacy. Second, Syria’s multi-faceted civil war is a humanitarian disaster. Hundreds of thousands have perished. The power vacuum created by war has allowed the Islamic State to take over in some regions, where it has imposed a horrific reign of terror over civilians under its control. Lastly, there are no good options for the United States in Syria. The diplomatic dissent is well-intentioned, but it offers little more than leaps in logic.
The immediate goal of the memo’s prescriptions is to reestablish the cease-fire put in place in February. Thanks in large part to Assad’s duplicity, it never really took hold. His regime has attacked civilians, including with indiscriminate barrel bombs, and has blocked humanitarian aid. The diplomats who signed the cable are seeking to block these violations of the cease-fire with force. “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,” the memo says.
Overwhelming US air power could certainly weaken Assad’s offensive capabilities. The bigger problem, though, lies in what comes next. It’s not evident how yet more military strikes in Syria will strengthen a tattered cease-fire. But even if the cease-fire is reestablished, what happens if Assad continues to refuse to engage in a meaningful diplomatic process? On these questions, the memo gives us nothing. It takes as almost a given that the cease-fire alone will lead Assad to rethink his long-held and bloody stubbornness. Mission creep, at that point, seems almost inevitable; a cynic might think it the goal of the memo in the first place.
One need only look to Libya to see what happens when the United States enters a conflict with limited aims and no vision of medium- and long-term potential outcomes. The responsibility to protect civilians invoked by the State Department officials was used then as a way to get the US military involved in a NATO coalition war. The aim of the intervention turned quickly from protecting civilians to unseating Muammar Qaddafi. But once the dictator fell, chaos ensued. Despite a warning from Barack Obama that Libya would face instability, little was done to minimize the dangers. At this point, it’s difficult to see the NATO intervention as anything but a strategic failure.