It is hard to believe it would improve matters in Syria, but 51 mid-level U.S. diplomats are urging a campaign of airstrikes against President Bashar al-Assad. In the draft of a memo sent through the State Department’s “dissent channel” and leaked to the New York Times last week, the diplomats protested the Obama administration’s policy in Syria and argued that regime change is the only effective way to defeat the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Regime change has been the goal of American policy in Syria even before ISIS became a concern. The New York Times reported last year that the CIA has trained 10,000 fighters to combat the regime, at an annual cost of up to $1 billion. Early in the five-year-old civil war, the U.S. demanded that Assad vacate office, but that was always going to be a non-starter at the negotiating table.
After its emergence in Iraq and Syria, ISIS replaced the Assad regime as the main target of U.S. military efforts. The Islamic State has experienced significant reverses since the United States began a bombing campaign, in some cases losing territory, but this is a long way from saying that it is on the skids. At least the narrative of ISIS going from success to success has been checked by local forces and bombing by both the United States and Russia. Yet because it has been directed at an array of Syrian rebels, not only members of ISIS, Russian bombing has shored up Assad’s forces to the point where he is now talking about reclaiming lost territory.
Assad’s stronger position clearly motivated the diplomats’ secret memo, which calls for airstrikes to force Assad to negotiate a settlement and urges further training of moderate Syrian rebels. But efforts by the Pentagon in 2015 to find “moderate” rebels to fight against the Islamic State proved an embarrassing failure, with U.S.-trained forces turning over ammunition and trucks to an Al Qaeda affiliate. In October, the Obama administration ended the $500 million program after less than a year, acknowledging that only a handful of the trained fighters had ever gotten onto the battlefield. Another effort to enlist moderates in the fight against ISIS was authorized early this year, but The Los Angeles Times reported on March 27 that CIA-funded rebels and Pentagon-funded rebels were battling each other on the plains between the city of Aleppo and the Turkish border, “highlighting how little control U.S. intelligence officers and military planners have over the groups they have financed and trained.”
Patrick Cockburn, a Mideast correspondent for The Independent, describes Western efforts to look for the proverbial good guys in Syria as “an act of fantasy.” Not all Assad opponents are Islamists, but all of the armed Assad opponents are, Cockburn says in an interview this month in The Nation, and the most extreme Islamists have been the most successful on the battlefield. Apart from the Kurdish area in northeastern Syria, Cockburn says, in most places opposition rebels are as bad as, if not worse than the Assad regime.
There’s no question U.S. policy in Syria has been feckless, riven by contradiction, and ineffectual. Undoubtedly, the diplomats’ memo expresses their frustration at the horrific costs of a civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and is fueling the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. But will their own strategy be better? Is it a change, or simply a more lethal version of what the United States is already doing? The assumption seems to be that if a little force doesn’t work, more force will. That kind of thinking led to open-ended escalation in the Vietnam War, when the United States dropped more than twice the amount of bombs as it used in World War II. The diplomats’ memo also acknowledges, but then shrugs off, the risks of conflict with Russia and Iran that U.S. airstrikes could create.
What the diplomats’ memo never addresses is what will happen if and when the goal of toppling Assad is achieved. Will Syria be more peaceful? Unlikely. With Assad gone, one can expect an all-out war between extremist factions seeking power, among them the Islamic State.
Predictably, Saudi Arabia, a major backer of the rebels in Syria, swiftly embraced the dissenting diplomats’ memo. Visiting Washington last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir praised the memo and said Saudi Arabia has long urged a no-fly zone, as well as a safe haven and further arms for the Syrian rebels, including surface-to-air missiles.
But the Saudi Arabian response, like that of the 51 U.S. diplomats who signed last week’s memo, appears to be an expression of the problem that afflicts Syria, not a solution to it. What has made the Syrian war so intractable and bloody is the intervention of foreign governments in the civil war: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and the United States on the side of the rebels; and Russia and Iran on the side of the Assad regime. Until the foreign governments sponsoring the war are ready to either stop funding it or work out an acceptable resolution, the war will continue. Adding more fuel to the fire in Syria with U.S. air strikes is unlikely to do anything but increase the devastation.
That so many U.S. diplomats are suggesting more military action, not diplomacy, may simply signal the extent to which militarism has pervaded our government, including the State Department, and become the U.S. default response to every conflict. But will an aggressive, illegal and unprovoked U.S. war on Syria be any more successful than the wars the United States has waged in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, or the war that it is helping Saudi Arabia wage in Yemen? Have our strategists and diplomats become more creative, far-seeing and nimble? The memo suggests not.