The Dissent Channel Goes Public

This morning, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published excerpts and summaries of an internal memo by 51 State Department officials calling for airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria. The key idea expressed in the memo is simple: take military action immediately to stem the tide of violence in Syria. It’s an understandable sentiment, especially from those who have been dealing with Syria’s barbaric civil war on a daily basis, as many of the signatories have. Unfortunately, it is also an exercise in wishful thinking, ignoring the concrete problems with further U.S. military commitment in Syria which have formed the basis for the Obama administration’s refusal to overthrow Assad.

The memo criticizes the Obama Administration’s decision to eschew military action in Syria, arguing instead for the “judicious use of stand-off and air weapons” against the Assad regime. Though such internal memos contesting the administration’s official policy – known as a ‘dissent channel cable’ – are not uncommon, the large number of signatories is more unusual. The memo blames the Assad regime’s violence towards civilians for both Syria’s instability and the appeal of ISIS, arguing that the moral rationale for airstrikes “is unquestionable.”

It is this moral rationale which appears to figure more highly for the authors than practical questions. Despite this, the memo stops short of explicitly calling for regime change, arguing instead that airstrikes will provide a credible threat against Bashar al-Assad and more solid footing for a future diplomatic settlement. But while the authors note that they are not “advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia,” they fail to note how such a confrontation could be avoided. And in calling for partnership with moderate Syrian rebels, the memo appears to gloss over the many problems inherent in finding and arming such ‘moderates,’ which often coexist and fight alongside far more extreme groups.

At the same time, such arguments sound suspiciously like those made in advance of the 2011 Libya intervention, which did not explicitly call for regime change, but embraced it wholeheartedly almost as soon as airstrikes began. And though they say otherwise, it is unclear how the authors’ call to work with Syrian rebel groups against both ISIS and the Assad regime is not a call for regime change in Syria. Among the more ironic lines reported to be in the memo is an argument that U.S. military action would “increase the chances for peace by sending a clear signal to the regime and its backers that there will be no military solution to the conflict.”

As observers have noted, it’s extremely unlikely that this memo will alter the Obama administration’s stance on Syria. The White House has been clear that any benefits of intervention against the Assad regime are far outweighed by the inherent risks of escalation and the practical obstacles to it. Yet the simple fact that the memo was simultaneously leaked to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, rather than simply referred through internal channels suggests that it was intended as much for public ears as official ones. Its existence has the potential to shape public debates on Syria in this election year.

The bias towards action seen in this report is understandable. In the face of human suffering, it is far easier to advocate for quick, effective military strikes than it is to pursue a process of patient diplomacy and humanitarian aid. But it is not always better in practice. It is extremely unlikely that U.S. airstrikes will improve the diplomatic process, or lessen Syria’s humanitarian toll. At the same time, airstrikes carry major risks: conflict with Russia, the empowerment of extremist groups, the further destabilization Syria, or even the collapse of today’s peace talks. The authors’ wishful thinking cannot reduce these risks.