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Dissent Channel State Department Memo on Syria

The New York Times has the text of the dissent channel memo regarding Syria, although it is displayed in somewhat unusual format.  Here is a link to the text:

The Washington Post also has a story about the memo.

I do not agree with the dissenters.  I don’t think Assad will leave unless he is physically pushed out, either by the US, the rebels, or his subordinates.  If he is pushed out, there is no guarantee that whoever replaces him will be any better.  I think it is unlikely that moderate rebels will replace him, although ISIL’s defeat in Fallujah is encouraging. Our failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya do not bode well for success in Syria.  The fact that it is a civil war characterized by sectarian hatred makes the conflict even more intractable.  I understand the outrage and concern about the humanitarian disaster that the war has created, leading to the mass migration of refugees to Europe, but I don’t think that more military action in Syria will improve that.  We might be able to set aside some refugee areas within Syria that are no fire zones, and that could be supported by aid agencies, but that’s about it.  We can’t settle this conflict unless most of the parties want us to.  

The text of the memo from the NYT follows


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moderate rebel groups’ role in defeating Da’esh, and help bring an end to the

broader instability the conflict generates.

3. (SBU) 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

4. (SBU) With over 400,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands still at risk from

regime sieges, and 12 million people from a population of 23 million displaced

from their homes, we believe the moral rationale for taking steps to end the deaths

and suffering in Syria, after five years of brutal war, is evident and unquestionable. 

The regime’s actions directly result in broader instability and undermine the

international system responsible for protection of civilians, prevention of mass

atrocities, and accountability for grave violations.  The strategic imperatives for

taking steps to end the bloodshed are numerous and equally compelling.

5. (SBU) 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


6. (SBU) 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

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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.    

7. (SBU) Third, putting additional constraints on the regime’s ability to bomb and

shell both fighting forces and unambiguously civilian targets would have a direct,

mitigating impact on the refugee and IDP crisis.  This crisis has deeply affected

Syria’s neighbors for years and is now impacting our European partners in far-

reaching ways that may ultimately jeopardize their very character as open, unified,

and democratic societies.  Even in the United States, the crisis in Syria has lent

credence to prejudiced ideologies that we thought had been discredited years ago. 

Furthermore, the calm that would ensue after the regime’s warplanes are grounded

would lessen the importance of armed actors, strengthen civil society throughout

the country, and open the space for increased dialogue among communities. 

8. (SBU) 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.  

9. (SBU) U.S. military power would serve to promote regime compliance with the

CoH, and in so doing save lives and alter battlefield dynamics.  The May 17 ISSG

declaration states, “Where the co-chairs believe that a party to the cessation of

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hostilities has engaged in a pattern of persistent non-compliance, the Task Force

could refer such behavior to the ISSG Ministers or those designated by the

Ministers to determine appropriate action, including the exclusion of such

parties from the arrangements of the cessation and the protection it affords

them.”  Making clear our willingness to impose consequences on the Asad regime

would increase U.S. negotiating leverage with regard to all parties, rally partners

around U.S. leadership, and raise the costs for others to continue obstructing a

sustainable end to the conflict.  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.  

10. (SBU) 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

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