Are Obama's Syria Dissenters Right?
AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari, File
Are Obama's Syria Dissenters Right?
AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari, File

Joseph Cassidy is a 25-year veteran of the State Department, having served overseas in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and South America, and in Washington at the U.S. State Department and National Security Council. He is a 2016-2017 Fellow at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The views expressed here are the author's own.

Story Stream
recent articles

The State Department authors of the Syria Dissent Channel are brave for speaking out. They clearly are horrified by the humanitarian situation, and they are understandably frustrated by years of policy failure in the country. But are they right?

Much of the commentariat’s response to news of the Syria Dissent Channel message (mine included) has focused on procedural issues -- whether for instance the dissent reflects disagreements within the State Department itself, or between State and the White House; whether Syria will become a campaign issue; and how the Obama administration might respond. That does the authors a disservice, since they have made a specific recommendation on a rather serious subject -- that the United States engage in armed conflict with another state.

Any Dissent Channel message must assume a broad knowledge of the underlying issue. There is no way a three-and-a-half-page memo can provide a full rationale for going to war, and that is not its job. But policymakers and commentators owe it to the authors to weigh their views carefully. If we have learned anything from the debacle that has been the war in Iraq, it should be that use of force without a clearly defined strategic-level goal and long-term commitment is likely to yield only broken bodies, wasted money, and diminished international influence.

The Dissent Channel memo eloquently recalls and reinforces a diplomatic axiom: that negotiations with ruthless adversaries (such as an Assad regime facing an existential security threat) are doomed without leverage. Their recommendation of a tailored bombing campaign to create pressure is a plausible tactic used many times throughout U.S. history. Its utility in the Syrian context, however, would depend on whether the bombing of Assad regime targets enhances our influence over negotiations and cows the regime, or whether it might instead precipitate the collapse of diplomatic efforts to establish the basis for real peace talks.

And of course there are legal questions about whether such a campaign would be deemed legitimate under U.S. and international law; moral considerations of possible collateral damage; political questions about the prerogatives of the executive and legislative branches; a budgetary decision on whether to spend taxpayer money on a conflict of choice at a time of economic uncertainty; and the grave responsibility Obama or the next president would have of putting American servicemen and women at risk.

It is necessary to assess those criteria. However, we first need to know where we should be headed. The authors identify as a near-term goal an Assad regime less capable of attacking civilians and more willing to abide by a cease-fire. But a cease-fire amidst the rubble, with Assad still in power, ISIS on the loose, and civil institutions shattered is an awfully dismal goal, and I’m not sure most Americans would support use of force if such a condition were our aim.

If the authors go too far in proposing a specific use of force before identifying a compelling strategic goal, they don’t go far enough in explaining what really needs to be done. (I suspect they know, but a call for an even more dramatic engagement might have seemed even harder to compellingly argue in a short memorandum to skeptics.)

I share the frustration of the Dissent Channel authors. I worked on Syria while multilateral director on the National Security Council staff in 2011-2012. While I was proud that we built broad multilateral coalitions willing to condemn and isolate Assad, our efforts at the United Nations had little effect in persuading Damascus to stop atrocities or to seek a negotiated outcome. Even robust economic sanctions and limited support for proxy armed groups within Syria have been unable to do that.

I suspect the memo writers believe that no peaceful solution is possible while Assad clings to power, both because he is a malevolent actor and because his presence is intolerable to the survivors of his brutality. After the experience of the last few years, I agree. But if that is the case, what matters is not just creating a transfer of power, but also that the new authorities have sufficient credibility, authority, competence, control, resources, commitment to the welfare of Syria’s people, vision, and logistical support to avoid another round of chaos in Syria (or whatever state or collection of states emerge from the rubble).

If the goal is to “put an end to this conflict once and for all,” as the memo authors state in their last line, then what is needed is nation-building -- however low that phrase has fallen since American misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and we should be fully engaged in the task now, even before the transition.

Understandably, the prospect of building a functioning Syrian society from scratch is daunting. Baathist rule was significantly totalitarian, and few civic institutions escaped regime control. The sectarian carnage of the last few years has poisoned the atmosphere for intercommunal cooperation. From the lowest level, state functions and civil society will have to be reconstructed, reformed, and funded. And that can’t be done inside Syria except in stable areas occupied by non-radical armed groups. Teachers, medical and social workers, police and fire personnel, water/sanitation and other utility workers, small businesspeople, and local government administrators of all kinds will have to be identified, trained, and paid.

Even if the conflict in Syria and Western Iraq by some miracle ended tomorrow, nation-building in the northern Levant will take generations. Of American foreign policy, it will demand three things sometimes in short supply: patience, humility, and long-term commitment. And it needs to start now, because as we saw in Iraq, nation-building does not happen spontaneously after a political transition. An organized governing framework is rather a necessary condition for a successful transition.

Syria therefore needs a “Local Administration in Exile” more than it does a political-level “Government in Exile” right now. While the resources required to establish associated training institutions will be huge, one thing the effort should not lack is Syrians. Refugees with useful skills must be convinced to take part. Refugees without immediately useful skills should be usefully trained. Syrians outside the country need to be part of the international effort to fix their homeland.

The authors of the Syria Dissent Channel memo have done an important service, highlighting the failure of our Syria diplomacy and prompting an overdue debate about our tactics. They have correctly diagnosed that our negotiators lack the leverage to conclude a sustainable peace deal, and they have reminded us of our moral obligation to do more than simply watch in horror. But if the goal is to fix Syria, this frustrating and sad failed state, then a decision on whether or how to use force against the regime only makes sense if we are ready to build something in its place.