“Dissent Channel Memo” on Syria

June 22, 2016

Fifty-one State Department officials have signed a “dissent channel memo” calling for a “more militarily assertive U.S. role in Syria”.

The availability of a “dissent channel” constitutes solid proof of respect for different opinions and their free expression in a government agency and is only to be envied. Secretary Kerry’s having a meeting with representatives of the group is also remarkable. In a department dealing with foreign affairs this all the more important because it ensures that policy decisions are adopted having taken full account of the collective wisdom of its members. Needless to say, once committed, foreign policy mistakes can be extremely costly and difficult to correct; a case in point being Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Recommendations issued in the dissent channel memo do not represent modest adjustments but rather hard-nosed policy revisions, thus begging the question “why now?” since the Syrian conflict is in its fifth year. As such, it could be targeting the next administration. The choice of timing aside, I disagree with the main thrust of the memo which was addressed to the Director of Policy Planning.

It was some time after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The then Director of Policy Planning visited Ankara. He had talks with us on a wide range of subjects, prominently among them Iraq. I remember him telling us that Iraq was soon to become a “beacon of democracy”; that people from poorer Arab countries would go there to work and carry back home democratic ideas. We were surprised. Some of us thought that he was trying to calm our worries regarding Iraq’s future. Unfortunately, thirteen years later, Iraq is not a “beacon of democracy”. On the contrary, it remains plagued by sectarian conflict and even its remaining a united country cannot be taken for granted.

Propositions for another US military intervention in the Middle East, no matter what the scope, cannot side-step the Iraq experience.

The memo says, “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…”

Nearly three years ago, on October 16, 2013, the BBC reported that about half a million people had died in Iraq as a result of war-related causes between the US-led invasion in 2003 and mid-2011 according to an academic study. The toll established by university researchers from the US, Canada and Iraq included not only violent deaths from the invasion and subsequent insurgency, but avoidable fatalities linked to infrastructure collapse. So, one is entitled to ask what does “moral rational” say for Iraq …

The memo mentions the “moderate opposition”. Following is an excerpt from the interview President Obama gave Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times on August 8, 2014:
“With “respect to Syria,” said the President, “the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”
“Even now, the President said, the administration has difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”

The interview was given more than two-and-a-half years after a series of ostentatious “Friends of Syria Group” meetings were launched, the first on February 24, 2012 in Tunis. Could President Obama, leader of world’s “sole superpower” as President Putin called the US last week in Moscow, a leader with all the intelligence, knowledge and analytical capacity available to him, have failed to judge what the “moderate opposition” could or could not accomplish? Of course, Washington’s regional partners, among them Turkey, predicted rapid regime change from within but reality eventually overcame fantasy.

The memo says that a de facto alliance with the regime against Da’esh would not guarantee success and that Assad’s military is undermanned and exhausted. Later, it says that its authors recognize that military action is not a panacea and that the Assad regime might prove resilient even in the face of U.S. strikes; and that the risk of further deterioration in US-Russian relations is significant. Thus, it seems that the authors of the memo find it difficult to judge regime’s military capability, Russian involvement being a complicating factor.

The memo also conveniently avoids the question of international legitimacy. On 18 March 2011, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 on Libya. The resolution authorized member states to take all necessary measures to protect civilians while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory. However, the intention of the Sarkozy-Cameron led diplomatic effort had been regime change from the very beginning. The force with which these operations were conducted caused discomfort in Arab capitals. Russia and China which had abstained in the UNSC vote expressed concern over the scale of air strikes. (It is worth recalling that Brazil, India and Germany had also abstained.) So, there is no chance the UNSC would approve a similar a resolution for Syria.

Authors of the memo say that for Syria’s Sunni population Assad regime is the principal enemy. A dose of caution could be useful here because in the absence of a viable “moderate” alternative, segments of Syria’s Sunni population may prefer the continuation of the regime, with some give-and-take, to further chaos with no end in sight. One may also say that the vast majority of mainstream Syrians probably wish today that the Arab Spring fire had never spread to their country with flames fanned from outside.

In Iraq regime change was accomplished with force. Against advice from Turkey and other like-minded countries, Sunni officials in state institutions and particularly the army officers were summarily dismissed creating a void. Since then, governments in Baghdad representing the Shi’i majority have ignored Sunni interests paving the way for country’s sectarian conflict. Whereas in the past, Iraqis cared about their national identity. How else could Iraq have fought Iran in an eight-year war lasting from 1980 to 1988? Despite promises to keep state institutions in place, with five years of sectarian warfare and hundreds of thousands dead, a similar picture may emerge in Syria, with the Alawite and the Sunni having changed roles. And, vengeance may follow.

Despite repetitive UNSC resolutions, maintaining Syria’s unity and territorial integrity remains a huge challenge. A “more muscular US military posture” as suggested in the memo cannot change the broad picture. The US and Russia do not have to clash over Syria like they did over Ukraine. The urgency of defeating ISIL in Syria, Iraq and the wider Middle East provides Washington and Moscow with enough common ground to cooperate. They must first fully and publicly agree on who is a terrorist and who is not and then weigh in on Syria’s political transition. This may sound like mission impossible but there is no other option.

The US is already engaged militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Refraining from a third military intervention in the Middle East is a good investment for long-term American interests in the region. It would be wiser to wait for this investment to bear fruit than to prescribe “militarized responses” to every challenge to use President Obama’s words to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine.

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