Saturday, June 18, 2016

Dissent at the U.S. State Department -- The Syria Debacle

Smoke and flames rose after what fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces said were American-led airstrikes on the mills of Manbij where Islamic State militants are positioned, in Aleppo, Syria, on Thursday. Credit Rodi Said/Reuters
QUESTION: There are people who argue that the ability to achieve a political solution is enhanced when there is the credible threat of the use of force. Does the department believe that there has not been, particularly since the decision not to carry through with airstrikes in 2013 over the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons – that there has not been a credible threat of the use of military force against the Assad government and that the absence of such a credible threat has made it harder to negotiate, force through, achieve a political solution?
MR KIRBY [John Kirby, spokesperson, U.S. Department of State: We believe that the best way to achieve a lasting, sustainable peace in Syria is through the political process – a political solution. And for anybody seeking leverage through consequences, look no more than the continued devastation inside the country. It should be, although it doesn’t appear to be – to the Assad regime, anyway – readily apparent that you don’t need any more reason to try to find a political, peaceful way forward here. I mean, when you look at the millions of people who have left the country and those that are starving, the ones that have been gassed and barrel bombed, the expansion of groups like Daesh and al-Nusrah in Syria, you don’t – just look – taking 10 steps back from this issue and just looking at it in general, it’s hard for any reasonable person to try to make the case that you need more leverage than the current status quo
MR KIRBY: Look, I – I’m not going to speculate about what would or what wouldn’t benefit Daesh. I mean, to some degree – and the Secretary has talked about this – there is a symbiosis between the Assad regime and Daesh, and he’s said that many, many times. It is through Assad’s brutality that Daesh has been able to fester and grow into some – into ungoverned spaces. And one of the things that we’ve talked about routinely, although we haven’t said it – we haven’t talked about it recently, is we understand that while the future of Syria cannot include Bashar al-Assad, as we work through the – as we work through this political process to a transitional governing body, we recognize that some institutions of government – for instance, the security forces – in some form or fashion has got to stay intact so that there isn’t a complete collapse of an appropriate governing infrastructure inside the country as we work through this very difficult transitional process.
QUESTION: If the Syrian Government were to just immediately fall, what would happen to Syrian Christians? What would happen to Syrian Alawites?
MR KIRBY: It’s – look, I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals about a situation that we’re actually obviously trying to avoid. It isn’t about the fall of the regime. We are trying to get to a transitional process of governance that preserves even some of the existing infrastructure going forward, but that at the end of that process gets us to a government that is put in place by the Syrian people with their voices being heard and that doesn’t include Bashar al-Assad.
QUESTION: Are you aware of the statement made by President Putin to – actually warning the United States not to target Assad that was made today? U.S. State Department website

An unprecedented indication to the Obama administration was delivered to advise just how dissatisfied and in fact, furious American diplomats feel with respect to Mr. Obama's policy on American involvement in the maelstrom that is Syria. Over 50 State Department diplomats took the hugely unusual step of committing themselves to an initiative there is now no way of backing away from. It is now indelibly on the record for these diplomats, all considered to be mid-level, but whose discontent is claimed to be quietly backed by more influential senior diplomats.

The Syrian regime's persistence in attacking its civilian Sunni population in defiance of cease-fire initiatives which Syria itself agrees to, its unrelenting brutality, and the inescapable reality that almost a half-million Syrians have died in this five-year conflict, with half the pre-conflict population becoming internally displaced, and millions more refugees, a million of whom have flooded Europe all point to the disastrous lack of commitment and concern reflected in the American response.

A regime which saw nothing amiss in using chemical weapons on defenceless civilians, which never restrained itself from imprisoning and torturing children, starving neighbourhoods through sieges, and barrel-bombing cities where it insists that the population supports the rebels, has not distinguished itself other than in a manner closely reflecting the inhumanity of the Islamist jihadist ISIL group of terrorists. A no-fly zone having been established would have leveled the combat zone.

The memo to the administration is a formal instrument whereby through recognized channels workers in the State Department are able to convey their lack of agreement with initiatives undertaken by the government, released as a draft by a State Department official to the news media. According to that draft, American policy was "overwhelmed" by the relentless viciousness taking place in Syria. "A judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process", was called for.

To represent this as an embarrassment of unprecedented proportions to the White House is a classic understatement. The State Department -- at the very least a significant number of medium-to-high-ranking diplomats has by this considered action given the impression that they have little faith in the direction that the Obama administration has chosen in response to the Syrian catastrophe. From Mr. Obama's infamous "red line" standdown, to his hesitance to adequately arm the rebel resistance once Bashar al-Assad's military psychopathy was revealed, the American response has been inadequate.

Opportunities to intervene meaningfully were ample, and all slipped by. Now that the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin invested themselves forcefully with Russia's military into the quagmire, it might be seen as too late to steer a correction course without risking a wider, more violent crisis should two military giants come in direct confrontation with each pursuing a divergent end goal. 

As matters now stand, there exists no compulsion for President Assad to seriously pursue a lasting peace with his Syrian Sunni population; that bridge has been burnt. Moscow will insist and does insist that his absence from head of government in Syria remain non-negotiable. And the U.S. recent history with the Islamic Republic of Iran in the flaccid nuclear negotiations simply proffered to Iran an open opportunity to continue manipulating the Shiite arc of militaristic triumph in the geography. 

Former American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford said: "Many people working on Syria for the State Department have long urged a tougher policy with the Assad government as a means of facilitating arrival at a negotiated political deal to set up a new Syrian government." Mr. Ford's frustration with the administration's policy toward the Syrian conflict led him to resign from the Foreign Service in 2014. He has brought his expertise to the Middle East Institute from which perch he has the freedom to fume.

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