The Syria dilemma: Dissecting the leaked diplomats memo calling for Obama to get tougher on Assad

Something smells fishy when a hawkish State Dept. memo "leaks" to the Times on the eve of Sec. Clinton's nomination

Published June 24, 2016 7:19PM (EDT)

Barack Obama   (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
Barack Obama (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

It has been clear for some time that the Syria conflict was bound to turn into some magnitude of Waterloo for the policy cliques in Washington. It is doing so as we speak. Read into this carefully and you find that you are living through a moment of history.

Prompting this thought is a State Department memorandum intentionally shared last week with the government-supervised New York Times. It is nominally the work of 51 dissenting diplomats none of whom are named — and calls for “a more muscular military posture” in Syria. There is a lot of subtle choreography in this development — the document, the pre-arranged “leak,” the Times’ unusually extensive parse of the memorandum’s language, the staged public debate that ensued. A certain story is being conveyed. It is worth understanding it—providing you understand it is a story and it is being told to advise you of the proper way to think about Syria, what we have done there and what we may do in the future.   

Before proceeding further, the “dissent channel” letter provided for publication in the Times is here in draft form. And here  is the Times’ careful interpretation of it as carried in Wednesday’s paper.

I urge readers to consider the document and the Times’ analysis with a couple of thoughts halfway back in the mind:

One, you are reading an expression of “frustration, even outrage,” as the Times put it, as those who execute American policy abroad discover they no longer enjoy the limitless prerogative they were trained to expect and exercise. This is the larger interpretation of what has just been put before us, and it is very large. It is at last dawning on the Foggy Bottom set that they are living in the 21st century. The news may arrive bitterly, but those favored in a given era are always going to regret its passing. These we call reactionaries.

Two, Hillary Clinton is likely to be elected Barack Obama’s successor in a few short months. This may seem entirely unrelated to the newly disclosed memo, but in my view just the opposite is the case: Clinton’s anticipated victory in November is what this document is all about.  

I will return to both these points.


Where were we on the Syria question Thursday, June 15, when State gave the Times a supposedly in-house, diplomat-to-diplomat letter the administration plainly wanted to disseminate to America’s paying-attention minority? What was the state of play?

The C.I.A.’s long-established practice of funding and arming people we ought not have anything to do with long ago exposed the freedom-fighter narrative as the farcical flop watchful people always understood it to be. Regime change—that term we Americans use to avoid honest reference to our actual behavior—did not work out in Syria and, it is now clear, will not. Coups unlawfully backed by a great power have to proceed quickly to succeed: They otherwise turn into swamps—precisely as Syria has for Washington.

The coup de foudre struck on the last day of last September, when Russian jets set out on their first bombing sorties on behalf of the Syrian Arab Army. From that moment to this, it has become ever easier to discern in the Syria conflict the anatomy of a very consequential failure in post–Cold War American foreign policy. There was a reason Moscow’s move prompted Keystone Kops mayhem among the suddenly spluttering policy cliques. The larger implications of the Syria conflict announced themselves that day, and in my read there is no going back from them. We are watching the tide turn on American prerogative, if I have this right, and I cannot see how our frustrated, outraged younger diplomats will retrieve what they were taught to assume as their birthright.   

To the extent Washington ever had the initiative in Syria— and that is a question—it had lost it by mid–June. A policy apparently based on what is sometimes called “strategic ambiguity”—usually another term for duplicity—had more or less crashed, the problem being there was never anything ambiguous about it. The Islamic State’s swift rise in Syria obliged Washington to say—always weakly and foggily, never clearly—that it had overcome its obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with fomenting a coup in Damascus. But little since suggests this is so, and the world beyond our shores has taken notice.  

Even in the peace talks the U.S. jointly sponsored with Russia last February, it is apparent that removing Bashar al–Assad from power—not defeating ISIS, not creating a space wherein Syrians can determine their future government for themselves—remains the American imperative. Secretary of State Kerry, apparently thinking he could put this over on the Russians and force Assad out of power by way of negotiation, seems to have invested heavily in the Geneva process. But he over-estimated his own wizardry in blurring America’s intentions and under-estimated Moscow’s contempt for Islamists dressed up as “moderates” and hence its commitment to a settlement that leaves Syria to Syrians. So it seems to me. At the mahogany table as in the Syrian desert, it has not worked for the Americans.

This has been my conclusion for some time, but it is plainly shared in Washington by an apparently widening circle. Now comes the memorandum everyone makes a fuss about. How shall we read this peculiar document? What makes it worth thinking about?

In the simplest terms, it argues for the use of force against the Assad government. It advocates “a more militarily assertive use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hardnose U.S.–led diplomatic process.” Stand-off weapons refers to cruise missiles and long-range artillery; air weapons is an apparent reference to a no-fly zone that would effectively ground the Syrian air force. There is no mention, I need to add right away, of the Russian jets still conducting bombing runs in what would be the no-fly zone. As to the diplomatic process just noted, this refers to “talks… to produce a transitional government.” No mention, either, of democratic process or the will of Syrians.

The striking thing is there is nothing new in any of this. In effect, the letter is a classic example of military-force-first policies that are rooted in the Cold War decades and are now standard fare among diplomats and in the international-relations programs wherein they are trained. “What is with all this diplomacy,” the 51 dissenters, who are sharply critical of the Obama administration’s Syria strategy, may as well have asked.

This argument on the Syria question has been evident in Washington for several years. Why is it news now, one has to ask. Why, the day after the Times was handed a draft of the letter, did it lead the paper with this story? This makes no sense to me: A memo complaining diplomats with no power send their superiors via internal mail is not a page 1 lead by any balanced professional measure. So the search for an agenda begins. (There is not, you may wish to note, any kind of hunt on for the man or woman who divulged this “SBU”—sensitive but unclassified—text.)

Two other dimensions of this document are worth noting briefly.

One, the arguments marshaled to justify military intervention in Syria short of a commitment of American troops deserve consideration. There are umpteen mentions of “daily mass killings of civilians,” “egregious violations of human rights” and other such things the Assad government is charged with committing. All, some or none of this may be true, a question addressed in my last column. Whichever is the case, one would have to be dim beyond imagining to take this kind of talk seriously as it emanates from the policy cliques. These are the same people who re-installed the dictatorship in Egypt three years ago to bloody effect and who have nothing to say about Erdoğan’s horror show in Turkey, the Saudi bombings in Yemen or the atrocious violations of rights the Saudis and the Gulf monarchies commit as matters of routine.

A couple of sentences in the letter attracted me for telling us more than they were intended to. “We believe the moral rationale for taking steps to end the deaths and suffering in Syria … is evident and unquestionable,” the dissenters asserted. “The strategic imperatives for taking steps the end the bloodshed are numerous and equally compelling.”

Revealing, as I read it. A rationale is a credible justification, not a reason and not necessarily an authentic motive. The moral dimensions of the Syria crisis are indeed evident and unquestionable, but State’s dissenters, in Washington’s long tradition, are merely attempting to leverage them.

Second point. There are by definition no “strategic imperatives” attaching to “ending bloodshed.” This is just the kind of smudgy, nonsensical language Washington uses to muddle the minds of righteous Americans. Strategic imperatives are the very name of the game in Syria, but they have nothing to do with ending bloodshed. They are to counter the Russians by ousting Moscow’s remaining ally in the Middle East and host to its only Mediterranean naval base. This is great-power rivalry in its 21st century variation—our post–Cold War Cold War, which has nothing to do with humane conduct and everything to do with power.  

The arguments advanced in the dissenters’ letter, in sum, are the kind of moral boilerplate that routinely issues from Washington but cannot stand up to even a glancing reference to history. They are certainly not the basis on which policy is determined and executed. As any honest veteran of the State Department will tell you, it is those strategic imperatives that count within the policy cliques—a point so obvious I ought not have to make it. These are not once elaborated in the dissenters’ letter—a point much worth making.  

The lesson I draw is simple: This memo simply does not pass as the kind of thing diplomats say to one another. We will never know and I claim no certainty, but public consumption was in all likelihood the reason this document—nicely sexed up with that “SBU” designation—was written. In no wise do I put this kind of ruse past either State or the Times.


What are the intentions—stated and unstated—of this memorandum? What does it purport to advocate? Why, once again, is a long-running argument in Washington’s policy circles suddenly punched up into front-page news? And why all the artifice, which I rate as pretty good but not good enough to achieve invisibility?

The letter’s argument is obvious but not without its subtleties. The dissenters—assuming for the moment there are 51 dissenting diplomats at State and this memo was not written by the department’s leadership—think the U.S. should counter the Syrian Arab Army—Assad’s army, the only uniformed military fighting the Islamic State. The S.A.A.’s progress against ISIS has been evident since the Russian bombing campaign began, and this, it is plain, is the problem.

It comes down, once again, to those elusive moderates we never get to see or hear, whose leaders are never invited to Washington and are never on the Sunday morning news shows, whose names and alliances change regularly, whose intentions and ideologies are never made plain in our news reports—and, let us not omit, whose numerous and grotesque human rights violations are never mentioned. Those moderates. To the dissenters, the important thing is “to bolster moderate rebels’ role in defeating Da’esh,” as the Islamic State is also known. They want to “shift the tide in the war against the regime.”

See what is going on here? By their own description these people are not especially concerned about defeating the Islamic State. Its atrocities and dangers, it is worth noting, are never mentioned. ISIS matters only insofar as it bears upon the project as it has always been—the coup-in-Damascus project. The problem since last autumn has been Assad’s progress against ISIS. This is objectionable and must be countered. If there must be progress against ISIS, our moderates must get in on it. Otherwise, the S.A.A. may eventually defeat the Islamic State decisively and Washington’s coup will be yet further off.

Ask yourself: Is this smart? Do these people have clear minds? Their argument is that we must “shift the tide in the war against the regime.” This is the priority and we must think hard about it. The best way to defeat the radical Islamists the regime is fighting, they assert, is to support those fighting the regime (and not, so far as one can make out, the Islamic State, because many of them are also radical Islamists). You may need to read that sentence twice, but I cannot help you this time: Bowl-of-noodles logic such as we have in the memorandum put before us comes out as a bowl of noodles when described.

The larger project, as already suggested, is to regain—or maybe just gain—the American initiative in the Syria conflict. It is “sending a clear signal to the regime and its backers that there will not be a military solution to the conflict,” the letter states. This will be accomplished by forcing, via military intervention, those attempting to negotiate a settlement to accept American preference—its demand that the Assad government be removed without reference to democratic process.  “The United States needs to commandeer the negotiations and force Syria to compromise,” as Max Fisher, the New York Times analyst assigned to this letter, puts it.

Got that? Commandeer. And then compromise, you see. We want compromise after we are finished commandeering.

I do not see success inscribed anywhere in this ridiculous excuse for reasoning. I see continued crisis and suffering in Syria and an American policy failure whose implications grow ever larger with every effort to salvage what history incessantly tells us is unsalvageable.

The publication of the dissenters’ letter has been followed by a carefully managed airing of the administration’s views: Vice-President Biden went on the talk shows last Sunday to refute the memo’s contents; David Sanger, the Times’ national security correspondent, subsequently reported on Kerry’s encounter with the dissenters in a meeting held in his office. Plainly the administration intends to put the Syria question before us, but there are a couple of ways to understand why it has chosen this moment to rehash old arguments.

Both of the most plausible explanations have to do with Hillary Clinton’s near-certain success in her presidential campaign, in my read. I do not see how this cannot bear upon the Obama administration’s motives. Read the document. However else one may interpret its thesis, it is a straight-out recitation of Clinton’s position on what to do to resolve the Syrian crisis and retrieve America’s pretensions to global leadership (with which Clinton is obsessed).

It may be that President Obama, who still inclines to diplomacy over force, now seeks to distance himself from Clinton’s decidedly more hawkish plans for American policy in Syria. In effect, this implies he is replying in advance to what he is now more or less certain is coming soon enough after November 8.

Or is the administration courteously preparing the ground for Clinton’s shift into a policy of greater military engagement? This could also be the case.

Alternatively, it could be both of the above, given that these explanations do not necessarily cancel each other out.

Let us watch.

Footnote: This column marks my third anniversary at Salon. With it the byline changes in accordance with my name and confusion readers have mentioned in the mail can be done away with: “Patrick L. Smith” is now Patrick Lawrence.

By Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at His web site is

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Barack Obama Bashar Al-assad Hillary Clinton New York Times Syria