Russia’s assertive stance in Syria might be paying off, as witnessed by a controversial memo signed by more than 50 U.S. State Department officials. The memo hints at discord and dissension over U.S. foreign policy in Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) arrive for ther meeting in Vienna, Austria, May 16, 2016. Photo: AP
Last week, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published a critical memo originating within the U.S. State Department that urges the Administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to carry out airstrikes against the government of Syria's President Bashar Assad. The document, signed by 51 mid-level diplomats who are involved in the State Department’s Syria and Mideast policy planning, criticized the Obama Administration for allowing Assad to violate the cessation of hostilities and derail the diplomatic process in the country.
While the memo was filed in the so-called “dissent channel” that allows officers to voice disagreement with current policy without the fear of reprisal, the sheer number of signatories suggests that this “dissent” borders on serious internal disagreements within the U.S. government. While the memo is unlikely to change the overall direction of the U.S. strategy in Syria, it speaks volumes about the dynamics in Washington and might even diplomatically empower Russia.
More surprising, however, is the fact that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seems to have taken sides with the authors of the memo. Talking to journalists in Copenhagen recently, Kerry suggested that, “It’s an important statement.” Some in Washington claim that Kerry has been raising the issue of limited military action against the Syrian Army in meetings with President Obama.
In other words, the memo that was distributed to the media in such a timely manner reiterates one key point: Disagreements over Syria within the U.S. government are big enough to stall the decision-making process.
President Obama’s position of “no boots on the ground” is unsurprising, both from the historic and the strategic perspectives. No direct U.S. involvement in the Middle East ever ended successfully, an idea that may have guided Obama in Syria from Day 1. Air strikes against the Assad government would be detrimental to his political legacy as Obama enters the final months in the Oval Office, but more importantly, would significantly reduce the chances of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton taking his place.
While the White House’s cautious position is understandable, what is most surprising is that the State Department openly takes a hawkish stance on Syria. With Kerry maintaining for the past three years that there could only be a political solution to the Syrian war, the State Department memo makes one question how committed Secretary Kerry’s team is to finding one.
Even more surprising is the statement that, “The foundations are not currently in place for an enduring ceasefire and consequential negotiations.” This is supposedly what the United States has been pushing for alongside Russia.
Kerry’s frustration with the U.S. policy in Syria, which has been widely covered by the media, stems from the general direction in which the diplomatic process is going. Unlike Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who has the might of the Russian military to support his arguments, the U.S. Secretary of State comes to the negotiating table with almost no levers to use to pressure Assad and his allies.
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One may argue that the Kurds, who have grown to become quite a powerful force, are America’s staunchest allies in Syria, but the State Department cable reveals that the signatories do not see them as a long-term ally. The memo says that “Kurdish YPG fighters cannot - and should not - be expected to project power and hold terrain deep into non-Kurdish areas.” [YPG is an acronym for People's Protection Units, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party in Syria. – Editor's note]
In the end, the State Department document advocates for “bolstering moderate rebel groups’ role in defeating Da’esh [Da'esh is an Arabic acronym for ISIS. - Editor's note].” This has essentially turned into a mantra in U.S. foreign policy - but with no details as to what the real instruments of doing so are.
American historian and retired army colonel Andrew Bacevich addresses the very points State Department officers raised in his recent book America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. Bacevich argues that in the last 36 years that the United States has been involved in the region, it gave “a preference for uniforms over suits,” which is precisely what makes peace unattainable.
The memo, however, shows that the longer Russia calls the shots in Syria, the less coherent American strategy in this conflict becomes. The disagreements within the State Department prove that, by maintaining a zero-sum game in the Syrian war for long enough, Moscow has made Washington significantly less assertive. In other words, the Kremlin does not need to change its approach to cooperation with the U.S.on Syria, because the United States itself is struggling to speak with a unified voice.
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It would be naive to think that Russia will not try to exploit what it thinks is the weakness of U.S. diplomacy. The Kremlin’s muted reaction to the State Department memo only means that it is saving this opportunity for lambasting Washington in the future. And quite frankly, Washington did provide a few powerful arguments on a silver platter to Moscow, which it will make sure to put to good use.
The next time the White House criticizes Russia for its mischief in Syria, the Kremlin may roll out a barrage of criticism over Washington’s advocacy for violence and disregard for international law. Ongoing exchanges of heated arguments, however, may succeed in just one thing: distracting attention from the ceasefire that has completely unraveled.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.