Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A CWCP Conversation: The State Department 51

Over the past two days, CWCP President Dr. Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman conducted a conversation over email on the recent revelations about the "State Department 51". In short, 51 State Department officials signed an internal memo criticizing America's current Syria policy and arguing for airstrikes against the Assad regime. Because of the number of officials who signed on to the memo, and because of the apparent sharp divisions within the State Department and between the State Department and the White House, this memo has been characterized as "unprecedented."

Brad Nelson: So what do you think about the news reports that 51 State Department officials--in a clear dissent against existing US policy--want the Obama administration to up its game in Syria by militarily targeting the Assad government?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Well, I have a mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, I do believe that they are right, that without any military pressure on Assad, the US is basically giving up the game, in the sense that there's no way Assad is going to step down or make a political compromise. There won't be any reconciliation at all. The country will remain divided along ethnic and religious lines, with the Sunnis basically giving up the political process and ending up radicalized in the long run, setting up the country for future troubles.  Another potential problem is that Hezbollah, which, already a major player in region, will take a much stronger role in both Syria and Lebanon. This in turn will have regional impacts, especially on Lebanon and Israel.

On the other hand, this is already way late in the game, where the position of Assad has already been solidified thanks to Russia, Iran, and aforementioned Hezbollah's assistance. The rebels are in disarray, and hate each other. And some are discredited due to their linkage with the Islamic State (and don't make me start on Al Nusra!) Besides, Obama has lost every shred of credibility on Syria. Remember that notorious "Red Line"? And that's before the Russians put their boots on the ground. The US is basically expected to start a conflict against a well-entrenched Russian force and risk breaking the nuclear deal with Iran? There's no way the Obama administration is going to do that.
In essence, Syria will be another headache in a long run for another administration.

BN: I can understand the frustration that government officials have with Obama's policy toward Syria and ISIS. The Syrian civil war continues, the refugee problem only worsens, the genocidal Assad is still in power, and ISIS headquarters (in Iraq and Syria), despite territorial setbacks, is still alive and its supporters/sympathizers are launching violent attacks globally. And this status quo has held for years now. It's indeed a troubling situation.

That said, in my view, militarily targeting Assad, at this point, probably isn't a good idea. It likely won't force Assad to hold to extant cease-fires and it likely won't bring him to the negotiating table. As long as Assad has Russia in his back pocket, he's mostly free to do as he wishes. The plan of the State Department dissenters will only reinvigorate Russia's backing for Assad, which really has never wavered (it's still attacking pro-US rebels) despite pledges to the contrary, and risk a direct deadly military conflict between Washington and Moscow. If the critics want to get to Assad, then they have to think of creative ways to get Russia--or more specifically, Putin--to change its view and policy on the continuation of Assad in power. 

YS: I think we both agree on the futility of the demands of the rogue State Department officials. But at the same time, the question is: What’s next? As far as I see, Obama has—rightly or wrongly, depending on your view—abdicated America’s interest in the region, giving Assad (and Russia and Iran) free hands, allowing them to do whatever they wish, thereby degrading America’s influence in deciding the ultimate outcome in Syria—and simply training a rag-tag bunch of rebels that the Hezbollah, al-Nusra, and ISIS have bulldozed does not count!

And at the same time, this policy inadvertently gives Turkey a lot of power on the refugees. Just witness European Union's impotence over all human rights abuses in Turkey, and even the Germans have simply rolled over when Erdogan has told them to do so (e.g. squelching the criticism to Turkey).  And the Saudis are doing whatever they want the region, with the United States playing the second fiddle (e.g., see Yemen). No wonder Netanyahu isn’t even giving any lip service to Obama.
I don't have any faith at all that Obama is going to do anything in his remaining months in office. Russia doesn’t care about Obama’s views. And there won't be any concession at all from Tehran, since for that regime, "giving up" their nukes has already been a huge concession anyway (I put that scare quote on purpose).

I would think that Trump administration would actually be in a marginally better position vis-a-vis Russia, simply because it looks to me that Putin likes and prefers Trump and probably wants to build better relations. I think Putin genuinely likes him -- quite similar to Silvio Berlusconi, an infamous wheeler and dealer type of guy. While on the other hand, Putin would see Hillary as a continuation of Obama, whom I don't think Putin respects at all. But regardless of whomever is in command in Washington, the Syrians are screwed anyway.

BN: Obama made the gamble that the Syrian civil war would end fairly quickly, with Assad toppled, pro-reform rebels in power, and little collateral damage. Team Obama never recovered from that wrong bet. He's floundered since then, completely unprepared for what did happen in reality. His best move would've been to try to contain the instability and violence, once Assad steadied himself and the rebels were infiltrated by extremists, both of which occurred in 2012. By that I mean Team Obama, among other things, should've moved quickly on establishing safe zones inside Syria, refrained from calling for Assad's ouster, and put together a robust anti-terror coalition. Of course, none of things happened. Absent a strategy for dealing with Syria, and later ISIS, Obama simply went with his default policy, which is to find ways to minimize the military and economic costs of US involvement in overseas missions and interventions. In practice, then, the America's Syria policy has consisted of minimal cost, low effort, and absent leadership.

I still think Obama--and if not him, then his successor--should set up safe zones. Yes, these would have to be administered and protected. I don't think this would be a big a problem as Obama thinks. In fact, I think the Russians could be persuaded to leave these safe zones alone, as long as Obama toned down any talk of Assad leaving power. Sure, ISIS is trouble, and safe zones would serve as a magnet for Jihadis. But a multinational force, perhaps headed by the US, could keep these zones relatively safe. And if these zones are safe and secure, more than enough international organizations would be willing to pitch in to deal with food, water, shelter, health care, and the like.

I think my recommendation is the moral thing to do so. It would also help neighboring countries and Europe, which are struggling mightily with the in-flux of refugees. It might defuse a bit the highly politicized talk in the US about bringing in Syrian refugees. It would go some way toward reestablishing a sense of American leadership in the world. And most importantly, it would help to keep alive people who desperately need external assistance and support.

YS: The problem with "safe zones," especially under Obama, is that I doubt the Russians/Syrians/Iranians would believe that it is simply a safe zone. They looked at what happened in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, and saw that as the first step for regime change/partition. Especially the Libyan case. I suspect that the US/France/Britain had secretly promised not to get rid of Qaddafi in order to secure both Russia and China's agreements not to veto any UN resolution. Putin saw himself being played for a fool and thus will seek to prevent a second serving -- which explains why Russia is placing the notorious Buk missile system in both Ukraine and Syria – by blocking the emergence of these safe-zones in Syria. There is no way Russia would allow the establishment of any kind of pro-US enclave that could be used as springboard against Assad. I doubt Putin believes that Obama is uninterested in getting rid of Assad.

Thus my mixed feeling about the demands from the 51 State Department folks. I recognize the downsides, but there's simply no other credible option for Obama to deal with this knotty situation except through the credible escalation of force that could push Assad to the negotiating table. Yet at the same time, given the calendar, there are also electoral considerations. Any escalation of tensions (and risk) would probably benefit Trump in the polls/vote. So in addition to his foreign policy views and inclinations, Obama has an extra incentive to play it safe in international affairs. As long as he manages to keep things quiet on both domestic and foreign policy, Hillary will sail through the election.

BN: You've pointed out one of Obama's sins of commission: that Obama called for Assad's ouster, and that Obama probably shouldn't have done so. His anti-Assad stance has made it more difficult to get Assad to the negotiating table and to get Russia on board with the US. Unfortunately, Assad and Putin very likely believe that the US has maximal demands and interests: a pro-reform government in Damascus, the elimination of terrorists, and the reduction of Russia's influence in Syria.

Nevertheless, I still think the safe zones idea could work and is the morally right thing for the US to implement. At this point, it would take some work for Obama and John Kerry to credibly signal that the US is only interested in protecting the lives of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire and doesn't have expansionist aims. But it doesn't seem like Obama is willing to put in the effort--despite that, I don't doubt, John Kerry and Samantha Power, among others, would be willing to the requisite legwork.

In the end, you're probably right that a new US administration, with a blank slate, would be in a better position to help on humanitarian and conflict resolution aspects of the war. If for no other reason, Hillary and Trump don't have the political baggage (the global perception of weakness, lack of credibility internationally, etc.) that the Obama administration currently has, especially with the major actors in the Syrian civil war.

I suspect that of the two remaining candidates for president, Hillary is the one who will likely press the issue on Syria, and do so right away. So on this point, I do disagree with you. She's more hawkish than Trump, at least based on their policy speeches (though not based on Rhetoric, certainly). After all, Clinton has a history of advocating for US military intervention (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc.), whereas Trump embraces a narrow "America First" conception of American national interests. Moreover, Clinton has in the past called for the implementation of safe zones, protected by airstrikes. Back in April Hillary argued, "I do still support a no-fly zone because I think we need to put in safe havens for those poor Syrians who are fleeing both Assad and ISIS and so they have some place they can be safe."

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