More than 50 U.S. mid-level diplomats have sent a memo through the State Department’s "dissent channel" to a likely sympathetic Secretary of State John Kerry, advocating an American bombing campaign to bring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table in the bloody Syrian civil war. The memo concluded, "It is time that the United States, guided by our strategic interests and moral convictions, lead a global effort to put an end to this conflict once and for all."
Because it is even remotely unclear what strategic interests the United States has in Syria – other than perhaps crippling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters, who are in opposition to Assad – President Obama and his military commanders have been reluctant to get into it with Assad directly, despite much pressure to do so from inside the government and from congressional hawks. They correctly ask what would happen if Assad were actually deposed from power by U.S. military action. Amazingly, the experts’ memo and congressional hawks have never addressed this question.
Given what has happened in Iraq and Libya when "undesirable" leaders were overthrown using American force – chaos and mayhem leading to havens for ISIS and other bad groups – one can scarcely believe that seasoned diplomats want to topple yet another Middle Eastern despot with no plan for what comes next. Assad is surely a brutal autocrat, but he at least keeps the portion of Syria he still controls out of the hands of the even more brutal ISIS and al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate. The diplomats claim that attacking Assad will shore up support for "moderate" Sunni rebels, who are U.S. allies against ISIS and al Nusra. Yet the moderate rebels have always been relatively weak and would probably not win another civil war with those ruthless groups if Assad no longer ruled Syria.
Despite such catastrophic failures (also add counterproductive U.S. meddling in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia to the pile), the diplomatic "experts," including the top levels – John Kerry and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – still believe that calibrated U.S. military action can eventually social engineer the world, including the dispatching of Assad. They insist that they just want enough bombing to get Assad to negotiate his departure, but not enough to get into it with his nuclear-armed Russian sponsor or to involve the United States in another quagmire. The experts use the model of the Iran nuclear deal, arguing that ratcheting up economic sanctions brought Iran to the table.
In this line of analysis, they make several assumptions, which may not be proven correct. First, Iran had endured sanctions for many years without caving in; thus internal Iranian economic mismanagement rather than external pressure may have been the main cause of Iran’s economic problems, which led to the negotiation of the nuclear deal. Second, if the effects of economic sanctions are imprecise and hard to calibrate exactly, the results of military attacks are even more so. This is especially true nowadays with a world media focused on any unintended collateral damage against civilians caused by U.S. military action. Also, what happens if U.S. air strikes don’t do the job in ousting Assad, a man with his back against the wall and who could be charged with war crimes if deposed from power? As in past conflicts, pressure will then build for further escalation. Finally, what if the Russians refuse to allow the United States to eliminate the one remaining friend they have in the Middle East and decide also to escalate? Does the United States really want direct conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia over a strategically insignificant place?
Finally, the diplomats make the moral argument that Assad must be stopped from barrel bombing Syrian civilians, ignoring that atrocities have been committed by all sides in the horrendous conflict. Moreover, Iraq and Libya should be poster children for the unintended consequences of U.S. military action. The cure was worse than the admittedly bad ailment: more deaths resulted from the ensuing turmoil and civil wars than from the evil dictators that the United States deposed.
The notion that the American Empire can solve all of the world’s problems is so ingrained in the U.S. foreign policy elite that even in the face of one failure after another of armed social work gone awry, the experts still think it is possible, through the use of force, to fine tune specific outcomes in foreign cultures Americans don’t understand. Understandably, after recent quagmires, military commanders are leery of a slippery slope in Syria toward that same outcome.