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Dozens of US diplomats criticize Obama, call for airstrikes against Assad

More than 50 State Department officials have signed a memo sharply criticizing the Obama Administration's policy in the Syrian civil war.

by Reuters News Agency
Jun 17 2016, 1:06pm

Photo by Zouhir Al Shimale/EPA

More than 50 State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo criticizing US policy in Syria and calling for military strikes against President Bashar al-Assad's government to stop its persistent violations of a civil war ceasefire.

The memo calls for "targeted military strikes" against the Syrian government in light of the near-collapse of the ceasefire brokered earlier this year, as well as "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," according to the New York times, which has seen a draft of the cable.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is visiting Copenhagen, said he has not seen the memo but that "it's an important statement."

"I respect the process, very, very much," Kerry told Reuters. "I will ... have a chance to meet with people when I get back (to Washington)."

Military strikes against the Assad government would represent a major change in the Obama administration's policy of not intervening directly in the Syrian civil war, while calling for a political transition that would see Assad leave power.

Such strikes would put the United States even further in opposition to Russia, which is backing Assad with air strikes, equipment, training and military advice.

In Moscow, Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had only seen media reports about the memo, but that it was "unlikely" the call for regime change would be accepted in Moscow.

"The liquidation of this or some other regime is hardly what is needed to aid the successful continuation of the battle against terrorism," Peskov said. "Such a move is capable of plunging the region into complete chaos."

One US official, who did not sign the cable but has read it, told Reuters the White House remained opposed to deeper American military involvement in Syria.

The official said the cable was unlikely to alter that, or shift Obama's focus from the battle against the threat posed by the Islamic State militant group.

A second source who had read the cable said it reflected the views of US officials who have worked on Syria, some for years, and who believe the current policy is ineffective.

"In a nutshell, the group would like to see a military option put forward to put some pressure ... on the regime," said the second source, who did want to give their name.

While dissent cables are not unusual, the number of signatures on the document is large.

"That is an astonishingly high number," said Robert Ford, who resigned in 2014 as US Ambassador to Syria over policy disagreements and is now at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

"For the last four years, the working level at the State Department has been urging that there be more pressure on Bashar al-Assad's government to move to a negotiated solution," to the civil war, he said.

This was not the first time the State Department has argued for a more activist Syria policy, said Ford. In 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed arming and training anti-Assad rebels but the plan, which had backing from other Cabinet officials, was rejected by President Barack Obama.

The dissenting cable discussed the possibility of air strikes but made no mention of adding U.S. ground troops to Syria. The United States has about 300 special operations forces in Syria carrying out a counter-terrorism mission against Islamic State militants but not targeting the Assad government.

"We are aware of a dissent channel cable written by a group of State Department employees regarding the situation in Syria," State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

"We are reviewing the cable now, which came up very recently, and I am not going to comment on the contents."

Kirby said the "dissent channel" was an official forum that allows State Department employees to express alternative views.

Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan told a congressional hearing on Thursday that Assad was in a stronger position than he was a year ago, bolstered by Russian air strikes against the moderate opposition.

Brennan said Islamic State's "terrorism capacity and global reach" had not been reduced.

The names on the memo are almost all mid-level officials, many of them career diplomats, who have been involved in Syria policy over the past five years, at home or abroad, the New York Times said.