Syria Dissenters Unlikely to Persuade Obama

The urge to “do something” is understandable. It’s also not going to change the president’s calculation.

President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, November 22, 2013
President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, November 22, 2013 (White House/Pete Souza)

Some fifty American diplomats took the unusual step last week of publicly separating themselves from President Barack Obama’s Syria policy. They submitted a cable that calls for military intervention and then leaked it to the press.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is known to have advocated a more expansive American involvement in the Syrian war, sided with the dissidents, telling reporters, “It’s an important statement.”

It made for some great headlines, but probably won’t lead to more than that.

The fact that the diplomats felt compelled to argue their case through the media suggests their position is a weak one. If the president took their recommendations seriously, they wouldn’t have needed to go public with them.

Do something!

Reading the cable (PDF) makes clear why Obama is unlikely to be persuaded.

The authors recognize that military action of any kind is unlikely to end the multifaceted conflict in Syria, which is now in its fifth year. They admit that Bashar Assad’s regime may prove resilient in the face of airstrikes. And they know that there’s a risk of further deterioration in American-Russian relations, given Moscow’s support of Assad.

So what’s the argument for military action again?

Basically, it’s “we have to do something”.

[I]t is also clear that the status quo in Syria will continue to present increasingly dire, if not disastrous, humanitarian, diplomatic and terrorism-related challenges. For five years, the scale of these consequences has overwhelmed our efforts to deal with this conflict; the United States cannot contain the conflict with the current policy.

The “contain” part is debatable, but what the diplomats are saying here is that American policy hasn’t stopped the violence so far, so why not try something — anything — else?

This is the sort of kneejerk interventionism that has so often entangled the United States in other countries’ wars and which Obama has resisted for the last five years.

No good options

It’s not like anyone wasn’t aware of the scale of the suffering in Syria. Or underestimated the evil of Assad, the self-declared Islamic State and some of the other factions fighting in Syria.

Skeptics of intervention know this all too well. The war in Syria is so vast and horrible that a few American airstrikes aren’t going to make the difference. To really affect the situation would require a far larger American commitment — which the country is unwilling to make.

Nor is America willing to pick sides when there are no good sides to choose from.

None of this should come as a surprise. This has been the case for years and it’s why Obama has hesitated to involve America more deeply in the conflict.

(Do remember American troops trained “moderate” Syrian rebels — to little avail — Western countries are arming the Kurds and warplanes are bombing Islamic State positions in Syria; it’s not like the United States are absent from this fight.)


The cable only reveals a frustration that everyone who cares about Syria shares, especially the people whose job it is to try and have some positive impact on the situation.

But frustrations don’t add up to a policy. The urge to do something is understandable; it’s also hazardous. The consequences of action could, for the United States, turn out far graver than the consequences of inaction. Don’t expect Obama to change his mind about that.

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