Answering the Appeal of the 51 Diplomats on Syria

by Robert E. Hunter

This past week, 51 unnamed members of the US Foreign Service wrote to the State Department‘s policy planning director (who works directly for Secretary John Kerry) through the so-called “dissent channel.” This device was set up during the Vietnam War to enable US diplomats to disagree with US policies, state their reasons for doing so, and suggest alternatives—all without fear of retribution (though sometimes this policy is honored in the breach).

The most recent letter, which calls for robust US military action in Syria, is not the first time that some foreign service officers have disagreed with Obama administration policies toward that conflict. It is unlikely to be the last. But the very fact that so many professional diplomats signed the letter is particularly significant. It also comes in the midst of the US presidential campaign, in which matters of foreign policy, especially terrorism and conflict in the Middle East, have been given louder—if not always intelligent—voice than any time since 1968 and 1972, when Vietnam was on the agenda.

Some aspects of the dissent-channel letter are hard to challenge. Thus the 51 diplomats write that “we believe the moral rationale for taking steps to end the deaths and suffering in Syria, after five years of brutal war, is evident and unquestionable.” Further, “the status quo in Syria will continue to present increasingly dire, if not disastrous, humanitarian, diplomatic, and terrorism-related challenges.” And “it is time for the United States, guided by our strategic interests and moral convictions, to lead a global effort to put an end to this conflict once and for all.”

These are compelling arguments. But other points in the dissent-channel letter, both cause-and-effect and means-versus-ends, are less so. The diplomats argue that much of the region’s current turmoil, including the potency of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), is generated by the Syrian conflict: “Assad’s systematic violations against the Syrian people are the root cause of the instability that continues to grip Syria and the broader region.” Syria? Arguably. But not the “broader region.” The leading cause was unquestionably the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which set in motion clashes among countries (especially Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel) and confessions (Sunni versus Shia). There has been no movement toward a modus vivendi, much less a resolution, for any of these clashes.

The Flawed Case for Regime Change

Cogent arguments can be made for forcing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, and the dissent-channel letter does so. “Formation of a transitional governmental body” is the circumlocution used in this letter and in other diplomatic discourse. But there is a major leap of faith that has no practical foundation: that the best option to countering IS “is to protect and empower the moderate Syrian opposition.” Unfortunately, this “moderate opposition,” itself Sunni-based, has shown no indication that it would, on gaining power in Damascus, counter IS. Nor is it a realistic prospect to “open the space for increased dialogue among communities.” The problem is not promoting talk but, rather, fundamental differences of interests.

Unfortunately Syria, like Lebanon in the 1980s, has become the staging ground for competitions between contending actors in the region. Most important is the geopolitical contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which also reflects the struggle between the Sunni and Shia worlds. In particular, following the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni government in majority Shia (and Kurdish) Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states have been attempting to “redress the balance” of Sunni-Shia political power and influence in the Middle East. For the last several years, the Saudis and their allies have focused on getting rid of the Alawite (Shiite) government in Syria, in part to weaken Iran’s influence anywhere in the region. This parallels Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen and its support for Sunni repression of the majority Shite population in Bahrain.

Thus the principal impetus for IS is not President Assad’s stubborn holding on to power. Instead, it is Saudi Arabia’s cold war with Iran, plus its unrelenting and unending export of Wahhabism, which has fueled terrorism throughout the Middle East, Southwest Asia, North Africa, and even sub-Saharan Africa. This is a dangerous game for the Saudis as well as others. Spreading a terror-producing ideology in the region and beyond could lead this Frankenstein’s monster to try destroying its creator at home in the kingdom.

The 51 diplomats take a further leap of faith in assuming that, once Assad is gone, there is sure to be a “start [on rebuilding] Syria and Syrian society, with significant assistance from the international community.” But there is nothing in this letter—just as there is virtually nothing in Obama administration diplomacy—that sets forth a means for insuring the protection of all elements of Syrian society. True, Assad’s minority Alawites have not given fair due to other confessional elements in Syria. But denying rights to the Alawites is not an alternative, either morally or practically.

A further flaw in the reasoning in the dissent-channel letter lies in the proposed solution: “a more muscular [U.S.] military posture” that would send “a clear signal to the [Assad] regime and its backers that there will not be a military solution to the conflict.” If any readers at this point wonder how increasing military force will lead to reducing military force, they may be forgiven. This is how the 51 diplomats try to square this circle: “a more militarily assertive U.S. role in Syria, based on the judicious use of stand-off and air weapons…would undergird and give a more focused and hardnosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.” The phrase “hard-nosed diplomatic process” is a tried-and-true State Department weasel-phrase.

Administration Priorities

After Afghanistan and Iraq, President Obama understands that the American people wisely have no stomach for further wars in the region that are not required to protect basic U.S. interests. That includes no war against Iran (unless thrust upon us) and no “slippery slope” of military engagement in Syria. In fact, President Obama’s biggest foreign policy achievement has been to negotiate a deal that has essentially blocked any Iranian routes to building nuclear weapons and averted the risk of war.

The president’s other key insight is that, tragic as they are, events in Syria do not compare with his most important national security responsibility: to keep the nation safe from terrorism, especially Islamist-based or -inspired terrorism. Rational assessments show that we have indeed suffered surprisingly little terrorism on our soil since 9/11, despite predictions to the contrary by the “counter-terrorism commentariat.” And virtually all of this terrorism has been of the “lone wolf” or “copycat” variety with little impact on the nation, other than tragedy for the relatively small number of people directly involved. U.S. counter-terrorism efforts have been highly successful.

But the president knows that the media will grossly inflate what violence there is. They will instantly classify any incident as Islamist terrorism, whatever the facts may turn out to be. And various politicians will exploit such incidents for their own political ends. After the mass killings in Orlando, the media presented this picture around the clock along with the rabid, fact-devoid commentary by Donald Trump and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, which drowned out more rational voices such as that of Florida Governor Rick Scott..

It is of course impossible to protect the United States or any other nation against all terrorism, despite what some media commentators pretend.  But the U.S president has to do as much as can be done., Obama has thus naturally focused his efforts on countering the Islamic State, while trying to satisfy the other public expectation by limiting the exposure of US military forces. Efforts to square this circle include stepping up the use of drones and other air strikes to target leaders of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, IS, and other terrorist groups.

By contrast, taking primary responsibility for trying to resolve the conflict in Syria, which would require significant application of US military force, does not rise to the same level of national security interest as countering IS. Nor does the American public support such a role. The relative lack of public concern is shown by popular unwillingness to admit Syrian refugees to the United States.

Yet despite the logic of this analysis and the U.S. policy based on it, Syria does continue to fester. The conflict is not only producing great human suffering but also generating large numbers of displaced people who, in trying to find refuge in Europe, are contributing to the European Union’s most serious crisis in years. Thus Syria cannot just be ignored or pushed into an open-ended diplomatic process in Vienna that so far has gone nowhere.

The foreign service officers who wrote the dissent-channel letter reflect the frustration that professionals experience when they sense that what they are being charged by their superiors to do does not add up: that there is “no there, there.”

What Obama Can Do

The Obama administration can still do some things differently even if it doesn’t elevate Syria to the same level of importance as keeping the US out of yet another potentially open-ended military venture and focusing on the domestic concern with Islamist terrorism. These should include crafting and tabling a plan designed to ensure that, as a first priority, any change to take place in Syrian governance includes clear guarantees for all of its people’s safety, security, and legitimate rights — Alawites, Sunnis, and others – no matter who occupies the president’s office. This also means that the United States must stop taking sides in a regional civil war that pits Sunnis against Shiites at the religious-political-cultural level and Iran against Saudi Arabia (with other Persian Gulf Arab states, Turkey, and Israel at its side) at the geopolitical level. The United States has no intrinsic national interest in either element of this civil war, especially now that it has locked down any possible Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions.

The administration also needs, finally, to make clear to Saudi Arabia that it will no longer tolerate the export of Wahhabism or any other support for terrorism, including in Syria. The United States should show that it will henceforth put America’s interests in the region first and cease being any other country’s cat’s-paw. And it needs to make clear to its European allies, which have as much if not more at stake in the future of the Middle East, that they must undertake a fair share of the burdens.

These are just a few opening moves. But they can help to answer the legitimate concerns of the group of 51 American diplomats, who will thus have done the nation a worthy service.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. I think direct US military intervention in Syria would be a colossal blunder.

  2. These are wise words. It is difficult to even imagine a scenario less amenable to the use of military force—even massive military force—than the civil war in Syria. Wars are a lot easier to start than to end.

  3. Another thought: as an exercise, assume that the “Appeal of the 51,” ostensibly intended for the president, was actually directed towards Assad and Putin. That would explain why it was instantly leaked and nobody in the administration seemed terribly upset. Nothing but poker faces, in fact. The meaning is rather obvious.

  4. If seeing the end of ISIS is the main US national security issue in Syria (it is, is it not?) then any State Dept wonk should be able to understand this concept:

    Q: Who is fighting ISIS?
    A: Assad and his army.

    Q: What about our “moderate opposition”?
    A: Dude, they are the “opposition”.

    Q: Meaning?
    A: By definition, they exist to oppose Assad.

    Q: So what should we do about them?
    A: Well, if they really are “ours” then we should get ’em out of Assad’s way, all the better for him to take ISIS to the cleaners.

    Q: Doesn’t that mean abandoning “our” “moderates”?
    A: And? So? Looking after “them” isn’t our job. Looking after “us” is, and it’s in “our” interests that Assad take ISIS to the cleaners.

    Honestly, it ain’t rocket science.

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