In an unprecedented act of dissent, over 50 career diplomats at the U.S. State Department have signed an internal memo calling for airstrikes on the regime of Bashar al-Assad to jump-start stalled negotiations to end the Syrian civil war. The memo is a stark reminder of just how isolated President Barack Obama is and has been for years within his own administration on the issue of Syria. In disagreeing with Obama’s inane, incoherent Syria policies, these dissenting diplomats join almost his entire foreign policy, diplomatic, and national security teams:
- Hillary Clinton, Obama’s first Secretary of State; called for moderate rebels to be armed in 2011-2012.
- John Kerry, Obama’s second and current Secretary of State; called for airstrikes on the regime to force it to negotiate seriously.
- Robert Gates, Obama’s first Secretary of Defense; criticized Obama for not acting forcefully to help the rebels in 2011-2012 when Assad was “back on his heels,” for failing to enforce his own self-declared “red line” after Assad’s regime massacred civilians with poison gas in 2013, and now supports the creation of safe zones inside Syria free of regime attacks.
- Leon Panetta, Obama’s second Secretary of Defense; criticized Obama for failing to arm the rebels in 2012 and failing to enforce his own red line in 2013.
- Chuck Hagel, Obama’s third Secretary of Defense; criticized Obama for failing to enforce his own red line in 2013 and as his Secretary of Defense pointed out in 2014 “we don’t have a policy” on Syria which led to his ouster.
- David Petraeus, Obama’s director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); developed a plan to arm the rebels in 2012 in conjunction with Secretary Clinton that was never approved.
- Robert Ford, Obama’s ambassador to Syria; resigned from his State Department post after realizing Obama had no intention of taking any serious action to even mitigate the Syrian crisis (much less oust Assad).
- Fred Hof, State Department advisor to SecretaryClinton on Syrian political transition; resigned in 2012 once he realized Obama had no intention of following through with his “Assad must go” pronouncement.
- Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations; supports arming the rebels, imposing a no-fly zone on the regime, creating safe zones.
- General Allen, Obama’s first Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL; supported creating safe zones before he too resigned.
Obama’s isolation within his own administration has led to no improved U.S. Syria policy since the conduct of the U.S. government’s foreign policy is in the hands of the president alone. On January 20, 2017, there will be a new American president and therefore new Syria policies. Obama’s successor could either be Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump or Democratic presidential candidates Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sanders or, more likely, Hillary Clinton. What follows is an analysis of their Syria-related positions and probable policies as president.
Trump’s overarching foreign policy philosophy is best summed up as “America first” and his approach to the Syrian conflict is to destroy the Islamic State (IS) while leaving Assad untouched. In practice, such an approach would mean ending the CIA’s covert arms program for moderate rebels and possibly a U.S. alliance with Assad and Russia against IS.
Paradoxically, Trump’s nativist hostility to Muslims and (non-white) foreigners generally has led him to embrace the creation of safe zones inside Syria so that Syrian refugees stay put instead of fleeing to the U.S. or Europe. Since the Assad regime opposes such safe zones and would probably launch military attacks on them, what a Trump administration would do if it were forced to choose between neutrality towards the Assad regime and safe zones is unclear, especially since the Trump campaign has been a never-ending series of bizarre flip-flops on just about every issue imaginable. However, Trump’s soft spot for tyrants and killers — from Libya’s Muammar Ghadafi to Russia’s Vladimir Putin — has never changed.
As a democratic socialist, Sanders is an internationalist and has gone out of his way to defend Muslims and Syrian refugees from Trump’s attacks. On the campaign trail, Sanders has repeatedly said “I support President Obama’s effort to combat the Islamic State in Syria while at the same time supporting those in Syria trying to overthrow the brutal dictatorship of Bashar Assad.” However, he voted in 2014 against the Pentagon’s train-and-equip program for anti-Assad, anti-IS rebels which was the centerpiece of Obama’s strategy to combat the group. Like Obama, Sanders opposes imposing a no-fly zone on the regime because he fears it would lead to mission creep and draw the U.S. deeper into yet another costly Middle Eastern war with no good outcomes. And like Obama, Sanders supports phasing out Assad through diplomatic means.
If there is any presidential candidate who could conceivably continue the utterly failed Syria policies of the Obama administration that spurred such dissent at the State Department and the Pentagon, it is Bernie Sanders.
However, one major difference between Sanders and Obama is on deploying boots on the ground in the war against IS. Obama has repeatedly blocked Muslim-majority nations like Turkey and Jordan from marching their armies into Syria to create IS-free buffer/safe zones while Sanders — theoretically — would support such moves on the condition that U.S. military personnel not be the ones doing the fighting and the dying on the front lines and that U.S. taxpayers not foot the bulk of the war bill. Consistent with this anti-IS strategy, Sanders condemned Saudi Arabia for launching a ground and air war against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen instead of launching a ground and air war against war against IS in Syria/Iraq.
If any presidential candidate grasps the failings of the Obama administration concerning Syria, it is Clinton. She was part of his administration from 2009-2013 and argued unsuccessfully for arming the rebels. Today — like the 50 State Department dissidents — she advocates military action against the regime even after Russia took to Syria’s skies to keep Assad from falling.
This is a recipe for war but Clinton has never met a war she didn’t like. In fact, she is so hawkish that Republican neoconservatives who championed the American invasion of Iraq dumped Trump to support Clinton instead.
As president, Clinton would most likely use military force in Syria to hammer the regime into negotiating a peace settlement and a political solution just as Bill Clinton did when he bombed Serb forces and pushed the Bosnian civil war’s warring parties to strike a deal at the Dayton Accords, ending the conflict albeit imperfectly.