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Warmongering and Necromancy: The US State Department Dissent on Syria

“To get 51 signatures on a dissent channel message is remarkable and suggests a very broad consensus at the working level responsible for implementing policy decisions, that the current [Syria] policy is failing and is destined to keep failing.”

–Robert Ford, The Detroit News, Jun 18, 2016

The entire messiness of the Syrian conflict should be an object lesson repudiating all alleged moral measures that come before it. Capitals across the Middle East, Eurasia, Europe and the United States have dirtied themselves in the endeavour, claiming to be protecting civilians when they have been merely fronting for various sides in the fight.

The great prize in US and more broadly speaking Western designs on Syria, is the removal of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Assad is the convenient figure of moral outrage, skint on the issue of following international laws, but determined to hold firm before groups he regards, with very good reason, as terrorist malefactors. He knows he can rely on Moscow to beef up his efforts, and bankroll the less savoury tasks of combating his enemies.

For years now, the notion of Assad being a target on the US bombing list has been very much at the fore. Then came the thundering effect of Islamic State forces and the continued role of al-Qaida elements fighting under various designations. In this scrambled mix could be added Free Syria Army forces, though that title remains a fluid, nonsensical one.

On Friday, the Obama administration was attempting to do some tidying up in the aftermath of a leaked internal memorandum cable critical of its position on Syria. In the past, this has usually involved castigating the leaker, or whistleblower, and banging the person up for a few decades. On this occasion, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal got the spoils, and no one is set for the chop.

The note, signed by 51 American diplomats and conveyed via the dissent channel, revealed how easily the non-military wing of government can become militarised. (They may have always been so.) It advocates limited airstrikes on Assad’s forces to compel observance of the February 2016 Terms for a Cessation of Hostilities.

In general terms, the officials in question believed “that the foundations are not currently in place for an enduring ceasefire and consequential negotiations.” US goals in the region would not be advanced “if we do not include the use of military force as an option to enforce the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) and compel the Syrian regime to abide by its terms as well as to negotiate a political solution in good faith.”

The US State Department has not always covered itself in glory in its approach to war. When one is an arm of the imperial project, it is difficult to maintain the face of legality with that of brute force.

The dissenting memorandum is another one in this genealogical line of moral confusion, claiming that “strategic interests and moral convictions” should be asserted in targeting Assad.

The authors go so far as to claim that “the moral rationale for taking steps to end deaths and suffering in Syria, after five years of brutal war, is evident and unquestionable.” Such bible-bashing clarity neatly excludes the consequences of implementing such a moral program, one of which will be providing a helping hand to Islamist opponents.

Over Syria, policy makers have been frustrated, notably since President Barack Obama’s retreat on the issue of launching airstrikes on Assad’s forces in 2013 over the use of chemical weapons. That 51 diplomats saw fit to avail themselves of the dissent channel suggested more than a mild case of disagreement; it suggests a prevalent orthodoxy.

While the diplomats do not see merit in an invasion force, they wish for a “more military assertive US role in Syria, based on the judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hardnosed US-led diplomatic process”.

This is where the necromancy comes in. By using such strikes to press Assad, a miracle will take place, precipitating an end to civilian deaths and human rights violations and pushing disparate parties to the negotiating table. Since the days of the Vietnam War, we know what bombing parties to the diplomatic table looks like.

All the while, the focus of this strategy is meant to bolster the “moderate rebel groups’ role in defeating Da’esh, and help bring an end to the broader instability the conflict generates.” Such clarity; such cock-eyed confidence, given that a moderate, as Henry Kissinger suggested in discussing Iran’s politicians in 1987, is one who has run out of ammunition.

The note shows a continued anxiety within the US diplomatic corps that other powers continue to hold more chips than Washington. This may have its roots in some Freudian-genital complex, the inadequacy of how best to project influence and power. There is Russia, stealing one initiative after the next, attacking all groups fighting Assad. There is Assad, with his promise this month that he would take back “every inch” of Syria from forces aligned against him.

The position from the White House is one of lame duck stasis. “The president has always been clear that he doesn’t see a military solution to the crisis in Syria and that remains the case,” explained White House spokeswoman, Jen Friedman. But with Hillary Clinton in the wings, there is every bit a chance that the diplomats may get their chicken hawk way.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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