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Syria Policy Discontent Unlikely to Be Resolved Before Obama Term Ends

  • Pamela Dockins

An internal rift over the U.S.- Syria policy could be a headache inherited by the next president, analysts say, because the Obama administration appears unlikely to dramatically alter its current policy.

In a memo, 51 State Department diplomats indicated their dissatisfaction with the status quo, saying they back stepped-up military engagement that includes targeted airstrikes against the Syrian regime.

Many of those mostly mid-level employees are likely to be around during the next presidency, Atlantic Council Middle East analyst Faysal Itani said.

“The next president is going to inherit this internal debate within the State Department that has shifted at least the debate focus of U.S. policy in the run-up to the elections,” Itani said.

'Willingness to use' military

It is a view shared by Richard Haass, a former State Department policy planning director.

“Even if what they [the diplomats] have to say is rejected now, it might be welcomed by the next occupant of the White House – especially if it were to be Hillary Clinton, who, as secretary of state, showed considerable willingness to use military force in pursuit of U.S. foreign policy aims,” said Haass, in an article for the Council on Foreign Relations.

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius attend the "Friends of Syria" conference in Paris, July 6, 2012.

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius attend the "Friends of Syria" conference in Paris, July 6, 2012.

But others say if the next U.S. president listens to public opinion, stepped-up U.S. engagement to foster a political transition in Syria may not be a high priority.

“The American population is not seized with the issue of Syria. It is seized with the issue of the Islamic State,” said Daniel Serwer, director of conflict management at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Serwer added that neither presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump nor presumptive Democratic nominee Clinton has clearly delineated a course of action for Syria, but both have expressed dissatisfaction with the course of the war and the pace of the fight against Islamic State.

The Obama administration admits it has not achieved its goals in Syria, where fighting continues between the government and rebels, and more than 10 million people have been displaced during the country’s five-year civil war.

Also, a February cease-fire with multinational support has eroded, and U.N.-facilitated talks on a political transition have stalled.

White House view

But the White House does not appear to believe that stepped-up military engagement would help resolve these snags.

“The United States will not be successful, nor will anyone else, in imposing a military solution on the problems inside of Syria, said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

FILE - A gathering in the U.N. Security Council of foreign ministers lead by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry vote on a draft resolution concerning Syria, at U.N. headquarters, Dec. 18, 2015.

FILE - A gathering in the U.N. Security Council of foreign ministers lead by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry vote on a draft resolution concerning Syria, at U.N. headquarters, Dec. 18, 2015.

The State Department said Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry met with about 10 diplomats who signed the cable.

“I believe the secretary came away feeling that it was a good discussion and that it was worth having,” spokesman John Kirby said.

Call for change

Syria’s crisis has prompted some U.S. allies that also are part of the International Syria Support Group to call for change.

“We have supported a more aggressive approach, a more robust approach, including a military approach to Syria,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir during a Washington visit last week.

The Atlantic Council's Itani said Turkey, Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates also favor a more robust military response.

“The reason that these countries have been hedging their positions, especially sort of more neutral countries like Jordan and UAE, is that they have calculated that the United States is not going to play such a role,” he said.

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