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51 State Department Employees Sign Memo Objecting To U.S. Policy In Syria


Striking criticism of the government's policy on Syria is coming from an unusual place - within the State Department. Fifty-one U.S. diplomats have signed a memo urging military strikes in order to pressure the Syrian regime to negotiate with rebels. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, that is something the Obama administration has been reluctant to do.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: They're mostly mid-level officials who have spent much of the last few years trying to find a diplomatic way to end a complex civil war. Syria analyst Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council says the fact that so many diplomats are now calling for military strikes is a sign of growing frustration among the rank and file at the Department.

FAYSAL ITANI: Their sense of frustration is that there was a policy, that the State Department is responsible for pushing it through the diplomatic process, but that their understanding of the local situation is that the players are not incentivized to go along with it, namely the regime.

KELEMEN: In other words, as one official who asked not to be identified described the memo to NPR, the diplomats argue that targeted military action could pressure Syrian Bashar al-Assad to negotiate and give the opposition the leverage they need. Itani, of the Atlantic Council, says the White House has been pushing back against this sentiment for years so he has his doubts that cable will make much of a difference.

ITANI: All they can do is call out senior leadership of the Department for what they see as a completely ineffective policy before the administration runs out of time and before Secretary Kerry runs out of time.

KELEMEN: There are others who work on this issue at the State Department who disagree and are worried that a military strike will only escalate the conflict. Syria is a tinderbox, the scene of multiple conflicts and one of the most complicated crises in recent years. The U.S. government has considered many options but seems to be focused now on only one - trying to make a cessation of hostilities work and reinvigorating U.N.-led negotiations.

The mood at the State Department, though, remains gloomy on Syria. A former career ambassador who now runs the American Academy of Diplomacy, Ronald Neumann, says that was reflected in the large number of diplomats who signed on to the cable sent through the State Department's so-called dissent channel.

RONALD NEUMANN: I've never seen anything like or heard of anything like that number of signatures. I've heard of things with, you know, two or three. I was part of a dissent channel years ago over Iran, but there were only, I think, four of us on that.

KELEMEN: The dissent channel was set up around the time of the Vietnam War to give foreign service officers a chance to object to U.S. policies without facing retribution. The messages are meant to be private and go to senior staff at the State Department. In recent years, though, there have been few such cables and mostly not on major issues like Syria, according to Neumann.

NEUMANN: I think a lot of people have viewed it as not often producing results. It was an escape valve for built-up steam but not many dissents about the big policy issues produced any change.

KELEMEN: And this escape valve was clearly sought again now after years of handwringing in the State Department over how to respond to the mounting war crimes and death toll in Syria's brutal civil war. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.