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State Department Officials Urge More Action Against Syria's Regime

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Dozens of U.S. diplomats want to revisit a signature decision by President Obama. Obama decided not to directly intervene in Syria's civil war. In interviews not so long ago, he described that as a vital moment when he kept the United States away from disaster. Fifty-one U.S. diplomats apparently disagree.

The State Department employees can offer their own views through an official dissent channel. And they did, signing a document saying President Obama's Syria policy is not working and calling for military airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This document was supposed to remain confidential. But Wall Street Journal reporter Maria Abi-Habib has seen it, and she's on the line from Beirut. Welcome to the program.

MARIA ABI-HABIB: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: So what's wrong with U.S. policy according to the diplomats?

ABI-HABIB: What's wrong with U.S. policy according to these diplomats is that it is not aggressive enough. It has allowed Assad to get away with what many consider to be war crimes, using barrel bombs and Russian jets to wreak terror on the population. And, in their opinion, they believe that by turning a blind eye to these atrocities by the Damascus regime and their allies such as Iran and Russia and Hezbollah that it is failing to stem Assad's flagrant abuses, which will only bolster the ideological appeal of groups like ISIS.

INSKEEP: And let's remember that the administration is trying to target ISIS, trying to leave Assad alone, although formally the U.S. would like Assad to be removed. But the question arises what the U.S. can really do differently. Would bombing, for example, actually oust Assad, according to these diplomats?

ABI-HABIB: Well, these diplomats are being very careful to say look, you know, we're not saying go for all out, you know, war with Syria, especially with Russia backing up Damascus. But targeted strikes would really kind of start to put pressure on Assad to consider stepping down because this has been a red line for him and his team in the government. And the Russians have, you know, somewhat agreed to that. And especially Iran and Hezbollah, which are still - who are Assad supporters, without Assad being in power that could, you know, basically, existentially challenge Hezbollah's very existence.

INSKEEP: Isn't the other problem though that if Assad goes, you don't know who's going to take over?

ABI-HABIB: That is a very big problem. And a lot of people are kind of asking those questions when it comes to this is cabal is who's really left. I mean, the problem is is that in civil wars the first casualty of any civil war is all the good men leave because they're not willing to do what it takes to get their hands dirty and stay on top of a civil war, which usually means killing a lot of people.

INSKEEP: You're saying people with more education, with more resources, who might have some government experience, those people, if they're on the rebel side, if they're there against the government, they've left the country.

ABI-HABIB: Yeah. I mean, just - it's not just in terms of who could replace Assad. It's kind of throughout the population is the civil servants that you would need, the good government - officials that you would need for governance have taken off. So there's just not a lot of, like, people without blood on their hands on either side whether it's the government or the rebel side.

INSKEEP: Any indication that top people in the administration are going to listen to this suggestion?

ABI-HABIB: I believe so. I mean, this is - the fact that 51 officials have signed this from all across the State Department's Syria desk, whether they're working on counter-ISIS strategy or human rights. It's a big statement. It's a very unusual number. It's a very high number. And you have at this point Kerry coming out comments saying that it was a very important cabal and it's in the spirit of the State Department, welcoming the cabal, saying that he was going to read it carefully again and, you know, make some considerations on this.

INSKEEP: Maria Abi-Habib of The Wall Street Journal, thanks very much.

ABI-HABIB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.