The State Department has a long-standing reputation as the most dovish institution involved in US foreign policymaking; especially when it comes to the Middle East. When contemplating military action overseas, administrations always expect to find resistance from State. The underlying institutional reason is that Arabists and other area specialists have a deep understanding of their regions. They can therefore more easily detect the hubris involved in US militarism. Political appointees and policy experts in the White House and the National Security Council, and Senators in the Foreign Relations Committee, have little or no field experience. Senior military and intelligence officials sometimes do, but their area of expertise is security, not foreign policy; so that when they resist the White House on foreign adventures, it is usually on strategic grounds (e.g., absence of an exit strategy).
Career diplomats also acquire a certain empathy for the inhabitants of the land. Whence, State is usually the institutional actor to bring up humanitarian concerns to the top table. The publication of the internal memo by 51 dissenting diplomats calling for strikes against Assad is therefore not altogether surprising given that for five years and counting, the Butcher of Damascus has rained chemical weapons and barrel bombs on his own people; systematically tortured and murdered tens of thousands; killed hundreds of thousands; and displaced more than half the populace of Syria. Indeed, there is already enough documentary evidence to convict him for war crimes.
So the humanitarian case against the Assad regime is extraordinarily strong. And the diplomats are quite right to make a moral case for US military action. But it is unfortunate that they felt the need to oversell their case by claiming that such a strategy would be in the United States’ strategic interest. Unfortunately for all concerned, that is decidedly not the case. Here’s why.
Syria itself is of little strategic value to the United States. It is not a pivot state (e.g., Egypt, Germany). It does not sit astride a strategic sea-lane (e.g., Singapore). It is not a major source of a strategically important commodity (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Iraq). And it is not a gatekeeper to a strategically significant region (e.g., Japan, UK). The political orientation of Syria is not terribly relevant to the United States. The US does have an important national security interest at stake in the Syrian War and that is to prevent Syria from falling under the influence of Salafist Jihadists.
Therefore, it is not in the US interest to see Assad fall. Were Assad to go and in the absence of foreign ground forces, the sway of Salafist Jihadist groups would almost certainly increase. Together they already control most of rebel-held Syria. In the baseline scenario, almost all of Syria would fall into the hands of competing Salafist Jihadist groups. Indeed, the goal of the advocated military action is to force Assad back to the table, not to get rid of him.
Moreover, Assad knows that the US cannot afford to see him fall, so that US threats to escalate would not be credible. The United States could carry out symbolic strikes, but it cannot degrade Assad’s military capabilities to any significant degree without running the risk of undermining the regime. And such symbolic strikes are unlikely to persuade him to do anything other than cease military operations temporarily.
Imposing a no-fly zone would require Russian cooperation. The United States could probably persuade Putin to exchange Syria for Ukraine, and the US airforce can certainly achieve command of the air over Syria. But command of the air would not give the United States sufficient control over the course of the Syrian war. Even if a no-fly zone could be imposed, there is no way to ensure that the ground beneath would not be conquered by Salafist Jihadist groups—the moderate Syrian opposition ceased to be militarily viable years ago.
The Policy Tensor is deeply sympathetic to the cause of the diplomats. And there is indeed a military solution to the problem posed by Syria. But that solution requires boots on the ground. For unless the United States sends a land army to conquer Syria, there is no way to forestall even worse scenarios. The problem for the humanitarian hawks is that in the clear absence of strategic interests at stake, the humanitarian case alone is not compelling enough for the United States to bear the costs of a major land war and an extended occupation.