John Kerry Is Said to Side With Diplomats’ Critical Memo on Syria
By MARK LANDLER
WASHINGTON — For a cabinet member whose department had just erupted into open disagreement with the White House, Secretary of State John Kerry’s reaction to a critical memo on Syria policy signed by 51 diplomats was remarkably mellow. “It’s an important statement,” he told reporters in Copenhagen on Friday, “and I respect the process very, very much.”
Mr. Kerry’s mild tone could be explained by the fact that he had not yet read the document. Or maybe it was because the “dissent channel” is a prized institution at the State Department — one that guarantees employees a way to air objections without fear of reprisal. But the most plausible explanation is that Mr. Kerry more or less agreed with his diplomats.
Their urgent call for the United States to take stronger military action against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria closely resembles the arguments that administration officials say Mr. Kerry has been making in Situation Room debates as he has tried to force Mr. Assad to abide by a cease-fire and agree to a transition of power.
Mr. Kerry, these officials said, has told President Obama that he is operating without any leverage in Syria, and that unless the United States increases the pressure on Mr. Assad, the embattled leader will simply wait out the end of Mr. Obama’s term.
“For quite some time, Secretary Kerry has had real reservations about the president’s approach to Syria,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former special adviser to the administration on Syria who works for the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “His mellow reaction might indicate sympathy.” But he added, “It might also indicate a desire not to breathe oxygen into the story.”
To the extent that Mr. Kerry differs from the authors of the memo, said an official familiar with his thinking, it is that he would consider a wide range of military operations to alter the equation in Syria’s civil war. The memo simply recommends that the United States carry out targeted airstrikes on Mr. Assad as a way to force him into negotiations.
Few analysts expect Mr. Obama to shift his policy, which makes the military campaign against the Islamic State a priority, rather than any efforts to oust Mr. Assad. Mr. Obama’s military commanders back that position, arguing that removing the Syrian leader would leave a dangerous security vacuum. They also worry about a more direct conflict between the United States and Russia, which began to use air power last fall to bolster Mr. Assad.
“We are always open to new and different ideas when it comes to the challenges in Syria,” Jennifer Friedman, deputy White House press secretary, said to reporters traveling with Mr. Obama on a weekend family tour of national parks in New Mexico and California. But Ms. Friedman added that “the president has always been clear that he does not see a military solution to the crisis in Syria, and that remains the case.”
Still, the disclosure of the memo could roil the waters in an election year. The presumptive Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump, has tried to tie his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, to what he calls the foreign policy failures of Mr. Obama, whom she served as secretary of state. Neither Mr. Trump nor Mrs. Clinton directly addressed the memo on Friday.
In a draft version of a dissent memo filed with the State Department’s senior leadership, dozens of diplomats and other mid-level officials called for military strikes against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
But Mrs. Clinton has staked out a tougher position on Syria than Mr. Obama — and, in some respects, than the diplomats who signed the memo. They advocate a “judicious use of standoff and air weapons” against Mr. Assad’s forces. She would impose a no-fly zone over northern Syria — a much more extensive military operation — to protect civilians from Mr. Assad’s bombardment and to increase pressure on him to enter negotiations.
While Mrs. Clinton has said little about the proposal in recent weeks, people familiar with her position said she still favored it.
The memo also served to underscore the differences between the United States and its allies in the region over how to deal with Mr. Assad. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have argued for making his removal a top priority, while the United States has kept the focus on the Islamic State.
The Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, who is visiting Washington, said Friday he heartily supported the conclusions of the State Department memo. “Yes, yes, yes,” he said. “We have been arguing from the beginning of the Syrian crisis that there should be more robust intervention in Syria, including airstrikes,” he said at a news conference.
Only more aggressive military approach, he said, could “change the balance of power” and lead to a political settlement.
The administration has discouraged open dissent on issues of war and peace. But White House officials insisted Mr. Obama was not angered by the disclosure of the memo. Ms. Friedman said it was predictable that there would be a wide range of views about an issue as thorny as Syria.
Some Syria experts said the recommendations in the draft memo were quite conservative.
“They are not advocating invasion or occupation,” Mr. Hof said. “They are not calling for a strategic bombing campaign. They are not asking for piloted American aircraft to go up against the Russians or even the regime. What they are suggesting is the consideration of using standoff capabilities — cruise missiles — to make Assad’s application of mass homicide something other than a free ride.”
The State Department said five dissent cables were filed in 2014 and 2015. Even though the process is sanctioned and Mr. Kerry appeared to be unruffled by the leak, Mr. Hof said the 51 officials who signed the memo had taken a considerable professional risk.
“They no doubt feel the moral responsibility for having facilitated policies they know to be wrongheaded, counter to American interests, and disastrous for Syrians, their neighbors, and for Western European allies,” he said. “We owe them a lot.”
In the 1990s, Secretary of State Warren Christopher expressed frustration when dissent cables about the Clinton administration’s Balkans policy were leaked. And in 1971, when American diplomats in Dhaka, in what was then East Pakistan, sent the first formal dissent cable — condemning the Nixon administration’s policy toward East Pakistan — officials at the White House and the State Department exploded in rage, even though the cable was not public.
“Henry was just furious about it,” said Samuel Hoskinson, a junior aide to Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, as quoted in the book “The Blood Telegram,” by Gary J. Bass.
Mark Mazzetti and David E. Sanger contributed reporting.