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Dozens Of U.S. Diplomats Call For Military Pressure On Syria's Assad Regime

A young Syrian shepherd leads his flock on Tuesday as smoke billows from a farm following a reported airstrike in Sheifuniya, near the rebel-held town of Douma, east of Damascus.
Abd Doumany
AFP/Getty Images
A young Syrian shepherd leads his flock on Tuesday as smoke billows from a farm following a reported airstrike in Sheifuniya, near the rebel-held town of Douma, east of Damascus.

More than 50 U.S. State Department officials have signed an internal memo calling for a change in the way the United States approaches Syria — specifically, advocating military pressure on Bashar Assad's regime to push him toward the negotiating table.

The diplomats expressed their opposition to the current U.S. policy through a cable on the State Department's dissent channel — which exists for just that reason.

But NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that it's unusual for so many officials to sign on to such a cable.

"Secretary of State John Kerry says he respects the process and will study their views," Michele tells our Newscast unit.

"The cable reportedly calls for targeted military strikes against the Assad regime, something the Obama administration has been reluctant to do," she reports. "Such action would also put the U.S. on a collision course with Russia at a time that Moscow is backing the Assad regime — and working with Secretary Kerry on a cease-fire and a diplomatic path that has faltered."

The New York Times, which has seen a copy of the memo, reports that the diplomats say they aren't advocating a confrontation with Russia. But a credible military threat against Assad is necessary to pressure him to negotiate, the officials argue.

"The moral rationale for taking steps to end the deaths and suffering in Syria, after five years of brutal war, is evident and unquestionable. ... The status quo in Syria will continue to present increasingly dire, if not disastrous, humanitarian, diplomatic and terrorism-related challenges," the cable says, according to the Times.

The American Foreign Service Association, which represents active and retired members of the Foreign Service, said in a statement that "constructive dissent is a core tenet of the Foreign Service." It added:

"America's diplomats are tasked with addressing some of the world's most complex challenges in order to protect America's people and national security — charge that requires a professional environment that values candor and debate when the stakes are high and the costs of failure are unacceptable. We applaud the individuals who had the intellectual courage to express their dissent."

There's a long tradition of dissenting internal memos at the State Department. The dissent channel was established in 1971, during the Vietnam War, and is meant for "dissenting and alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues." Messages go directly to the top of the chain of command — they are immediately distributed to the secretary of state and other leaders in the department.

Cables sent through the channel are supposed to remain confidential.

In 2004, Michele reported on the State Department diplomats who expressed their objections to the war in Iraq. She said at the time, about six messages a year were sent through the channel.

"One little lonely voice out in the wild reaches of Mongolia was certainly not going to turn the train of war around," one diplomat who sent an anti-war dissent cable told Michele. But even if it wouldn't change history, the diplomat wanted her concerns put in writing and read by the country's top diplomat.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.