State Department officials push for military intervention in Syria

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you end the war in Syria? It is a question that has plagued world leaders since the start of the devastating civil conflict there.

Today, we learned more about the extent of disagreement inside the U.S. State Department about the course set by President Obama.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports.

MARGARET WARNER: For five years, the savage Syria conflict has killed some 400,000 and put millions more to flight.

Now 51 mid-level diplomatic officials have gone on record advocating a dramatic shift in U.S. strategy. They have signed an internal so-called dissent letter, calling for targeted military strikes against President Bashar al-Assad's government.

The dissenters argue it would help bring Assad to the negotiating table and deal a major blow to ISIS. The document remains secret, but Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is familiar with the document's contents.

ANDREW TABLER, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: If the Assad regime violates the cessation of hostilities and uses it to further its position on the battlefield, in such cases, military force could be used. Second, if humanitarian assistance is not provided or is impeded in some way, military force could be used.

MARGARET WARNER: In Copenhagen today, Secretary of State John Kerry said he had not yet seen the memo, but welcomed it.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: I think it's an important statement, and I respect the process very, very much, and I will probably meet with people or have a chance to talk with them when we get back.

MARGARET WARNER: The memo came through a channel created for State Department employees to register policy disagreements without retaliation. When conflict first broke out in 2011, President Obama called for ousting Assad. And in 2012, he threatened military action.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.

MARGARET WARNER: But after a regime chemical attack killed more than 1,000 Syrians in August 2013, the president didn't launch military strikes, nor step up arming the Syrian rebels.

More recently, he's launched U.S. airstrikes in Syria, but only against ISIS. Instead, Russia intervened last fall on Assad's behalf, bolstering him. Today, Russian air attacks hit anti-Assad rebels battling is in Southern Syria.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin warned today any U.S. move targeting Assad's forces would plunge the region into total chaos.

Andrew Tabler's response?

ANDREW TABLER: If you look at this, over time, whether it's the United States and the threat of use of military force in 2013 or Israel's continued use of strikes inside of Syria, this is something that the Assad regime is known to respond to.

MARGARET WARNER: All of this comes as a February cease-fire has largely dissolved. It did let humanitarian aid reach some Syrian communities, but others remain cut off by Assad loyalists. And peace talks backed by Secretary of State Kerry and the Russians have shown no progress.

An August 1 deadline for a political transition won't be met. Plans now are only to resume talks then.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Margaret joins me now.

So, Margaret, how unusual is this, to have so many diplomats weigh in like this?

MARGARET WARNER: You put your finger on it, Judy. It's unprecedented in the memory of anyone in the history of the State Department.

Usually, these are solo letters, maybe three or four. There was a little flurry during the Iraq War. Never have you seen 51. And that just shows the depth of the frustration. And I talked to Ambassador — former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford who actually, as you know, two years ago resigned publicly because he felt he couldn't support the policy, that the president wasn't supporting the opposition sufficiently.

And he said, when you're in the State Department, you must follow the commander in chief. If you can't, you have to resign. And he said the grave danger for these mid-level people is, they're all people with young families with mortgages to pay, and it can be risky, even though the rule is no retaliation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Margaret, how widely held are these views in the State Department?

MARGARET WARNER: They are widely held, Judy, from the people I talk to not only at State, but in intelligence and defense agencies, which is, you have got 400,000 dead and all these millions driven from their home.

And whether or not we could have done anything about it, clearly, whatever has been tried has been a failure. But for some of these officers who are acting to try to implement the policy, as Fred Hof, who used to be the envoy to the Syrian opposition, and he first resigned in protest at the lack of action, he said — and I thought it's was very touching — he said, this gap between belief and duty has weighed heavily on some very conscientious officials, younger officials.

And by that, he meant duty to the commander in chief — you're not the elected one — but a belief that this whole policy is leading us down to more destruction.

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