The memorandum by 51 State Department officials calling for US military intervention in Syria last week has been treated in news media coverage as a case of dissent from existing Syria policy by individual officials involved in Syria policy.
But the memo has all the earmarks of an initiative that had the blessing of the most senior officials in the department – including Secretary of State John Kerry himself – rather than having been put together by individual officials entirely on their own. And it may mark the beginning of an effort to take advantage of the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.
The memo called for a “more militarily assertive US role” in the Syrian conflict in the form of “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed US-led diplomatic process“. That is precisely the policy option that Secretary of State John Kerry has been widely reported to have championed privately for years. As the story in the New York Times, which published the supposedly confidential memo, noted, “[H]igher-level State Department officials are known to share their concerns.”
The submission of the memo through the State Department’s “dissent channel” appears to have been a device to make it appear entirely independent of senior officials in the department. According to the State Department regulation on the “dissent channel,” it is to be used only when dissenting views “cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels or procedures” or “in a manner which protects the author from any penalty, reprisal, or recrimination.”