An unusual number of State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo sharply critical of US policy in Syria, calling for military strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in order to stop its persistent violations of a ceasefire with rebel factions.
The "dissent channel cable" was signed by 51 mid- to high-level State Department officers involved with advising on Syria policy. It was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
News of the critical cable came after Assad said he aimed to retake control of the whole of Syria and the Pentagon warned that his Russian allies have bombed US-backed opposition fighters.
The department's "Dissent Channel," which was established during the Vietnam War, allows diplomats who disagree with an official policy line to register their concerns with senior staff without fear of retribution.
The cable calls for "targeted military strikes" against the Syrian regime in light of the near-collapse of the ceasefire brokered earlier this year, the Journal reported, citing copies of the cable it had seen.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday that the memo was an "important statement" that he would discuss when he returned to Washington.
"It's an important statement and I respect the process, very, very much. I will...have a chance to meet with people when I get back," Kerry told Reuters during a visit to Copenhagen. He said he had not seen the memo.
In the earlier stages of the now five-year-old Syrian civil war, Kerry himself was a proponent of tougher action to aid rebels fighting the Assad regime.
Military strikes against the Assad regime would represent a major change in the Obama administration's longstanding policy of not intervening directly in the Syrian civil war, even as it has called for a political transition that would see Assad leave power.
But the administration's alternative policy – working with Russia to secure a ceasefire in the civil war and talks on a political transition – has made little headway.
One US official, who did not sign the cable but has read it, told Reuters the White House remained opposed to deeper American military involvement in the Syrian conflict.
The official said the cable was unlikely to alter that, or shift Obama's focus from the battle against the persistent and spreading threat posed by DAESH.
A second source who had read the cable said it reflected the views of US officials who have worked on Syria, some of them for years, and who believe the current policy is ineffective.
"In a nutshell, the group would like to see a military option put forward to put some pressure ... on the regime," said the second source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While dissent cables are not unusual, the number of signatures on the document is extremely large.
I've never heard of a "dissent channel" message signed by 50 diplomats....Obama can't shrug this off--or can he? https://t.co/cVKyzccmNF
— Stephen Sestanovich (@SSestanovich) 17 Haziran 2016
"That is an astonishingly high number," said Robert Ford, who resigned in 2014 as US ambassador to Syria over policy disagreements and is now at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.
"For the last four years, the working level at the State Department has been urging that there be more pressure on Bashar al Assad's government to move to a negotiated solution," to Syria's civil war, he said.
Ford noted that this is not the first time the State Department has argued for a more activist Syria policy. In the summer of 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed arming and training anti-Assad opposition groups. The plan, which had backing from other Cabinet officials, was rejected by President Barack Obama and his White House aides.
The dissenting cable discussed the possibility of air strikes but made no mention of sending US ground troops to Syria. The United States has about 300 US special operations forces in Syria carrying out a counter-terrorism mission against DAESH but which are apparently not involved in operations against the Assad regime.
"We are aware of a dissent channel cable written by a group of State Department employees regarding the situation in Syria," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in an email. "We are reviewing the cable now, which came up very recently, and I am not going to comment on the contents."
Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan told a congressional hearing on Thursday that Assad was in a stronger position than he was a year ago, bolstered by Russian air strikes against the moderate opposition.
Brennan also said DAESH's "terrorism capacity and global reach" had not been reduced.