The eight midlevel Foreign Service officers stepped into John Kerry’s formal outer office at the State Department on Tuesday — a room that few of them had ever entered before — to tell him that he was pursuing a path in Syria that would never bring an end to a gruesome civil war.
The argument was not new to Mr. Kerry — he, in fact, has offered versions of it himself in the Situation Room and the Oval Office. But for half an hour, according to several participants, the secretary of state and the eight officials engaged in a surprisingly cordial conversation about whether there was a way, in the last six months of the Obama presidency, to use American military force to help end a conflict that by some estimates has claimed 500,000 lives.
The eight were among 51 State Department employees who signed a “dissent channel” cable to Mr. Kerry last week, a letter that was leaked so quickly that it appeared clearly intended to send a message to President Obama that his own diplomats could not back his cautious policy.
Mr. Kerry, several participants said, was careful to never explicitly agree with their critique, or let on that he, too, has argued that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria will continue to bomb, starve and blockade his own people unless negotiations are backed by some form of military pressure.
But Mr. Kerry also gently pushed and probed, seeming to imply that many of the dissenters’ concerns had been considered many times before and rejected because they were more complicated than they appeared.
Hours before the meeting, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. seemed annoyed at a mention of the dissent cable, sounding a similar note on “CBS This Morning” that all the ideas proposed by the young diplomats had been looked at long ago.
“There is not a single, solitary recommendation that I saw that has a single, solitary answer attached to it — how to do what they’re talking about,” Mr. Biden said.
“The president’s been fastidious,” Mr. Biden told Charlie Rose. “Calls the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the intelligence community, the director of central intelligence, the C.I.A., et cetera. ‘Tell me what will work. Will this work?’ And the answer has repeatedly been, ‘No.’”
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With only two of his aides in the room (and his Labrador retriever, Ben, who has attended delicate diplomatic meetings more than many assistant secretaries of state), Mr. Kerry raised a series of questions about what might happen if the dissenters won the day. What would be the legal basis for bombing Mr. Assad’s forces, in the absence of resolutions by the United Nations or even NATO? What would happen if American forces came into an accidental confrontation with the Russian Air Force, which has defended Mr. Assad? What if American pilots were shot down? How would the effort affect the American battle with the Islamic State?
The session was an unusual one. Only four or five dissent channel cables are written each year, and most stay confidential.
But the very public nature of this one has left Mr. Kerry in an awkward position. He does not want to appear to differ from the president’s strategy, and he kept his own counsel Tuesday about what he tells Mr. Obama in private. (Mr. Kerry’s aides insist that there is a common strategy, one that starts with trying to get Russia to press for enforcement of a much-violated cease-fire.)
At the same time, it is Mr. Kerry who first burst into public awareness when, as a just-returned naval officer in Vietnam, he issued his own famous dissent in 1971 by demanding before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the meeting was that five years into the Syrian civil war — after Mr. Obama declared that Mr. Assad must go, the unenforced “red lines” and a series of failed cease-fire accords — even some of the people who ran Syria diplomacy day-to-day had not heard the rationale for the administration’s caution.
The Pentagon remains cautious about entering another Middle East war when it cannot control the outcome. And the passage of time has precluded some options.
Earlier in the conflict, some of Mr. Kerry’s own diplomats have said in recent months, it would have been possible to “crater” the runways used by Mr. Assad’s air force, making it impossible for planes to take off and drop barrel bombs. The United States has used that tactic since World War II, and it is unclear why it has not been employed in Syria.
Hillary Clinton, when she held Mr. Kerry’s post, argued for arming the Syrian rebels, a position joined by the C.I.A. director at the time, David H. Petraeus. But Mr. Obama was concerned — rightly, many others in the room at the time said — that there was no assurance that those rebels would not use the weapons for other purposes.
And as Mr. Kerry implicitly noted to his visitors on Tuesday, Russia’s entry into the conflict greatly complicates any American military intervention. The chances of accidental encounters that may turn deadly are considerable.
Mr. Kerry spoke again on Tuesday to his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, to find a way to enforce the cease-fire that the two men first announced in February. Russia wants a degree of coordination with United States forces, including shared use of intelligence, that gives the Pentagon chills.
Mr. Kerry knows he is in a race against time. Not only are more Syrians dying every day, but his own leverage in the negotiations is also waning. Mr. Assad may well be betting that he can wait out the end of the Obama administration.
Mr. Kerry publicly insists that is not the case. Asked last month in Vienna if Mr. Assad doubted that there was a “Plan B” for military action, Mr. Kerry said, “If you know that he’s come to a conclusion there’s no Plan B, then he’s come to a conclusion that is totally without any foundation whatsoever and even dangerous. Dangerous.”
Perhaps so, but Mr. Assad, by now, has most likely both read the dissent channel cable and heard Mr. Biden’s argument that the Joint Chiefs do not believe there are viable military options to force him into negotiating a peace.
As the eight dissenters left Mr. Kerry’s office, nothing seemed resolved. They all agreed to keep the details of their conversation private. But they also agreed that this was not the last word about a strategy that has left everyone — dissenters, the secretary of state and the president alike — frustrated that nothing has worked.