Will the Syrian opposition come to the big dance? That's the question facing Washington as pressure mounts to bring both sides of Syria's two-year civil war to the negotiating table for next month's U.S.-Russian peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland.
Today, Russia came closer to fulfilling its part of the bargain with its announcement that the Syrian government is willing to attend the conference.
"We note with satisfaction that we have received an agreement in principle from Damascus to attend the international conference, in the interest of Syrians themselves finding a political path to resolve the conflict, which is ruinous for the nation and region," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.
Leaders of the fractured Syrian opposition, meanwhile, have given no such pledge to the United States, as they gather in Istanbul to determine a leader following the resignation of cleric Moaz Alkhatib in March.
In recent days, the Syrian National Coalition has said it would not attend the conference in Geneva unless the premise of the talks was the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. In addition, Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the rebel's Supreme Military Council, which typically supports the SNC, said he won't attend unless the U.S. and its allies give him more advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry before the conference, a demand that is unlikely to be met.
On Wednesday, reporters asked a senior State Department official, in a background briefing in Amman, Jordan, about the opposition's attendance, and it remained uncertain. "We didn't go into those kinds of details," said the official, according to a transcript from the briefing. "We're not there yet."
Each day of silence increases the pressure on Secretary of State John Kerry to bring the opposition to the table for an event U.S. officials previewed as "the most serious effort in the last two years to get the Syrian government to sit down and negotiate with the Syrian opposition." (The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the preconditions the opposition set ahead of the talks.)
"It's going to be an initial embarrassment for the United States if the opposition doesn't show up," Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Cable. "Getting the opposition to show up could prove very divisive." He emphasized the opposition's demand that the Geneva communiqué expressly prioritize Assad's removal from power. "The question in their mind is, what are the talks going to be about? The Geneva communiqué basically says that there's a negotiation toward some sort of transitional government by mutual consent. It doesn't necessitate that Assad steps aside at the end of the process."
Ahead of what many expect to be a contentious confirmation hearing for the next assistant secretary of state for Europe, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) gave a major boost to Obama appointee Victoria Nuland on Friday.
"Ambassador Victoria Nuland has a long and distinguished record of service to our nation in both Republican and Democrat Administrations," the senators said in a statement. "She is knowledgeable and well-versed on the major foreign policy issues as well as respected by foreign policy experts in both parties. We look forward to her upcoming confirmation hearings in the United States Senate."
The statement lends crucial support to Nuland, who has come under fire from GOP lawmakers for her role in the editing of administration talking points in the immediate aftermath of last year's attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
In the last six months, no two lawmakers have thrown more rhetorical grenades at the Obama administration for what they call a concerted "cover-up" of what happened in Benghazi. Some Republicans have included Nuland in that alleged cover up for her recommendations that the group responsible for the attack, Ansar al-Sharia, be removed from the talking points given to members of Congress and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. But Graham and McCain don't appear to be in the blame-Nuland camp.
As The Cable noted earlier, Nuland was always something of an awkward GOP target given her work as an aide for Vice President Dick Cheney from 2003 to 2005 and her marriage to prominent neoconservative writer Robert Kagan, an advisor to Mitt Romney during his failed presidential bid.
McCain's support doesn't exactly come out nowhere.
Earlier this month, he tweeted out a story by the Washington Post's neoconservative blogger Jennifer Rubin, who absolved Nuland of wrongdoing in the talking point scandal: "It is not the communications people who bear any responsibility for the scrubbing that went on over the weekend," wrote Rubin.
McCain's support is particularly important given his placement on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which gets the first crack at State Department appointees. Other Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee remained mum about her nomination, though a committee source speaking to The Cable said there is "very little chance" the nomination won't trigger some sort of fight. The question now is, will McCain's and Graham's support blunt the concerns of the rest of their GOP colleagues?
The White House on Thursday nominated Victoria Nuland to be the next assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, to replace Philip Gordon, who was appointed as Middle East coordinator for the National Security Council.
The promotion of Nuland, a career Foreign Service officer with 29 years of experience at the State Department, comes just after Republican-led criticism of her role in the editing of the Obama administration's talking points on Benghazi seems to have died down.
Nuland, who has long experience working on post-Soviet issues, including as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2005-2008, was the department's chief spokesperson at the time of the attacks.
In defiance of those critics, the president's nomination signals a doubling-down on his view that the Benghazi furor amounts to a "political circus" led by partisan interests. "There's no 'there' there," Obama told reporters last week.
In the days after the assault on Benghazi, Nuland represented the State Department's interests in the drafting of talking points. She objected to identifying the terrorist group believed to have carried out the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, as well as the acknowledgement of CIA warnings about extremist threats in Libya.
While Republicans accused Nuland of watering down the role of terrorists for political reasons, an intelligence official familiar with the drafting of the talking points told The Cable that removing the name of Ansar al-Sharia was supported by the CIA as well. "It is important to take care not to prejudice a criminal investigation in its early stages," the official said.
Following the announcement, Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is tasked with confirming her nomination, remained mum on her nomination, though a committee source speaking to The Cable said there is "very little chance" the nomination won't trigger a fight.
Nuland, however, is something of an awkward target for Republicans. From 2003 to 2005, she served as principal deputy national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney. Her husband is prominent neoconservative writer Robert Kagan, co-founder of the Project for the New American Century and an advisor to Mitt Romney's failed presidential bid.
"She has enjoyed a very bipartisan career," an administration official told The Cable. "She's worked well with right, left and center, and we look forward to her continuing in that spirit."
"She knows the territory really well," Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former boss of Nuland when he served as deputy secretary of state, told The Cable. "She knows Europe in terms of the following beverages: stout, beer, German ale, white wine , red wine, Slivovitz, and vodka ... she goes right across the whole continent ... Victoria is one of the best human beings and certainly one of the best Foreign Service officers I've ever known."
The administration's unwavering support of Nuland may bode well for U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, who's in line for a promotion to national security advisor after also coming under fire for her role in delivering the Benghazi talking points. Rice's appointment, though not yet announced, is widely believed to be in the works.
The White House is set to announce the nomination of Danny Sepulveda for U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy, The Cable has learned, a title that will bring the rank of ambassador. Sepulveda, a cancer survivor and fellow biking buddy of Secretary of State John Kerry, worked in his Senate office as a senior adviser from 2009 to 2012 dealing with commerce and trade.
The position requires Senate confirmation and is likely to be announced by the White House today. As of late, Sepulveda has been working as a senior adviser for temporary Senator William "Mo" Cowan. Before joining Kerry's staff, Sepulveda served as Assistant U.S. Trade Representative and also served in then-Senator Barack Obama's office managing trade, commerce, labor, ethics and lobbying issues.
A source tells The Cable that Sepulveda and Kerry are close, and have been known to engage in "spontaneous" bike races in Washington's Rock Creek Park. Sepulveda's longtime girlfriend is Heather Higginbottom, former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, who was recently hired to be Kerry's counselor.
In advance of Barack Obama's counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University in Washington Thursday, senior White House officials briefed reporters on the meat and potatoes of the president's address. If you don't have the time to watch the entire speech (you can livestream it here), this is your perfect Cliff Notes guide:
On closing Guantanamo: All those Democratic lawmakers writing letters to the president will be pleased: He's taking their advice. The president will reiterate his call to close the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and take up a number of steps to accelerate this process that were recommended this week. Those include: Designating a location in the United States to conduct military commissions to try Guantanamo detainees, lifting his self-imposed moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, and appointing a State Department and Pentagon envoy to personally oversee the transfer of detainees to other countries. "He will reiterate his call for the closure of Gitmo" and emphasize its "cost to our reputation," said a White House official.
On court oversight of armed drone strikes: The president will not wholly endorse the establishment of new powers for federal courts to oversee drone strikes, but he will tell the public he supports a dialogue about how to constrain the executive branch's ability in this area. Officials specifically mentioned an authority patterned after the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA), which oversees surveillance of suspected foreign spies. "He will indicate that he is open to working with Congress to review those options," said one White House official.
On codifying drone policies: The president is expected to discuss a new policy guidance he signed limiting the use of lethal drone strikes to targets who pose a "continuing, imminent threat to Americans" and cannot otherwise be captured. A drone strike will require "near-certainty" that civilians will not be killed, and the president will convey his preference that the U.S. military carry out drone strikes as opposed to the CIA. When asked how this policy differed from earlier policies, a senior official dodged, saying the administration was simply codifying best practices for drone strikes that have evolved over the years.
The end of the war on terrorism: Finally, the president will say that the so-called War on Terror "will come to an end at one point," after the administration's "focused effort" against al Qaeda and its affiliates is won. A White House official added that the president rejects the notion of a "global war on terror," noting that terrorism is a tactic that can never be completely rid from the world.
Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and reported shoo-in for assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, sat down with the Egyptian English-language news site Ahram Online recently for a wide-ranging discussion on the topics du jour in post-Mubarak Egypt.
During the chat, journalist Sarah El-Rashidi brought up a number of developments in Egypt that have angered Western observers and fueled disappointment in President Mohamed Morsy, from the controversial IMF loan intended to keep the country's sinking economy afloat to the seeming rise in incidents of sectarian violence and sexual harassment under the new regime.
But Patterson, ever the diplomat, largely didn't bite. Her careful comments indicate just how carefully the Obama administration has sought to balance between strengthening ties with the Islamist government and criticizing its increasingly authoritarian behavior, even as liberal Egyptians increasingly complain that the United States is treating the Muslim Brotherhood-led government with kid gloves and Egypt-watchers in Washington accuse the administration of losing focus after Mubarak's ouster.
On working with the Muslim Brotherhood
Ahram Online: How is the US government dealing with Egypt's new Islamist government?...
Anne Patterson: The fact is they ran in a legitimate election and won ... Of course it is challenging to be dealing with any new government. However, at the state institutional level, we are for instance still liaising with the same military and civil service personnel, and thus have retained the same long-established relations.
On human rights:
Ahram Online: According to US-based Human Rights Watch, rights violations have risen considerably since Mubarak's ouster. How is the US helping address the issue?
Anne Patterson: We try and speak out about Egypt's international treaties, such as the UN covenant on civil and political rights. We do not agree with claims that human rights violations are worse than ever under the new regime.
It cannot be ignored that freedom of expression has improved in a number of ways under the new regime, exemplified by the media and the freedom to talk openly and publicly chastise political figures. Look at the press, or any of the political talk shows on TV: Egyptians did not have such freedoms under Mubarak.
On the alleged rise in sexual assaults:
AP: In relation to the rise in sexual assault after the revolution, the minister of interior seems eager to address this problem and has agreed to instigate a training programme that will train police men and women how to investigate sexual assault cases. This programme will involve police officers travelling to the US for training and close alignment with female NGOs.
It is important to take into consideration, however, that since the revolution, people are less scared and more willing to report sexual abuses; hence the rise in reporting. That does not necessarily imply that the actual figures have increased, but that perhaps reporting has risen as victims are more confident and prepared to report violations.
I bet there will be an explosion in the number of sexual assault cases reported in the near future. All things considered, clearly, substantial progress still needs to be made.
On the growing influence of hard-line Islamist political movements
AO: What is the US perception of the Salafist Nour Party and its policies?
AP: The Nour Party won 25 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections in 2012. As Americans, we try to collaborate with all legitimate parties.
The Obama administration has largely confined its criticism of Morsy's government to lower-level officials.
On Monday, for instance, State Department Acting Deputy Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell expressed concern about "the growing trend of efforts to punish and deter political expression in Egypt," in wake of defamation charges against a pair of Egyptian journalists who spoke critically of President Morsy. "Numerous individuals, including journalists, bloggers, and activists have been detained, and some are being charged and put on trial for allegedly defaming government figures," Ventrell said.
One Washington Middle East hand tells The Cable that a White House official told him that even that statement required no small amount of internal wrangling. "You have no idea how much work it took to get the statement in there," the official said. "A lot of bureaucratic politicking."
The White House last week named a new senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, Prem Kumar, who replaced Steve Simon. Simon left the administration in January to head the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Kumar, who is well-regarded among insiders but little known elsewhere, has served at the White House since April 2009, following a stint at the State Department. At the NSC, he previously worked on a number of regional issues, including Egypt.
When it comes to settling disputes, there's nothing like subpoena power. On Wednesday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) claimed victory in his two-week standoff with retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering over how to proceed with the GOP-led investigation into last year's assault in Benghazi, Libya.
"Today, Ambassador Pickering reached an agreement with the Oversight Committee to voluntarily appear for a transcribed interview and answer all questions posed by Committee investigators," Issa said in a release. "As such, I have lifted his legal obligation to appear tomorrow for a deposition."
Pickering and retired Admiral Mike Mullen co-chaired the Accountability Review Board, an investigation into the United States government's response to the attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans. The report found "systematic failures and leadership management deficiencies" at the State Department prior to the attack. But Issa wants to know why the ARB didn't hold higher-ranking State Department officials accountable.
Pickering had resisted Issa's efforts to question him in a private interview setting, preferring a public hearing. "Depositions are usually reserved for fact witnesses and people under investigation," he told The Cable last week. "We are not fact witnesses to Benghazi and we are not under investigation."
But on Friday, Issa rejected Pickering's offer for a one-off public hearing and issued a subpoena in a move that Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), ranking member of the committee, called a "stark example of extreme Republican overreach."
Issa defended the decision, calling a transcribed interview between Pickering and House investigators a necessary precursor to a public hearing. "A fully informed hearing, in which the Committee begins with a factual understanding of how the Board reached its conclusions, is critical to engaging in a public discussion with you about criticisms career State Department officials levied at the ARB's efforts and recommendations," Issa said.
Pickering's attendance at a pre-hearing interview will allow Issa to better control the narrative of the public hearing and run it more efficiently. Pickering says Issa is running a "political circus," and the time for closed-door interviews is over. "Now that the circus has been launched, we want to make our case in front of the public," Pickering told The Cable. Now it appears Pickering will have to wait. The date of the pre-hearing interview has not yet been scheduled.
Secretary of State John Kerry's goal of bringing the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime to the negotiating table next month has hit a major snag. In a letter obtained by The Cable, Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the rebels' Supreme Military Council, says that the United States must establish "strategic military balance" between the rebels and Assad as a precondition to any peace talks.
The letter does not detail specifics, but Dan Layman, media relations director at the Syrian Support Group, a licensed U.S. advocacy group with extensive contacts to the Free Syrian Army, said the demand requires anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry such as 90 mm rockets, recoilless rifles, and ideally man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS).
"He's looking for game-changing weapons," said Layman. "I think he knows he's not going to get MANPADS, but weaponry that can take on regime armor in addition to small arms is a must."
The Obama administration does not currently support shipping U.S.-purchased weapons to rebels, however, and there's no sign this will happen before next month's U.S.-Russian proposed peace talks in Geneva. (Though the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted yesterday to arm some Syrian rebel groups, there's no indication when the bill will move to the Senate floor.) In recent days, U.S. officials have called the proposed Geneva conference "the most serious effort in the last two years to get the Syrian government to sit down and negotiate with the Syrian opposition."
In the letter, Idris says the Free Syrian Army will only be willing to negotiate if the U.S. provides weapons first. "For the negotiations to be of any substance, we must reach a strategic military balance, without which the regime will feel empowered to dictate ... while fully sustained logistically and militarily by Russia and Iran," reads the letter, sent to Kerry over the weekend. "Such untenable situation requires that the Unites States, as the leader of the free world, provide the Free Syrian Army forces under the Supreme Military Council with the requisite advanced weapons to sustain defensive military capabilities in the face of the Assad forces."
When it was suggested to Layman that any deal to arm the rebels was highly unlikely to take place before the talks, he agreed. "That's my impression too." Layman said the expectation is for the talks to fail, which would give cover to the Obama administration to finally arm the rebels. "Geneva is a legitimate attempt at a negotiation ... but it's the last gasp for a political solution," he said.
He pointed to Kerry's remarks today at a press conference in Amman, Jordan. "If Assad refuses to negotiate on the proposals of the Geneva conference that calls for a transitional government in Syria, we will increase our support for the rebels," Kerry said.
Clearly, from the rebel perspective, they're hoping "support" means advanced weaponry. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Read Idris's full letter below:
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.