Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has long vowed to negotiate with the Syrian opposition to end his country's civil war. But on Sunday, he made perfectly clear which rebels he deems worthy to negotiate: Almost none of them. The determination bodes poorly for U.S. and Russian efforts to hold a peace conference between both sides in Geneva by November.
In an interview with Italy's Rai News 24, Assad ruled out talks with any al-Qaeda-aligned groups, which have become some of the most lethal and well-organized foes of the regime. "We cannot discuss with al-Qaeda offshoots and organizations that are affiliated with al-Qaeda," said Assad.
While the exclusion of extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant may not come as a surprise, he didn't just draw the line there. In an interview with Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV, Syria's foreign minister rejected any negotiations with the Western-backed opposition group Syrian National Coalition due to its support for a U.S. military strike. "[The SNC] is not popular in Syria and lost a lot among Syrians when it called on the U.S. to attack Syria militarily, meaning that it called for attacking the Syrian people," said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. He noted that there are other members of the opposition that should be represented at the talks "but not the coalition."[[LATEST]]
That begs the question, what groups is he talking about?
"Assad is precluding almost all interlocutors with these sweeping preconditions," Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, tells The Cable. "He has named the select groups that he believes are the appropriate opposition, which are seen to be stooges of his government by much of the opposition."
The negotiations had been dragging on for days, and no deal was in sight. It was December 2001, and Afghan leaders were deadlocked over how to share power in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The victorious Northern Alliance insisted on taking 18 of the country's 26 ministries, a demand immediately rejected by all of the country's other factions. U.S. officials worried that the fragile calm in Afghanistan would unravel if no agreement was reached.
It was just after 4 a.m. when an unlikely savior emerged. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's deputy foreign minister, had watched as Western officials spent two hours unsuccessfully pressing the Northern Alliance's representative, Yunus Qanooni, to accept fewer ministries. Zarif finally took him aside and whispered in his ear for a few minutes. Qanooni then came back to the table and said the Northern Alliance would accept five fewer ministries. James Dobbins, who had represented the U.S. at the negotiations, recalled in 2007 Congressional testimony that Zarif had almost single-handedly saved the talks.
"Zarif had achieved the final breakthrough without which the Karzai government might never have been formed," Dobbins said then.
President Obama's Friday phone call with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani made headlines worldwide, but Zarif, now Iran's foreign minister, will be the one actually leading the negotiations with the U.S. over his country's nuclear program, including the high-level negotiations scheduled for next month in Geneva. The success of those talks, like the ones in Bonn more than a decade ago, will depend on how successfully Zarif -- an American-educated diplomat whose children were born in the U.S. -- can bridge the seemingly intractable differences between the two sides.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
The Syrian government is required to provide international chemical weapons inspectors "immediate and unfettered" access to any site in Syria starting Oct. 1 and complete the destruction of its chemical weapons production and mixing equipment by Nov. 1, according to a decision to be voted Friday afternoon by the executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The arrangements and timetables are part of a U.S.-Russian proposal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014. The U.N. Security Council is expected to endorse the technical procedures on Friday night.
The deal marks the culmination of several days of intensive negotiation between Washington and Moscow over the details of a chemical weapons inspection. It sets the stage for a dramatic scene in the U.N. Security Council, where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will cast their vote on the first major Security Council resolution to be adopted by the Security Council following more than two years of violence in Syria.
Sen. John McCain has hired Elizabeth O'Bagy, the Syria analyst in Washington who was fired for padding her credentials, The Cable has learned. She begins work Monday as a legislative assistant in McCain's office.
O'Bagy was a young but well-respected advisor at the Institute for the Study of War and had emerged quickly as an important voice among those arguing in favor of intervention in Syria. McCain and others had cited her work publicly before her nascent reputation collapsed when it was discovered that her claims to having a combined master's/Ph.D. were false and that in fact she had not yet defended her thesis.
"Elizabeth is a talented researcher, and I have been very impressed by her knowledge and analysis in multiple briefings over the last year," McCain told The Cable in a statement. "I look forward to her joining my office." McCain's office said there would be no further comment on the matter.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met under the steely gaze of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whose portrait hung over their negotiating table at U.N. headquarters, and hammered out their latest agreement Thursday on a U.N. Security Council resolution to scrap Syria's chemical weapons.
The presidential portrait was a subtle reminder that Putin's top diplomats hold the home-court advantage at the United Nations. Lavrov headed Russia's U.N. delegation for a decade; Putin's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, has served here for more than seven years. Together, they enjoy vastly greater experience navigating the intricacies of the U.N. Security Council parliamentary rules than their American counterparts. Russia's deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, a former member of the Russia diplomatic delegation, was actually a U.N. employee.
America's national security team is hardly composed of novices on U.N. matters. As a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry frequently engaged in U.N. diplomacy. Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's national security advisor, is one of the longest-serving American envoys to the U.N. -- and a willing and able sparring partner of Churkin. Samantha Power, while still untested around the Security Council's horseshoe table, has been a keen student of the United Nations for years, reporting from the field in Africa and the Balkans and authoring a biography of slain U.N. official Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Still, for most of the past two years, Lavrov and Churkin have largely defined the rules of the game in the U.N. Security Council, effectively constraining American and European attempts to use the U.N. Security Council to apply economic or political pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The relatively toothless deal struck Thursday is just the latest example.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani demanded on Thursday that Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a step that would require Israel to dismantle the nuclear weapons it has never publicly acknowledged that it possesses.
It's a time-honored talking point from Tehran's leaders. But it comes with an ironic twist. A significant number of Israelis kind of agree Rouhani's demand -- or, at least the part about Israel finally owning up to its nuclear arsenal.
Tel Aviv has for decades maintained a policy of deliberate ambiguity about its nuclear stockpile, believed to be one of the largest in the world. Earlier this month, nonproliferation experts at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimated that Israel had 80 nuclear warheads and enough fissile material to build as many as 190 more.
Generations of Israeli leaders have refused to utter a word about those weapons, and an Israeli nuclear technician who leaked details about the program in the 1980s before fleeing overseas was arrested by Mossad agents, brought back to Israel, and ultimately sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison. Today, though, there's a little-noticed debate raging within the country about whether the time has come to drop the facade and simply admit to being a nuclear power.
Emmanuel Dunand / AFP
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is indicted for war crimes, has cancelled his plans to address a high-level meeting of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly's general debate, according to U.N. officials and diplomats.
"We understand he is not coming and we're glad he's not coming," said Christian Wenaweser, the U.N. ambassador of Liechtenstein and former president of the Assembly of States Parties to the International Criminal Court. "We think it would have been bad for the United Nations to hose someone who has been issued and international arrest warrant."
The move followed several days of diplomatic efforts by the United States to convince Bashir not to come to New York, warning that it could not guarantee he would not be subject to arrest, according to U.N.-based diplomats. And it saved the Obama administration the embarrassment of hosting a visit by the world's most prominent alleged war criminal.
ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images
Optimism about the possibility of improved U.S.-Iran relations, fueled by the election of the moderate Hasan Rouhani and a series of positive signals from both countries' governments, is running up against the hard realities of what it would take to get a nuclear deal done and provoking resistance from powerful constituencies on both sides. Despite a recent charm offensive by U.S. President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Iran has yet to offer any concrete concessions on uranium enrichment. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, is equally ambivalent about providing sanctions relief to Iran, in part because of deep skepticism from Israel, which has sought to throw cold water on any possible deal.
In an early sign that the spark may be fading, a heavily hyped handshake between Obama and Rouhani did not materialize on Tuesday, when the Iranian delegation failed to show up for a luncheon hosted by the U.N. secretary-general. An informal meeting between the two presidents, something the White House last week hinted it was open to, would have been the first encounter between a U.S. and Iranian president since Iran's 1979 revolution.
Hours before the luncheon -- which reportedly featured tuna tartare with avocado and salted caramel chocolate mousse -- Obama told the U.N. General Assembly that the United States and Iran "should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful."
"The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," the president said, adding that he would dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to work with allies to lay the groundwork for a deal.
BRENDAN MCDERMID-POOL/Getty Images
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.