Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani on Wednesday accused the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons on its own people, joining Britain, France, and Israel in determining that Bashar al-Assad's forces had used deadly poison gas in violation of international norms.
Al Thani, answering questions at an event in his honor sponsored by the Brookings Institution, spoke frankly about Qatar's assertive foreign policy in the Middle East, which has thrust the tiny Gulf monarchy into the center of the region's conflicts and controversies.
The Qatari prime minister, who also serves as foreign minister, is in Washington with a delegation headed by Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who has ruled Qatar since deposing his father in a 1995 coup.
"Chemicals? He used chemicals, and there is evidence," Al Thani said, referring to Assad. He described the Syrian ruler's strategy as an attempt to "test your reactions" and incrementally cross U.S. President Barack Obama's "red lines." Al Thani did not say whether Qatar had made its own independent assessment of the use of chemical weapons, or whether it was relying on other countries' reports.
The United States has not made a determination on the Syrian regime's alleged chemical-weapons use, but a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the president Wednesday pressing him to make "a public determination on this important national and international security issue."
Al Thani, whose meeting with Obama Tuesday apparently went over time, urged the president to be more aggressive, though he declined to cite any specific measures. "The United States has to do more," he said. As for Qatar, "We did not want to take the lead. We wanted to take a back seat. But we find ourselves in the front seat."
Al Thani also denied persistent charges that Qatar is finding jihadi groups in Syria such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged its fealty to al Qaeda and been listed by the United States as a terrorist organization. "We did not give any aid financially or any other way to these people," he said, insisting that Qatar was working with the United States and other allies through "operation rooms" in Jordan and Turkey. He said accusations to the contrary were started by "families" in the region -- perhaps an allusion to one of Qatar's neighbors.
Al Thani described a meeting he had with Assad at the beginning of the uprising, before the Syrian leader gave his first speech on the crisis. He said he told Assad: "There is a way to rule before Bouazizi and a way to rule in our region after Bouazizi," referring to the fruit seller whose self-immolation sparked the Syrian uprising. "So things have to change."
Assad made certain promises, he said, but never followed through on his commitments. Instead, Al Thani said, he appeared before the Syrian parliament "and he was joking ... there was blood in the street, people being killed."
"He has only one way," Al Thani said. "Kill and kill and kill until you win."
Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that deceased alleged Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev became a killer when he traveled to Russia in 2011, but the State Department and the White House had to walk back Kerry's remarks right after he said them.
Kerry was in Belgium on Wednesday for a NATO foreign minister's meeting and made the comments about the 26-year old alleged bomber during a brief interaction with reporters.
"We just had a young person who went to Russia, Chechnya, who blew people up in Boston," Kerry said. "So he didn't stay where he went, but he learned something where he went and he came back with a willingness to kill people."
Those comments suggested that Tsarnaev was not able or willing to commit acts of terror and murder before he traveled to the Russian region of Dagestan for six months in 2011, but made some connections to people there that resulted in a more fervent anti-American ideology that contributed to the Boston Marathon attack.
Tsarnaev's 19-year old brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is talking with law enforcement officials while recovering from injuries, has reportedly said that he and his brother had no contacts with foreign terrorist groups and no international help in executing the attacks. The FBI cleared Tamerlan Tsarnaev after an investigation in early 2011, before his Russia trip. The Russian authorities warned U.S. intelligence agencies about Tsarnaev multiple times, including after he returned to the United States in October 2011, a U.S. senator said Tuesday.
Both the State Department and White House press shops sought to walk back Kerry's comments about the elder Tsarnaev's Russia experience in their daily press conferences on Wednesday, saying that Kerry was not revealing any actual information on the case.
"The secretary was simply expressing broad concern about radicalism and not necessarily offering any more specific information about this case," Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Wednesday. "I'm clarifying his remarks and saying that he was simply expressing broad concern about radicalism. This isn't about new details about the ongoing investigation."
Ventrell declined to say whether the administration currently believes that Tsarnaev's time in Russia contributed to his radicalization, despite that Kerry was apparently not intending to reveal anything new. "I'm not in a position to say one way or another on that," he said.
The U.S. embassy in Moscow sent officials to speak with Tsarnaev's parents in Dagestan this week as part of an interagency team, Ventrell said. The two parents are expected to come to the United States soon to visit Dzhokhar , although no firm date has been set.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney urged reporters on Wednesday to set aside Kerry's comments in Belgium and wait for the FBI-led investigation into the bombings to run its course.
"Secretary Kerry was not reflecting any new information or conclusion about the individuals involved. He was speaking generally about the nature of terrorism. But we are in the process of an investigation. Those comments don't reflect any new information," he said.
Carney defended the FBI's initial investigation into the elder Tsarnaev brother and said there was no indication of terrorist activity or associations with foreign or domestic groups at the time.
He also pushed aside comments by Vice President Joe Biden, who said at the funeral of MIT police officer Sean Collier that the Tsarnaev brothers were "two twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadis."
Carney warned against jumping to conclusions in the case, without referencing Kerry or Biden specifically.
"So I think we saw last week that there is some danger in making -- jumping -- to conclusions, making judgments based on new information that may or may not be true, or partial information that will be developed further as time goes on," he said.
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The Obama administration has invited a senior delegation from the Khartoum regime to visit Washington for high-level discussions, just after the State Department criticized Sudan heavily in its annual country reports on human rights.
The Sudanese Foreign Ministry first announced Tuesday that senior officials from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) had been invited to Washington for consultations. Sudan Tribune, an émigré newspaper based in Paris, paraphrased a Sudanese official citing the "mere presence of diplomatic missions in both countries and meetings of ambassadors" as representing "some degree of dialogue between Khartoum and Washington."
Sudan is among the most-sanctioned countries in the world. President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, Sudan has been on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1993, and the United States imposed additional sanctions in 1997 and then again in 2003, following the outbreak of government-sponsored violence in Darfur.
Sudan advocacy-group leaders were quick to criticize the administration's decision to invite the NCP officials to Washington, where they are expected to discuss ongoing tensions with South Sudan, the upcoming referendum in the contested region of Abyei, and the ongoing violence in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
"United to End Genocide believes that the delegates of Sudan's National Congress Party (NCP) do not deserve to be rewarded by the United States government and invited to Washington, D.C. until they stop committing crimes against the civilians throughout Sudan," said Tom Andrews, the president of the group. "It is imperative that in his new term, President Obama evaluates his previous diplomacy towards Sudan, sets strong policy with clear measures that can help end the suffering of the people of Sudan, and hold the perpetrators accountable before offering rewards."
At Tuesday's State Department press briefing, spokesman Patrick Ventrell acknowledged the invitation but gave few details about why the administration believes it's a good idea to host the Sudanese delegation at this time. He said that presidential adviser Nafie Ali Nafie will lead the delegation, but the exact timing has not been finalized.
"We've planned to receive this delegation for a candid discussion on the conflicts and humanitarian crises within Sudan, including in Darfur and the two areas -- Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, counterterrorism, human rights and other issues of concern to the U.S. government," Ventrell said. "We've also continued to express our deep concern about another -- a number of other issues. While we've had some progress here, you have ongoing aerial bombardment of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and some other areas in terms of Darfur that we're still concerned about. So we've seen some progress, but we still have some concerns and we'll raise them directly with the government."
The delegation announcement comes in the same week that the administration announced it was relaxing some sanctions against Khartoum. The Treasury Department announced April 22 that it would now authorize some professional and educational exchanges with Sudan that had previously been prohibited.
Only three days before relaxing sanctions, the Obama administration heavily criticized Sudan in its annual country reports on human rights practices, released April 19, which documented extreme government-sponsored atrocities and human rights violations.
"The most important human rights abuses included: government forces and government-aligned groups committed extrajudicial and other unlawful killings; security forces committed torture, beatings, rape, and other cruel and inhumane treatment or punishment; and prison and detention center conditions were harsh and life threatening," the State Department report said. "Except in rare cases, the government took no steps to prosecute or punish officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government who committed abuses. Security force impunity remained a serious problem."
Other major abuses in Sudan, according to the State Department, included arbitrary arrest; incommunicado and prolonged pretrial detention; executive interference with the judiciary and denial of due process; obstruction of humanitarian assistance; restriction on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement; harassment of internally displaced persons; restrictions on privacy; harassment and closure of human rights organizations; and violence and discrimination against women. Societal abuses including instances of female genital mutilation; child abuse, including sexual violence and recruitment of child soldiers; trafficking in persons; violence against ethnic minorities; denial of workers' rights; and forced and child labor were also reported.
That report prompted a call from the Sudan advocacy community for the administration to employ stronger pressure mechanisms against Khartoum, rather than offering more incentives like visits to Washington or rewards like an easing of sanctions.
"These atrocities and abuses stem from the many conflicts in Sudan, and point to the need for a comprehensive approach to all of Sudan's conflicts," a group of Sudan advocacy organizations wrote in a letter to Obama April 22. "In addition, given the scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the regime, international donors should not provide significant assistance or debt-relief until real and verifiable steps towards peace and democratic transformation are taken."
These groups, along with several members of Congress, also lament that the president has yet to appoint a special envoy to Sudan to replace Amb. Princeton Lyman, who stepped down late last year. The administration is said to be circling around a couple of candidates, but there's been no announcement as of yet.
"This vacancy is symptomatic of a president that has all but forsaken the people of Sudan," Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) said in a March floor statement. "Candidate Obama purported to be deeply concerned by the crisis in Sudan and committed to bold actions. Have we seen a fraction of that concern or anything close to bold action since he became president?"
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For decades, the United States has reserved the term "special relationship" for two countries, Britain and Israel, but Secretary of State John Kerry called for a new "special relationship" with China during his recent trip to Asia.
The U.S.-UK "special relationship" has been a hallmark of bilateral relations for decades. Kerry acknowledged it explicitly during his first trip abroad, which began in London, standing alongside British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
"When you think of everything that binds the United States and Great Britain -- our common values, our long shared history, our ties of family, in my case, personal and friendship -- there is a reason why we call this a special relationship, or as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron wrote, really, a partnership of the heart. It is that," Kerry said on Feb. 25.
Kerry again noted the U.S.-UK special relationship in an April 8 statement expressing condolences for the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
"We celebrate especially the way, with a hand outstretched across the Atlantic, Lady Thatcher strengthened the Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom -- a relationship that remains a driving force for freedom, justice, and democracy," Kerry said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted that the U.S. and Israel also have a "special relationship" on his way there April 21.
"I'm going to Israel first because it is a nation that has had a very special relationship with the United States," Hagel said.
But Asia hands were taken aback when Kerry used the term to call for a "special relationship" with China during an April 13 solo press availability in Beijing.
"I do think that today's visit makes it clear that the United States wants a strong, normal, but special relationship with China, and that's a special -- because China is a great power with a great ability to affect events in the world. And we need to work together to do that," Kerry said.
Robert Zarate, policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative, told The Cable that Kerry may not have realized that he was diluting the exclusivity of the term "special relationship," but that Kerry's overall tone reveals how he wants to position the United States vis-à-vis Asia's greatest rising power.
"By using that term ‘special relationship' to describe his hopes for the U.S.-China relationship's future, I think Secretary Kerry is, consciously or not, expressing the Obama administration's strong desire to accommodate China's great-power rise -- but, as America's allies and partners in Asia will tell you privately, that's a very, very problematic desire," he said.
The Cable also found an instance during the trip when Kerry called the U.S.-Japan relationship "special," although he was at that time referencing the gift of American dogwood trees to Japan in acknowledgment of Japan's gift of cherry blossom trees 100 years prior.
"At this point, the United States has a ‘special relationship' with two countries: the United Kingdom and Israel," Zarate said. "The next country we might want to add to that very short list is potentially Japan, but China, for very obvious reasons, shouldn't even be online for that list yet."
Yohsuke Mizuno-Pool/Kyodo News - Pool /Getty Image
President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday evening and thanked the Russian leader for unspecified cooperation in the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings.
As law enforcement officials surrounded the Watertown location where 19 year old suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was suspected to be hiding, the White House released a read out of the Obama-Putin phone call, which referenced the United States and Russia working together on the Boston bombing issue.
"President Putin expressed his condolences on behalf of the Russian people for the tragic loss of life in Boston. President Obama thanked President Putin for those sentiments, and praised the close cooperation that the United States has received from Russia on counter-terrorism, including in the wake of the Boston attack," the statement said. "The two leaders agreed to continue our cooperation on counter-terrorism and security issues going forward."
National Security Staff Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told The Cable the White House won't say what kind of cooperation the Russians provided.
"We'll decline to provide further details at this point," she said.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan, who was killed Thursday night, were of Chechnyan ethnicity but hailed from the Russian region of Dagestan and spent several years living in Kyrgyzstan. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a naturalized American citizen on Sept. 11, 2012.
The State Department issued a report Friday that detailed widespread accusations of fraud and abuse in the March 2012 election that brought Vladimir Putin back into the Russian presidency.
U.S.-Russian relations have been in a tailspin since Putin's return as head of state in Moscow, following his four years as prime minister under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. The United States and Russia have been at odds over a U.S. list of Russian human rights violators, the Russian decision to ban U.S. adoptions of Russian children, Russian persecution of international NGOs, the expulsion from Russia of USAID, and Russia's unilateral withdrawal from the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program.
In the run-up to Putin's election, huge protests swept Moscow and Putin blamed then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for "inciting" the crowds that had protested the Russian parliamentary elections in December 2011where fraud and abuse were also widely reported.
On Friday, the State Department released its annual list of human rights reports and the section on Russia lays out extensive reporting on Putin's own election and the irregularities that surrounded it.
"Domestic and international observers described the presidential campaign as skewed in favor of the ruling party's candidate, Vladimir Putin... Procedural irregularities marred voting, with reports of vote fraud, administrative measures disadvantaging the opposition, and pressure on election monitoring groups," the report stated. "The law provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully in regularly scheduled national and regional elections. However, citizens could not fully exercise this right as the government limited the ability of opposition parties to organize, register candidates for public office, access the media, or conduct political campaigns."
In the period leading up to the election, international observers pointed out that Putin had unfair access to the media and some press outlets were harassed or otherwise warned to cover pro-Putin rallies favorably. Opposition candidates were prevented from appearing in the media.
"Prior to the elections, independent observers, media, and opposition parties reported widespread irregularities, including abuse of administrative resources such as pressuring students, state budget employees, employees of state-owned companies, and others to vote for the ruling party," said the report. "On election day, March 4, independent election monitors observed procedural irregularities in one-third of the polling stations they visited."
During the election period and the period of Putin's inauguration, some media and civil society groups were the victims of cyberattacks, preventing those groups from spreading information about political developments including protests. Targeted sites included the radio station Ekho Moskvy, the newspapers Novaya Gazeta and Kommersant, independent election monitoring organization Golos, the Internet television station Dozhd, and live-event broadcaster UStream.
Voters were added to voter lists just before or on election day and "special polling stations" were established at the last minute in some places through a process that was not transparent.
The elections results themselves were suspect. According to Russia's own Central Election Commission, the North Caucasus region, where Russia has been fighting a bitter insurgency, was the region that submitted the most votes for Putin and had extremely high turnout.
"In Chechnya, where recorded turnout was 99.59 percent, Putin won 99.82 percent of the vote. In Dagestan, where recorded turnout was 91 percent, Putin won almost 93 percent of the vote. In Ingushetia, recorded voter turnout was 86 percent, and Putin garnered 92 percent of the vote. In Karachay-Cherkessia, Putin won 91 percent of the vote, while in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria, Putin received 78 percent of the vote," the report said.
Protests erupted in Moscow following Putin's election, including a huge protest that included 30,000 protesters on May 6 in Bolotnaya Square. Four hundred protesters were arrested that day. After the elections, independent monitoring organizations reported they were receiving pressure from the Russian government as they attempted to publicize the results of their monitoring. One monitoring group, Golos, was particularly harassed.
"Golos was evicted from its central office in Moscow when the landlord terminated its lease early. In January Roskomnadzor began monitoring Golos' newspaper. Several of Golos' regional divisions were subjected to unscheduled audits of their financial records. On January 18, Aleksander Kalashnikov, the head of the FSB in the Komi Republic, called Golos and Memorial ‘extremist organizations... directed from abroad, often financed by foreign NGO funding, and designed to transform the political system of the Russian Federation.' He also asserted that Golos' main goal was to disrupt the presidential elections in the country," the State Department report said.
The election irregularities were only one subset of the many types of human rights abuses reported in Russia in 2012.
"Other problems reported during the year included: allegations of torture and excessive force by law enforcement officials; life-threatening prison conditions; interference in the judiciary and the right to a fair trial; abridgement of the right to privacy; restrictions on minority religions; widespread corruption; societal and official intimidation of civil society and labor activists; limitations on the rights of workers; trafficking in persons; attacks on migrants and select religious and ethnic minorities; and discrimination against and limitation of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons," said the report. "The government failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Turkey and Europe this weekend and will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a meeting in Brussels.
In Istanbul, Kerry is meeting Saturday with members of the Syrian opposition coalition and representatives from other countries who support the Syrian opposition. The goal is to "further explore ways that the international community can support the opposition and accelerate a Syrian-led political transition," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
There had been reports that President Barack Obama had approved an interagency recommendation to authorize the provision of non-lethal military assistance to the Syrian rebels, including things like body armor and night-vision goggles, but Kerry made no mention of such a move in his testimony to several congressional committees this week.
"President Obama has said and directed me to go out and try to find the ways to implement this, to change -- we need to change President Assad's calculation, that's clear," Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday. "Right now, he is sitting there with support from Iran, with support from Hezbollah, with support from Russia, with artillery and an army, and believing that he can continue to fight it out using his air power, his Scuds, his artillery and his tanks. So that equation somehow has to change, and we all understand that,"
Kerry said he had reached out to the Russian to try to find a way to work together to implement the principles of the Geneva plan, which include that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition must mutually agree to choose new individuals to create a transitional government ahead of new elections in Syria.
"[The Russians] are now arguing that Assad doesn't necessarily have to leave immediately or upfront, and they believe that the Syrian opposition is pushing away from the negotiations," Kerry said.
After leaving Turkey, Kerry will travel to Brussels from April 22 to 24, where he will participate in the NATO foreign ministers' meeting and a meeting of the NATO-Russian Council. Kerry said he will meet with Lavrov on the sidelines of those meetings.
"My hope is still that the Russians can be constructive in this process and we can find a way to negotiate," he said.
Testifying before the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee Thursday, Kerry said he would also press Lavrov on the Russian ban on American adoptions, instituted abruptly last December.
"I've already raised this issue with Foreign Minister Lavrov. We've talked about it several times actually, and I've agreed with him to try to do certain things to see if we can't try to break the impasse with the Russians, where just some families' hearts are being broken who were all prepared to receive children and that has stopped," Kerry said.
Kerry noted that the Russians are concerned that 27 out of the 60,000 or so Russian orphans in the United States have died while in the care of their host families. He said that issue has to be addressed as well.
"[The Russians] are very concerned about it and the press is very focused on it and we need to work through, and I have ideas about how to do that," he said.
Overall, Kerry is optimistic about the U.S. Russian relationship, despite differences over Syria, adoptions, the Magnitsky list of Russian human rights violators, and Russian actions against international NGOs.
"Have we gone down into a lower moment of that relationship? The answer is yes," Kerry testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee April 17. "But on big issues, I want everybody to take notice that Russia has cooperated with us with respect to Afghanistan and the northern route, which has been critical. Russia has cooperated with us on the WTO, cooperated with us on Iran, Iran sanctions, on the U.N. resolution, cooperated with us on the DPRK and cooperated with us on the START treaty. Those are big-ticket items. So even though there have been some bumps in the road, I am very hopeful that we can move this relationship back to a more visibly completely constructive place, and we need to work at it."
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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19 year old being hunted by law enforcement in Boston Friday, became a naturalized U.S. citizen only last year, an administration official confirmed to The Cable.
Tsarnaev came to the United States in 2002 and requested asylum for "family reunification" and was placed in a program that allowed him to stay, the official said. He applied for citizenship in 2007 and finally was granted American citizenship in 2012. His older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, age 26, was not a citizen but had applied for legal permanent resident status. He was killed in a shootout with police overnight.
The brothers' uncle Ruslan Tsarni told reporters Monday that they had come to the United States seeking asylum. Both hail from Chenchnya originally but reports have also said they may have lived in Kyrgyzstan before coming to the United States.
UPDATE: NBC News is reporting that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a U.S. citizen on Sept. 11, 2012.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.