U.S. President Barack Obama has made his administration's successes against terrorist groups -- above all last year's killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden -- a central plank of his re-election campaign.
But according to the State Department's latest annual counterterrorism report, al Qaeda affiliates are gaining operational strength in the Middle East and South Asia, even though terrorist attacks worldwide are at their lowest level since 2005.
The report cited 2011 as a "landmark year" due to the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and other key al Qaeda operatives, and noted that the terrorist group's "core," largely based in Pakistan, had been weakened.
"I would not say that we are less safe now than we were several years ago, because the al Qaeda core was the most capable part of the organization by quite a lot, and was capable obviously of carrying out catastrophic attacks on a scale that none of the affiliates have been able to match," Coordinator for Counterterrorism Dan Benjamin said Tuesday at a briefing introducing the report.
Democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa also testified to the terrorist organization's decline, he said, though he offered a few cautionary notes.
"We saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful, public demands for change without any reference to al Qaeda's incendiary world view," Benjamin said.
"This upended the group's longstanding claim that change in this region would only come through violence. These men and women have underscored in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al Qaeda exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim majority nations."
Though AQAP benefited from the long and tumultuous political transition in Yemen, Benjamin said he expects the trend lines to go "in the right direction" under new president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Syria, on the other hand, remains a major cause for concern with no solution in sight. The New York Times reported Sunday that Muslim jihadists are "taking a more prominent role" in the resistance.
"We believe that the number of al Qaeda fighters who are in Syria is relatively small, but there's a larger group of foreign fighters, many of whom are not directly affiliated with al Qaeda, who are either in or headed to Syria," Benjamin said.
Iran remains the preeminent state sponsor of terrorism, according to the report, as its Lebanese client, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, is engaging in the most active and aggressive campaign since the 1990s.
Of the more than 10,000 attacks carried out in 70 countries, 64 percent occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but both Afghanistan and Iraq saw a decrease in the number of attacks from 2010.
In Africa, there was an 11.5 percent uptick in attacks, a result of Nigerian militant group Boko Haram's more aggressive strategies and tactics. Despite criticism from Congress, the Obama administration has refused to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization on the grounds that its attacks are not representative of its general ideology, though the State Department did designate three of its leaders terrorists in June.
The report also mentions the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated group attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan. On Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to pass a resolution urging the State Department to add the network to the list of terrorist groups, which would become effective with President Barack Obama's signature.
Governments worldwide restricted religious freedom in 2011 through the implementation of blasphemy laws and legislation that favored state-sanctioned groups, while religious minorities who experienced political and demographic transitions tended to suffer the most, stated the 2011 State Department International Religious Freedom Report, which was released Monday.
"Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that pressure is rising," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a speech Monday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "When it comes to this human right ... the world is sliding backwards."
The report highlighted the deteriorating situation in China, whose government continued to increase restrictions on religious practice for Tibetan Buddhist monks in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas. This repression resulted in "at least 12 self-immolations by Tibetans" last year, a trend that Tibetan prime minister Lobsang Sangay emphasized in a recent interview with The Cable. The Chinese government also cracked down on Muslims living in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and religious groups unaffiliated with China's official state-sanctioned "patriotic religious associations," particularly Christian house churches.
Other designated "Countries of Particular Concern" included Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Burma, also known as Myanmar. According to the report, Burma eased some restrictions on religious freedom, though it continued to "monitor the meetings and activities of all organizations, including religious organizations, and required religious groups to seek permission from authorities before holding any large public events." The Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, which the Burmese government refuses to recognize as citizens, were especially targeted.
In Egypt, where the population democratically elected an Islamist government, the country's post-Mubarak transition remains tenuous, as Coptic Christians still face persecution. On October 9, for example, hundreds of demonstrators -- mostly Copts -- were attacked by Egyptian security forces in the Maspiro area of Cairo.
"Now, I am concerned that respect for religious freedom is quite tenuous, and I don't know if that's going to quickly be resolved, but since 2011 and the fall of the Mubarak regime, sectarian violence has increased," Clinton said. "We don't think that there's been a consistent commitment to investigate and apply the laws."
Regarding recently elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook said during a briefing Monday that the U.S. government expects him follow through on his commitment to religious freedom and diversity.
"President Morsi has said publicly that in his new government, he will include Coptic Christians, secular citizens, and a woman," she said. "So we are looking for him to follow through on what his promise was."
The new government in Libya, which stopped enforcing Ghaddafi-era laws that restricted religious freedom and institutionalized the free practice of religion in its interim constitution, was cited as a case of tangible success.
"They [the Libyan government] have come to believe that the best way to deal with offensive speech is not to ban it, but to counter it with speech that reveals the lies," the Secretary said.
Another trend on the rise in 2011 was global anti-Semitism, fueled by anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt, Holocaust denial in Iran, the desecration of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries and France, and the openly anti-Semitic and nationalistic Jobbik party in Hungary.
Now that the Syrian opposition has established control over territory on the ground, it's time for the United States to help establish "safe zones" inside Syria, a group of mostly conservative experts and former officials said Tuesday.
"We believe it is clear that multilateral diplomacy and non-military pressure, by themselves, will neither compel Assad to step down nor ensure that America's national security interests in Syria and the wider region are protected," read a new letter compiled by the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and sent to U.S. President Barack Obama Tuesday, obtained in advance by The Cable.
"America's national security interests are intertwined with the fate of the Syrian people and the wider region," the letter reads. "The longer we wait to act, the more others with interests contrary to ours will fill the void, limiting America's ability to ensure a multi-sectarian pluralistic Syria. We therefore believe it is long past due for the United States to adopt a strategy that will help the Syrian people to quickly end the Assad regime and actively promote order and stability after the regime's fall."
The letter was signed by 62 foreign-policy hands, most of them conservative. The list of signees includes several former Bush administration officials, such as Elliott Abrams, Karl Rove, Paul Bremer, Robert Joseph, and Douglas Feith, and several advisors to the Mitt Romney campaign, including Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, Robert Kagan, and Stephen Rademaker. Radwah Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council, also signed.
The signatories call on Obama to use military power to establish safe zones in already liberated areas of Syria to protect civilians there and to counter the threat of the Syrian regime using chemical or biological weapons.
"Such ‘safe zones' would serve as a destination for civilians fleeing violence. They would also provide the country's opposition groups-which have actively stood up to the Assad regime's relentless aggression, and bravely defended their cities, towns, and villages in the absence of decisive international action - a place to train, be equipped, and organize," the letter says.
The letter warns that America's inaction in Syria amounts to "complicity in oppression."
The safe zones would also help the United States and the international community coordinate and deliver nonlethal aid to the rebels and plan for the transition to a post-Assad government, the authors argue. A version of this idea was first proposed publicly by former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter in February, and then picked up by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in March; critics say the zones would be difficult to defend from a concerted ground and aerial assault.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the administration's approach in a speech Tuesday morning at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
"As the Assad regime continues its bloody assault on its own people despite crippling sanctions, condemnation, increasing political pressure, they have found support, primarily from Iran, Russia, and China," she said. "More than 100 other nations and organizations have made clear that Assad must step aside in order for a transition to begin."
The Obama administration is supporting the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, which is compiling evidence of serious abuses and violations of human rights, and the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, which is gathering evidence about the crisis, Clinton said. She also said the United States is increasing its aid to the opposition.
"This is a very complicated and difficult set of circumstances on the ground. And yet we know that the sooner it ends, the less violence there will be and the less chance for extremism to take hold," Clinton said. "But it will be unfortunate if indeed the Assad regime and those around him decide that it's an existential struggle for them and they will maintain and even increase the level of violent response."
Romney has not come out in favor of arming the opposition or establishing safe zones in Syria, but he has been highly critical of Obama's diplomacy at the United Nations and his administration's outreach to Russia on the issue.
"While Russia and Iran have rushed to support Bashar al-Assad and thousands have been slaughtered, President Obama has abdicated leadership and subcontracted U.S. policy to Kofi Annan and the United Nations," Romney said on July 19. "Under this president, American influence and respect for our position around the world is at a low ebb."
Read the full FPI/FDD letter after the jump:
Syrian refugees are pouring into neighboring countries at an alarming and increasing rate, outpacing the international community's ability to assist them, according to State Department and USAID officials.
"The violence is increasing ... and this increase in violence is, of course, leading to more people, and a larger number of people, that are inside Syria and that are along Syria's borders needing more humanitarian assistance," said Maria Otero, the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy, and human rights.
Otero just returned from Turkey and Jordan, where she met with government officials, nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, human rights activists, and youth groups. She traveled there with Kelly Clements, the deputy assistant secretary of State for the bureau of population, refugees, and migration;
Clements said that as of Thursday, between 117,000 and 125,000 refugees had fled Syria to seek refuge in neighboring countries and thousands more were pouring over the borders each day. 8,500 Syrians crossed the border into Lebanon in the last 24 hours, she said.
As of Thursday, there were about 42,600 refugees in the camps along the Turkish border, she said. In Jordan, there are 37,000 refugees, of which about 35,000 have been registered with UNHCR. In Lebanon, there are 32,500; in Iraq about 8,000.
"There are obviously many more Syrians that have crossed that border but have not availed themselves of the need for international assistance," said Clements, adding that in Lebanon, "those numbers are rising very, very rapidly."
There are also 1.5 million Syrians inside Syria need of urgent assistance, including 300,000 to 500,000 internally displaced persons, but aid workers are struggling to reach them.
"Inside Syria, lack of access due to violence by all parties remains the number one limiting factor for humanitarian assistance. International humanitarian agencies simply are unable to reach those most in need," Clements said.
Aid workers are also being harassed and captured, even killed.
"We know it's been widespread, and we know from organizations that we're working with that medical clinics, health professionals have been targeted. We also know people simply trying to get aid in to help people have been targeted, said Mark Bartolini, director of the office of U.S. foreign disaster assistance.
At the Syria Humanitarian Forum last week in Geneva, the U.S. announced another $6 million in assistance to international organizations dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, bringing the total U.S. commitment in 2012 to $64 million, Clements said.
House Rules Committee chairman David Dreier (R-CA) announced last week during a visit to Tunis that he intends to head an initiative to propose a free trade agreement between the United States and Tunisia, which experienced a popular uprising in 2010 and held democratic elections in October.
"One of the most effective ways the United States can offer support to the Tunisian people as they work to solidify democratic gains is by expanding trade and commercial ties," Dreier, who is also the founding chairman of the House Democracy Partnership, said in an emailed statement yesterday. "Spurring economic growth through increased trade would ... help to create the resources necessary for sustainable democratic development and prosperity in Tunisia."
According to congressional sources, Dreier first discussed the topic with Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali at the Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum in March, just months after Dreier introduced a bipartisan resolution calling for a free trade agreement with Egypt and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative relaunched Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks with Tunisia. Even though Dreier's proposal has yet to gain a substantial congressional base, he is partnering with House Committee on Foreign Affairs senior member Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN).
As Brookings Institute Saban Center on the Middle East director Tamara Wittes noted, there's a growing feeling of congressional support for Tunisia.
"I think there's a tremendous amount of support on the Hill for Tunisia," she told The Cable. "I think members of Congress understand how important it is to have a successful model in North Africa for the other countries struggling with democratic reform."
U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president of Middle East and North Africa affairs Lionel Johnson agrees that Tunisia has a lot of potential.
"The Tunisian government is the one in the region that shows the most promise," he told The Cable. "We'd like to see talks begin in early 2013."
Washington has already pledged to help Tunisia with short-term economic problems like debt and unemployment. In March, it was announced that the United States would transfer $100 million to Tunisia, which faces a $25 billion debt, and in June the parliament in Tunis voted in favor of a bill allowing for a $400-450 million sovereign bond issue "with up to 100 percent of the principal and interest guaranteed by the U.S. government," enabling Tunisia to "borrow at almost risk-free rates." The State Department's Middle East Transitions office is pursuing a series of "smaller but important steps."
"There are investment regulations, border controls, and other regulatory changes that could help facilitate trade between the U.S. and Tunisia," Middle East Transitions program director William Taylor told The Cable. "What we're hoping is that by taking some of these steps earlier on, they might get some of these trade benefits sooner than if they were wrapped into one large negotiation for a free trade agreement."
Ultimately, though, a free trade agreement stands to make a significant economic impact on Tunisia, which counted the United States among its top five trading partners in 2010.
"There's a lot that the U.S. is already doing with economic and technical assistance to support the growth of the private sector in Tunisia, so an FTA would complement that because it would be mutually beneficial," Wittes explained. "Over the long term, we know that Tunisian economic health is going to come through a robust private sector that will help to cement a democratic transition. This is not an FTA that's going to have a massive impact on the U.S. economy. It will, however, have an important impact on the Tunisian side."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) says he thinks Tunisia will become a strong economic partner for the U.S.
"Most successful middle-income countries want deeper bilateral trade relationships," he said at an event on Wednesday. "Countries that undergo successful transitions often ... become our best allies and trading partners."
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, and discussed issues including Agent Orange, soldiers missing in action, and deepening cultural and economic bilateral ties with Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. "The United States greatly appreciates Vietnam's contributions to a collaborative, diplomatic resolution of disputes and a reduction of tensions in the South China Sea," said the secretary, who is accompanied by Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Robert Hormats, Chief of Protocol Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan. Tomorrow Clinton will arrive in Vientiane, Laos, for meetings with Prime Minister Thonsing Thammavong and other senior government officials, making her the first secretary of state to visit the country in 57 years.
A group of 27 foreign policy, security, and Middle East experts sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on this week criticizing the administration's counterterrorism-focused approach to Yemen and urging the White House to heed policy recommendations geared toward "achieving a successful democratic transition" in the war-torn Gulf country, which experienced a popular uprising last year that ousted longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Although the United States has "drastically increased the number of drone strikes" against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the letter states, this strategy "jeopardizes our long-term national security goals." A comprehensive focus on Yemen's economic and political problems, it continues, "will better serve the stability of Yemen and, accordingly, our national security interests, rather than ... direct military involvement."
The letter, spearheaded by the Yemen Policy Initiative, a dialogue organized by the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), outlines several diplomatic, political, economic, humanitarian, and security policy recommendations that include increasing assistance to democracy-building institutions, working with the international community to immediately address Yemen's "food security needs," sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Yemeni capital Sanaa, and rethinking the strategy of drone strikes, which the signatories argue "could strengthen the appeal of extremist groups."
"The real essence [of the letter] was that we have a new government in Yemen, and what we need to do is recalibrate or rebalance the relationship to make it clear to both the Yemenis and to the American people that our interests and the focus of our efforts there are not solely AQAP," former U.S. ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine told The Cable. "Al Qaeda is a short-term, immediate issue ... we need to took to the medium-term and long-term."
Stephen McInerney, executive director of POMED, argues that while U.S. policy in Yemen is "shortsighted" and "too narrow," AQAP is still a real threat.
"By no means are we downplaying counterterrorism issues," he said in a short interview with The Cable.
U.S. diplomats were actively involved in negotiating the power transfer agreement that resulted in Saleh's official ouster in November 2011, and President Obama signed an executive order in May green-lighting sanctions against parties that try to disrupt the transition. In April, the White House authorized a campaign of stepped-up drone strikes against terrorists in Yemen. The Yemeni military, under new President Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, has recently concentrated on routing AQAP militants from their strongholds in southern Yemen and claims to be making progress.
There are also indications that the Obama administration is taking a broader approach to its Yemen policy. Earlier this month, a delegation from the U.S. House of Representatives visited Sanaa, where congressmen met with government officials as well as businesspeople, NGO representatives, and civil--society leaders. Last week, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) director Rajiv Shah also traveled to Sanaa and announced that the agency would give an additional $52 million to Yemen in 2012.
It's a start, the letters' signatories say, but they'd like to see more.
"The U.S. does have a broad policy of engaging both in security cooperation and development assistance, but unfortunately most Yemenis don't perceive U.S. engagement to be that way," Danya Greenfield, deputy director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, told The Cable. "We need to clearly articulate that the U.S. is really invested in their long-term development ... to ensure that there is ongoing sustainable security both for Yemen and the U.S."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departs today for Europe, where she will travel to Finland, Latvia, and Russia through June 30. Tomorrow, Clinton will hold bilateral meetings with senior Finnish officials in Helsinki to discuss foreign-policy issues including Syria, Iran, and the European economy. On June 28, Clinton will travel to Riga to meet with senior Latvian officials about NATO missions and the country's economic recovery. From there, the secretary will go to St. Petersburg, where she will lead the U.S. delegation to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's Women and the Economy Forum. Clinton, who is accompanied by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, is also scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and civil society leaders.
As a third round of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers ended conclusively Tuesday, Israeli vice prime minister and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz called on the so-called P5+1 to focus on stopping Iran's uranium enrichment during a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace.
"Such an agreement we didn't see in the last meetings," he said. "Not in Baghdad, Istanbul, and in Moscow ... [A deal] should be based on stopping all continued enrichment activity, removing all enrichment materials, and inspecting and dismantling all underground facilities, mainly Qom."
Mofaz, a former defense minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who was recently brought into Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, added that while now is the time for diplomacy and sanctions, Israel along with the United States and other Western countries should prepare all options.
"From my best view, the use of military power should be the last option, and if necessary should be led by the U.S. and Western countries," he said. "We should ask ourselves how much we would delay the Iranian program -- for how many months, for how many years -- and the second question is what will happen in our region the day after."
Diplomacy, though, is only good for so long, he stressed.
"When you say that this is the time for diplomatic activity and sanctions, it doesn't mean that you have two, three, or five years," he explained. "We have a limit of time, and the limit of time is until the Iranian leader will take the last step to having a bomb."
Mofaz also addressed the ongoing crisis in Syria, where well over 10,000 people have been killed and thousands more driven from their homes since the uprising began in March 2011.
"My expectations are that the Western countries should give humanitarian support to the Syrian people," he said. "We cannot be part of it, and it is clear why."
Mofaz was more optimistic about Israel's strained relationship with Turkey, which he believes will be resolved "in the coming months" because it is strategically necessary for both parties
On the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Mofaz says he does not support Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon's recently proposed program of coordinated unilateralism, in which Israel would not attempt to annex any territory east of the security fence and the Knesset would pass a law encouraging settlers to move to the other side of the fence.
Mofaz said that Israelis and Palestinians must "break the ice" and get back to the negotiating table. The future permanent border between Israel and a Palestinian state should be determined by the settlement blocs that house more than 250,000 settlers, he said, adding that Israel should continue to build in those blocs.
The nomination of Brett McGurk to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq is now facing increased opposition in the Senate due to allegations he had an affair with a reporter in Baghdad in 2008 while working as a top White House advisor and may have been videotaped while engaged in a sex act on the roof of Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace with a different woman.
McGurk, who served as a senior National Security Council official and the lead negotiator of the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement in 2008, allegedly held an extended affair with Gina Chon, a Wall Street Journal reporter, that began four years ago in Iraq, according to intimate and occasionally graphic e-mails exposed on the Cryptome website earlier this week. The Washington Free Beacon reported today that McGurk was married to another woman at the time and is married to Chon now.
The leaked e-mails, which could not be independently verified and were published on the Flikr site of an anonymous user named Diplojoke, show McGurk pursuing and then canoodling with Chon, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was also in Baghdad at the time.
McGurk and Chon did not respond to requests for comment. The State Department declined to comment.
Over in the Senate, one leading lawmaker is taking the allegations seriously. The Cable has confirmed that Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the second ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, cancelled a scheduled meeting with McGurk this week when he heard about the e-mails and an allegation that McGurk was caught on video engaged in a sex act on the roof of Baghdad's Republican Palace, as alluded to by State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren on his blog.
Inhofe's spokesman told The Cable that the senator won't proceed on the McGurk nomination until both allegations are cleared up.
"The senator always prefers to meet with nominees personally before giving his support. In regards to this nominee, Senator Inhofe has heard some concerning issues, and until those issues are cleared up, he will not meet with Mr. McGurk," Inhofe's spokesman Jared Young told The Cable.
Inhofe hasn't placed a formal hold on the McGurk nomination yet, but he is considering it.
Multiple sources told The Cable the State Department has investigated the allegation about McGurk's activity on top of the palace but was unable to find any evidence of that incident. It's unclear whether State is investigating the circumstances surrounding McGurk's affair with Chon.
Neither of these incidencts were mentioned at McGurk's confirmation hearing Wednesday. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee now must approve his nomination, but no vote has yet been scheduled.
Inhofe's objection would be only one of the several potential holds McGurk could face on his path to the nomination.
As The Cable reported in March, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) has reservations about McGurk taking on the Baghdad post over concerns that McGurk has never led an embassy and or any large organization and because McGurk was a key part of the failed SOFA negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq beyond 2011.
There are also concerns on Capitol Hill that McGurk may be too close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, impairing his ability to work with all segments of Iraq's political society. When he was nominated, Waheed Al Sammarraie, the D.C. representative of the office of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the leader of the opposition, wrote a letter to Congress that said, "I would like to inform you that Aliraqia Bloc and the liberal trend will not deal with new assigned ambassador to Iraq Mr. Brett Mcgurk for his loyalty and bounds with the Islamic party."
The biggest single new initiative in the State Department's $51.6 billion budget proposal for next year was a Middle East Incentive Fund -- $770 million in mostly new money to help State respond to the Arab Spring by supporting emerging democracies and their civil societies. But the House of Representatives declined to fund it in their version of the appropriations bill.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee for State and Foreign Ops didn't give any money to fund the initiative in their fiscal 2013 appropriations mark, released last month. The leaders of that subcommittee claim that State failed to give them enough detail about the program to justify the new outlay of funds. Now, the State Department is depending on its allies in the Senate to save the program when the Senate Appropriations Committee marks up its bill next week. The episode is an example of the disconnect between State and Congress over how to respond to the Arab Spring as well as the difficulty of securing new money for diplomatic initiatives in this tight budget environment.
"This is something that Secretary Clinton has really -- and with the President -- has focused principally on," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides said in February when announcing the initiative. "The notion is we're in a new world. The Arab Spring has come; we need to make sure we have the tools and the flexibility in which to fund these initiatives. I cannot tell you today where that money will be spent because we'll be, obviously, in consultation with the Hill. We'll be coming up with initiatives that we'll then be discussing with the Hill."
"But this is something we coordinated and talked a lot about with our friends on the Hill, the idea is to have some flexibility to support everything from Tunisia, to support areas like potentially in Egypt and in areas where things are changing every day in Syria, things where changing, the world is evolving as we see it, and we felt it was important to have a pool of money," he said.
At the time, budget experts warned that it would be difficult for the State Department to get Congress to spring for the program because State didn't seem to have a lot of detail about what the money would be used for.
"That will be controversial because there's no content. It's a contingency fund and Congress doesn't like to give State contingency funds," said former Office of Management and Budget National Security Director Gordon Adams at the time.
State did brief all the relevant committees on the new fund and provided as much detail and context as they could, but it wasn't enough for the House subcommittee leaders, Reps. Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY).
"The administration could not justify the broad authority requested to override existing laws. However, the House bill does provide State some flexible funding to be responsive, within the existing account structure, while increasing congressional oversight on key countries," Granger's spokesman Matt Leffingwell told The Cable.
The "existing account structure" he referred to is the economic support funds that are given each year on a country-by-country basis. Congress prefers granting State country-specific aid because it's easier to track and oversee.
"Congresswoman Lowey supports U.S. engagement in the region and believes we must have the flexibility to respond to rapid changes and developments. Existing accounts within the bill provide that important flexibility," Lowey's spokesman Matt Dennis told The Cable.
Outside experts working closely on the issue said that the State Department didn't properly explain the new fund or its benefits to Congress and didn't have specific enough proposals to give lawmakers assurance the money would be spent wisely.
"This incentive fund is an important new initiative, but unfortunately it seems the administration has done a pretty poor job of pitching it to the hill. There's a lot of confusion in Congress about what this fund is for and why it's important," said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.
"This fund should be a signature initiative of the administration to respond to the historic events in the region, and these funds could be essential to the administration's ability to respond to events that haven't yet unfolded in places like Syria, where there is no existing U.S. assistance package in the budget," said McInerney.
Using economic support funds is not a great option because those funds are already devoted to specific causes and diverting them from other places would hurt other priorities, McInerney argued.
"The administration won't be able to use that flexibility without significant cuts to existing programs. Without some support from Congress, it's really tough to get it off the ground," he said.
Tamara Wittes, head of the Brookings Institute's Saban Center on the Middle East, pointed out that within the $770 million State requested for the new fund, it included a $65 million annual request for an existing program called the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is how State has been funding civil society development in the region. So now, MEPI's funding is also at risk.
"Congress may not realize that MEPI funding was embedded in this proposal, but they need to be aware of the impact of their decision on America's ability to partner with citizens in the region who are working for positive change," she said. Wittes was head of the MEPI office and deputy director of State's new Middle East Transitions Office before she left government earlier this year.
The new Middle East Incentive Fund is State's way of trying to shift America's aid approach in the region from the military-dominated focus of the recent decades to an approach focused on the promotion of civil society and political reform, said Wittes.
"We have to look at the overall ratio of our assistance and how that is seen by the people of the region. In order to seize the opportunity that the Arab Spring presents, we need to shift the logic of our relationships to one that emphasizes projects with people," she said.
The fight to save the fund now goes to the Senate, where the Senate Appropriations Committee is set to mark up its State and Foreign Ops bill as early as next week. David Carle, the spokesman for State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), told The Cable, "Sen. Leahy does intend to include some amount for the fund, for the reasons the administration requested it -- to provide flexibility to respond to changing events in the ME and NA regions."
The Senate subcommittee hasn't decided how much of the request to support. Their version of the bill could be conferenced with the House version. More likely, Congress will not complete any appropriations bills this year and the two versions will simply inform a temporary funding measure crafted by congressional leadership in late September.
The new fund does have one powerful staunch supporter in Congress, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA).
"This is something that's been percolating a long time on the Hill and in the administration and it's really a no-brainer," Kerry told The Cable in a statement. "We're witnessing a period of historic change in the Middle East, and it's impossible to predict what will happen next month, let alone next year, which is why the State Department should have the flexibility to deal with unforeseen contingencies. Positive incentives for economic and democratic reforms also make sense. American assistance in itself may not convince governments that are resisting reform to change, but in places that have already begun to chart a new course, like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, it can help empower moderates and reformers."
The State Department declined to comment.
UPDATE: A reader points out that the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee's report on the bill does direct $70 million to MEPI, separate from the Middle East Incentive Fund.
President George W. Bush predicted Tuesday that the remaining authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East are unsustainable and will give way to movements driven by the quest for freedom and human rights.
"These are extraordinary times in the history of freedom," Bush said in Tuesday morning remarks. "In the Arab Spring, we have seen the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. Great change has come to a region where many thought it impossible. The idea that Arab people are somehow content with oppression has been discredited forever."
Bush was speaking at an event to celebrate and publicize the "Freedom Collection," a set of artifacts from democratic struggles around the world, collected by the George W. Bush Institute, run by former magazine editor and State Department official James Glassman.
Bush cautioned that there were risks to democratic change and that sometime overthrowing authoritarian regimes leads to periods of instability, but argued that American had to always support those fighting against oppression.
"Some look at the risks inherent in democratic change -- particularly in the Middle East and North Africa -- and find the dangers too great. America, they argue, should be content with supporting the flawed leaders they know in the name of stability," he said. "But in the long run, this foreign-policy approach is not realistic. It is not realistic to presume that so-called stability enhances our national security. Nor is it within the power of America to indefinitely preserve the old order, which is inherently unstable."
In a return to the soaring rhetoric of his second inaugural address, Bush said that America's role in each country undergoing change in the Arab world will be different but that the United States must always side with people against dictators and should do everything it can to help emerging democracies build civic institutions and a pluralist political culture.
"America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East, or elsewhere. It only gets to choose what side it is on. The tactics of promoting freedom will vary, case by case," he said. "But America's message should ring clear and strong: We stand for freedom -- and for the institutions and habits that make freedom work for everyone. The day when a dictator falls or yields to a democratic movement is glorious."
Bush was introduced by Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid. "All of us here today join you in hoping and praying for the end of violence and the advance of freedom in Syria," Bush said to him, joking, "I actually found my freedom by leaving Washington."
Chinese activist Bob Fu spoke after Bush. He was followed by Laura Bush, who introduced Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who answered questions live via Skype.
Suu Kyi said that while she favored a non-violent approach to confronting dictatorships, she understood that the Syrian people had no choice but to meet the government's violence with violence of their own.
"We should all help people's struggle for freedom around the world," she said. "I would like to say to the people of Syria, we are with you in your struggle for freedom."
Suu Kyi will soon go on her first trip abroad in 24 years after recently being released from house arrest and elected to the Burmese parliament. She will travel to London and Oslo, Norway, where she will formally accept her peace prize, granted in 1991 while she was under house arrest.
Suu Kyi could not confirm rumors that a large number of Burmese government ministers are about to resign. She did say that she supports Sen. John McCain's idea to "suspend" some sanctions against the Burmese state as further incentive for the military government to continue reforms.
"This is a possible first step," she said. "That is a way of sending a strong message that we will try to help the process of democratization but if this is not maintained we will have to think of other ways of making sure the aspirations of the Burmese people for democracy is respected."
"I believe that sanctions have been effective in persuading this government to go for change," she said. "I do advocate caution, though. I sometimes feel that people are too optimistic about what we are seeing in Burma. You have to remember that the change in Burma is not irreversible."
Syrian government forces continue to attack opposition forces, civilians, and aid volunteers, preventing the international community from getting emergency aid to the Syrian people, USAID has detailed in a series of internal reports obtained by The Cable.
In its latest "humanitarian update," written at the end of April, USAID reported in detail the extensive attacks perpetrated by Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) troops, despite an ongoing U.N. monitoring mission and in direct violation of the "cease-fire" there. The USAID report, marked "sensitive but unclassified," sourced its findings to U.N. representatives in Syria as well as representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), and other aid groups on the ground.
"U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan expressed concerns regarding reports of SARG reprisal attacks in areas where Syrian civilians met with U.N. observers, including in Hamah and Damascus governorates," the report stated. "The observers report that SARG forces have not withdrawn heavy weapons from urban centers -- a condition of the U.N. and Arab League supported ceasefire and peace plan that went into effect on April 12."
Although the U.N. Security Council has authorized the deployment of 300 monitors, the report could only confirm that "at least 11" U.N. monitors had arrived in Syria as of April 24. (Additional monitors have reportedly arrived since then.)
Meanwhile, USAID reported that government forces attacked an SARC vehicle April 24 that was evacuating wounded civilians in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, killing one aid volunteer and injuring three. Twenty-six aid workers were trapped in an SARC building following the attack and the SARC had to negotiate a temporary ceasefire between opposition and government forces to get them out, USAID reported.
Following a request from SARC, USAID contractors have suspended the deployment of mobile medical units that were providing health-care services in and around Damascus, the report said.
"In addition to emergency medical needs resulting from ongoing violence, a USAID/OFDA partner report increasing constraints on the availability of medications for chronic diseases, which are prohibitively expensive for Syrians without financial assistance," the report stated. "In addition, the U.N. World Health Organization representatives have expressed concern about the health of displaced Syrians in Jordan."
A USAID contractor is working to train Syrian doctors in Jordan so they can return to Syria and provide life saving medical care there, and a USAID contractor has procured 10,000 kg of medical supplies for use in Syria and is trying to get those supplies into the country, according to the report.
In an April 26 press briefing, USAD Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Christa Capozzola criticized the Syrian regime for not allowing emergency aid supplies to reach the Syrian people and called for more help.
"While some aid is reaching people in need through the Red Crescent, other U.N. agencies, and other international organizations, current humanitarian access restrictions remain a significant challenge to the aid effort," she said. "After months of working under these conditions, the aid organizations working in Syria are extremely stretched. To continue alleviating suffering and saving lives, they need more support and capacity from the international community.
The U.S. government has spent $39.4 million on assistance for Syria in fiscal 2012, the report stated. The report noted that only $33 million of this assistance has been publicly reported before now.
Overall, the USAID report concluded that there had been at least 9,000 civilian deaths in Syria as of March 27, according to U.N. figures, although the current number is likely higher. There are between 300,000 and 500,000 internally displaced Syrians, according to the report, 610,000 estimated refuges inside Syria, and approximately 66,000 Syrian refuges who have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.
The USAID report was marked sensitive but unclassified (SBU).
U.S. Agency for International Development
Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa came to Washington this week to attend his son's college graduation, but he left with hands full of gifts from the U.S. State Department, which announced new arms sales to Bahrain today.
The crown prince's son just graduated from American University, where the Bahraini ruling family recently shelled out millions for a new building at AU's School of International Service. But while he was in town, the crown prince met with a slew of senior U.S. officials and congressional leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain, as well as several other Washington VIPs.
On Friday afternoon, the State Department announced it was moving forward on a host of sales to the Bahraini Defense Forces, the Bahraini National Guard, and the Bahraini Coast Guard. The State Department said the decision to move forward with the sales was made solely in the interest of U.S. national security, but outside experts see the move as meant to strengthen the crown prince in his struggle inside the ruling family.
"We've made this decision, I want to emphasize, on national security grounds," a senior administration official told reporters on a Friday conference call. "We've made this decision mindful of the fact that there remain a number of serious, unresolved human rights issues in Bahrain, which we expect the government of Bahrain to address."
The official noted that the United States is maintaining its hold on the sale of several items the Bahrainis want, including Humvees, TOW missiles, tear gas, stun grenades, small arms and ammunition.
"The items that we are moving forward with are those that are not typically used for crowd control and that we would not anticipate would be used against protesters in any scenario," the official said.
The official declined to specify items on the list, but multiple sources familiar with the details told The Cable they include six more harbor patrol boats, communications equipment for Bahrain's air defense system, ground-based radars, AMRAAM air-to-air missile systems, Seahawk helicopters, Avenger air-defense systems, parts for F-16 fighter engines, refurbishment items for Cobra helicopters, and night-vision equipment.
The United States also agreed to work on legislation to allow the transfer of a U.S. frigate, will allow the Bahrainis to look at (but not yet purchase) armored personnel carriers, and will ask Congress for $10 million in foreign military financing for Bahrain in fiscal 2013.
Opponents of arms sales to Bahrain were quick to criticize the package, arguing that the administration is sending the wrong message to the regime at a time when the violence between government forces and protesters is actually increasing, as are allegations of prisoner abuse by Bahraini security forces.
"This is exactly the wrong time to be selling arms to the government of Bahrain. Things are getting worse, not better," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a statement to The Cable. "The country is becoming even more polarized and both sides are becoming more entrenched. Reform is the ultimate goal and we should be using every tool and every bit of leverage we have to achieve that goal. The State department's decision is essentially giving away the store without the government of Bahrain bringing anything to the table."
On the conference call, administration officials could not name one concession or deliverable the crown prince gave or promised in exchange for the goodies he is bringing home with him.
But outside analysts believe the administration's strategy is more nuanced, and that the real goal of the arms sales is to bolster the crown prince's standing inside the ruling family in his pitched battle with hard-liners over the way ahead.
"The administration didn't want the crown prince to go home empty-handed because they wanted to empower him," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who was arrested in Bahrain while documenting protests there last month. "They placed a lot of hope in him, but he can't deliver unless the king lets him and right now the hard-liners in the ruling family seem to have the upper hand."
The crown prince has been stripped of many of his official duties recently, but is still seen as the ruling family member who is most amenable to working constructively with the opposition and with the United States. It's unclear whether sending him home with arms sales will have any effect on internal Bahraini ruling family politics, however.
"That's the gamble the administration is taking, that it helps him show he can deliver something," Malinowski said. "But there's no guarantee the government will do what we all hope it does. They might just as easily conclude ‘We don't have to empower the crown prince at home; we just have to send him to America.'"
While the crown prince has been in Washington, hard-liners like the prime minister and the minister of the royal court have wielded their control over state media to bash the United States and accuse the U.S. government of fomenting the unrest in Bahrain.
"[The] trend in Bahrain is the redoubling of the anti-American media onslaught witnessed in most aggressive form last summer. This is usually a very clear sign that the State Department is pressuring for a deal to be done, and that some in the royal family are fighting back via their allies in society," wrote Justin Gengler, an academic and blogger focused on Bahrain.
He detailed a list of conspiratorial, anti-American allegations in the Bahraini state-controlled media over the last two weeks and noticed that the state media is focusing again on the case of Ludo Hood, the former political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain who was sent home "after being the focus of threats by pro-government citizens."
A high-level delegation from the opposition al-Wefaq party was in Washington this week as well, but they did leave empty handed.
"Many in the administration want to empower the crown prince as the reformer in the royal family against the hard-liners, and didn't want to send him home empty handed after his visit," said Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. "But no matter how you look at it here in Washington, on the street in Bahrain this will be perceived as the U.S. supporting a regime that is still doing horrible things."
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
The United States needs to do more to protect civilians in Syria, including considering setting up safe zones inside Syria and potentially arming the opposition, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable in an interview Tuesday.
Kerry also warned that if the balance of power is not tilted in Syria in the opposition's favor, it's unlikely that President Bashar al-Assad will step down. A political transition that sees Assad removed from power remains the goal, he said, but the United States must step up its efforts to make that goal a reality.
"You have to change the current dynamic. That's to me the bottom line," Kerry said. "We have to increase the pressure, change the calculations, and succeed in creating a capacity for a movement to a negotiated reform process with a transition that takes place through elections at the right moment."
"That's could be something Russia might buy into and the international community might as well, but Assad won't unless the on the ground calculations change," said Kerry, who just returned from a conference in Jordan that included Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Kerry said his trip had helped convince him that more must be done to help the internal Syrian opposition, well beyond the low levels of humanitarian and communication aid the United States is providing now.
"The concept of a safe zone is a reality and worth the discussion. The concept of working with the Turks and the Jordanians, if everybody is on the same page, there could be some [military] training [of the opposition forces]. If we can enhance the unity of the opposition, we could consider lethal aid and those kinds of things," Kerry said.
But he cautioned that the United States should insist on greater unity within opposition ranks before it provides lethal aid, noting that international efforts to train opposition fighters could help establish that very unity. Safe zones within Syria would have to be defended by some foreign military force, but not necessary the United States or NATO, Kerry explained.
"King Abdullah [of Jordan] made some very interesting suggestions about Jordanian possibilities with respect to that and the Turks also have some options," he said. "I'm talking about Gulf states and the Arab League engaging and leading on this with NATO perhaps as a support structure behind the scenes to back it up," he said.
Asked if there were any conditions under which he would support U.S.- or NATO-led airstrikes on the Syrian military, Kerry said, "Sure."
"If Assad was killing his people in a continued massive way without any regard to his word, the truce, the inspections, and monitors, etc.," Kerry said, adding that we haven't yet gotten to that point.
"Of course the violence is continuing, but not in the kind of way that would suggest to you that airstrikes would make the difference," he continued. "There are a bunch of things that would need to start happening before you put that on the table."
Kerry confirmed that there's a debate inside the administration on when to officially declare that U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan's plan has failed, even though two administration officials said last month that the plan "is failing." The question is whether to let Annan declare it himself or to round up partners and allies and preempt Annan by calling it earlier.
"My view is it would be better for Annan to make a judgment about his own mission but his mission cannot become a vehicle of interminable delay, and we have to be prepared to take measures necessary to protect life and move the process," Kerry said. "If [Annan] can pull a rabbit out of a hat, terrific, but I think we have to be planning a lot of contingencies while he's operating because I'm not optimistic."
Kerry sees new hope that the United States and Russia can find some common ground on the way forward in Syria, and he sketched the outlines of what that might look like.
"There were distinct ways in which hopefully we can get on the same page in order to create a process that might be helpful. You don't want the place to just collapse," Kerry said. "There's a unanimity that Assad has to be part of the transition and to get him out. The question is how. [Lavrov] thinks that Assad has to transition out of there in a respectful way, through a peaceful process."
Any effort to intervene directly in Syria should be Arab-led, Kerry said, but he denied the accusation that the United States is failing to lead or even "leading from behind," as many Republicans allege.
"This ‘failing to lead' refrain is just a political refrain," he said. "The United States doesn't have to go off and do everything to be the leader. Actually, it's pretty smart to get somebody else to do some things for you. You save the American taxpayer a few dollars, you don't put American troops at risk, and you get the job done."
Kerry noted that the administration is planning for a range of contingencies, including safe zones. But the administration has been clear that it has no intention of providing lethal aid to the opposition or using U.S. or NATO assets to directly confront Assad's forces.
In remarks May 6 to the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough said that the administration recognized that Assad has no intention to halt the violence but said that the administration had not yet reached the point of abandoning the Annan plan or abandoning their current approach, which relies solely on diplomatic and economic pressure.
"And the question is whether you make the leap to the next step, which is either the United States undertakes military action or enables others to take military action," McDonough said. "Obviously we plan for every contingency, in the event we need that, but we just don't think the analysis at the moment is that-we do not believe that intervention hastens the demise of the regime."
There is no formal planning going on inside NATO to prepare for defending Turkey from the violence spilling over from Syria, even though Turkey is considering whether to formally invoke NATO's chapters on collective defense, a top Obama administration official said Monday.
"Our Supreme Allied Commander [Adm. James Stavridis] can do a certain amount of planning... but there has been no formal tasking and there has been no formal request by the Turks for consultations in an Article 4 or Article 5 scenario," said Liz Sherwood-Randall, the National Security Council's senior director for Europe, in remarks Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu briefed his foreign minister and defense minister counterparts on Syria at a high level meeting in Brussels this month, and reports said that Davotoglu discussed at length a cross border attack by Syrian forces on a refugee camp inside Turkey that killed two. Davotoglu is also reported to have said the Syrian regime has "abused a chance offered by the Annan plan."
The Obama administration also believes that the Annan plan "is failing," is currently searching for a "plan B" in Syria, and is preparing military related options in case diplomacy breaks down. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that NATO might have to get involved earlier this month, during a ministerial meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group in Paris.
"Turkey already has discussed with NATO, during our ministerial meetings over the last two days, the burden of Syrian refugees on Turkey, the outrageous shelling across the border from Syria into Turkey a week ago, and that Turkey is considering formally invoking Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty," Clinton said.
The Republican Party appears to be deeply split on whether the United States should call on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, a Senate committee vote revealed today.
The divisions were on display during a one-hour debate Thursday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), after which the Republican members of the panel remained irreconcilably divided over how aggressively the United States should work for Assad's removal.
Thursday's markup of a resolution condemning the violence in Syria, put forth by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Casey (D-PA), was the first real congressional debate over U.S. policy in Syria since protests broke out there more than a year ago. It was a heated debate, and by the time the dust settled, half of the Republicans on the committee joined with the Democrats to insist that Congress call on Assad to step down, overruling the other half of the Republicans on the panel, who argued that such language should be scuttled from the resolution.
Rubio, in a speech Wednesday at the Brookings Institution aimed at burnishing his foreign-policy credentials, explained that he was fighting against a growing isolationist trend in his own party. "I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left," he said.
Little did he know that his next battle with members of his own party on foreign policy would come only a day later.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) opened up Thursday's SFRC business meeting by warning of the dangers of Assad remaining in power.
"The stakes in Syria are very, very high. The prospects of a full-fledged civil war are very real," Kerry said, explaining that he will travel to the region during the next Senate recess, which begins tomorrow. "If Assad were to remain in power ... it would really mark a turning point in this Arab awakening and we would have a lot of difficulties dealing with that for a long time to come."
But as soon as Kerry started considering the Rubio-Casey resolution as introduced, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) objected to the paragraph that "calls upon the President to continue to provide support, including communications equipment to organizations in Syria that are representative of the people of Syria."
Corker wanted to make sure that Congress wasn't endorsing arms sales to the Syrian opposition, so the committee agreed to add the words "non-lethal" before "support." Corker also tried to make the resolution specify that no money would go to the opposition, but that was voted down by all nine committee Democrats and three of the nine committee Republicans: Rubio, Johnny Isaakson (R-GA), and John Barrasso (R-WY).
The real fireworks came when Corker tried to remove the line saying that the Senate "reaffirms that it is the policy of the United States that the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people cannot be realized so long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power and that he must step aside."
"I think it's odd to state as a national policy that we want to see Assad gone," Corker said.
Kerry pointed out that President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have all called publicly for Assad to go, so it already is national policy and the Senate would simply be endorsing that. Kerry offered to take out the phrase "he must step aside."
Ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) objected even to that. "I still feel that we should not include a reference to Assad in the paragraph," he said.
"For us to get into a situation where are making these sorts of judgments seems to be overstepping without really having a fundamental debate," said Lugar "We crept on this before during the Libya situation... and we've never really had a debate. The personalization of this resolution is not a good idea."
Rubio defended his resolution, stating he agreed with the administration. He was backed up by several Democrats, including Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
Durbin said that if the Senate passed a resolution weaker than the administration's position, the signal to the world would be that the United States is backing down. "Wouldn't this give some solace to Assad that he might be able to survive and continue?" he asked.
"Many thousands of people have been killed in Russia and China and even in Burma," Lugar responded. "The president could say [Russian President-elect Vladimir] Putin must go, or Chinese leaders, because they are committing crimes in Lhasa all the time. But we are not affirming that... This is a shift in making foreign policy that I am very uncomfortable with."
Kerry tried his best several times to find compromise language that would satisfy both sides, suggesting that the resolution call for a democratic transition decided by the Syrian people -- with the obvious implication that Syria's future would not include Assad.
"It's conceivable that diplomacy might create some transition process." Kerry said, referring to the gradual handover of power by President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. "Who knows?"
Menendez was having none of that argument.
"To somehow leave in vagueness that Assad, despite his slaughter, can somehow find a way to survive, is very difficult to accept," Menendez said. "Otherwise, it undermines the purpose and the power of these resolutions and sends the wrong message to the people struggling and dying."
Ultimately, Kerry gave up and called the vote and the committee voted 12-6 to keep the call for Assad to go in the resolution. Rubio, Isaakson, and Barrasso again joined the Democrats in the vote to scuttle Corker's amendment.
In the final vote to approve the resolution, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) voted in favor by proxy, making the final vote 13-6. Four Republicans voted for the resolution, five against. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) broke ranks with the Democrats and voted against the resolution by proxy.
"The committee is split on Syria but I think you'll find a different result when we get to the floor," Rubio told The Cable in a short interview. "I think there will be much more support for it from Republicans than the committee's vote reflected."
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Two top Obama administration officials said today that the diplomatic initiative to end the violence in Syria, led by U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, "is failing."
Under intense questioning during Thursday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, both Kathleen Hicks, the current deputy under secretary of defense for policy, and Derek Chollet, National Security Council senior director for strategy, said that the Annan plan was headed toward collapse and that new options for confronting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were being prepared.
Asked by the committee's ranking Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, if Assad had complied with the six points of the Annan plan for Syria, which charts a path away from violence toward political negotiations, Chollet acknowledged that violence is actually increasing.
"Do you believe the Annan plan has succeeded or failed?" McCain asked both officials.
"I would say it is failing," Chollet said.
"I would say it is failing and that Annan himself is extremely worried about the plan," Hicks concurred.
Annan lamented reports of increased violence Wednesday but said he still wanted to increase the number of monitors on the ground.
"If confirmed, this is totally unacceptable and reprehensible," said Annan."Equally, a credible political process is required if we are to sustain any long-term calm on the ground."
As The Cable reported last week, Chollet was added recently to the senior leadership of the Syria policy team and is coordinating the interagency process to look for a "Plan B" for U.S. policy for if and when the diplomatic initiatives break down.
Several times during the hearing, McCain complained that the United States was not leading in Syria, waiting for others to request more assertive action and hiding behind the excuse that there was no international consensus on the way forward.
"My view is that the United States is leading diplomatically," said Hicks, pointing to the Friends of Syria group of countries that meets periodically to discuss the issue as well as repeated action at the U.N. Security Council.
"Actually, we have not led the Friends of Syria, at least according to the Friends of Syria, because I have met with them, so that's not a fact," McCain said.
The Pentagon is planning for the possibility that the U.S. military might be called upon to participate in a mission to establish safe zones along the Turkey-Syria border, according to Hicks.
"We are doing a significant amount of planning for a wide range of scenarios, including our ability to assist allies and partners along the borders," she said.
But Chollet said that Turkey has not yet requested a discussion within NATO about setting up safe zones inside Syria, which would require military support. He added that if Turkey did request such a discussion, NATO would be obliged to take up the matter.
"I am unaware of any official or any serious discussions for that matter about how NATO might help Turkey in that regard," Chollet said.
McCain said that expanding the U.N. observer mission, which only has 15 people on the ground right now, would likely not solve the problem. He referred to Thursday's Washington Post editorial, "Where U.N. monitors go in Syria, killings follow."
The editorial noted reports that the Assad regime is sweeping into villages and towns as soon as the monitors leave, killing civilians and punishing those who are suspected of cooperating with the U.N. mission.
McCain was scolding and sometimes sarcastic about what he regards as a feckless U.S. Syria policy.
"I'm glad to hear that we are playing such a ‘leadership role'," McCain said. "I can guarantee you nobody in the Middle East thinks that. I can guarantee you that this is a shameful situation where people are being slaughtered. We are talking about economic sanctions and diplomatic sanctions. We should be helping these people."
Hicks has been nominated to be principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, succeeding acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, and Chollet has been nominated to be assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, succeeding Sandy Vershbow, who is now NATO's deputy secretary-general.
On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Alan Juppe raised the idea of intervening militarily against the Assad regime in Syria and said that the Security Council might have to consider a Chapter 7 resolution, which could authorize the use of force. "We cannot allow the [Assad] regime to defy us," he said.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) plans to again offer an amendment later today to cut off all U.S. aid to Egypt due to the Egyptian government's ongoing prosecution of U.S. NGO workers around the world.
The Egyptian government has asked Interpol to issue international arrest warrants for American and other foreign NGO workers for organizations working to develop civil society in Egypt as it struggles with its transition to democracy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waived congressional restrictions on U.S. aid to Egypt last month, following the release of more than a dozen NGO workers who were barred from leaving Cairo, but the Egyptian government is now seeking the arrests of those NGO workers who were not in Egypt at the time criminal charges were brought.
Interpol is considering the request and can reject warrant requests that are politically motivated, but meanwhile Paul wants to prevent the United States from sending more than $1.5 billion in annual aid to the Egyptian government. He told The Cable Tuesday he will offer an amendment along those lines to the bill moving in the Senate on fixing the financial problems at the U.S. Postal Service.
"I find it incredibly insulting that we're sending them $2 billion in aid and their putting out international warrants," Paul said. "Interpol is not supposed to be involved in political persecution so this is troubling to me."
In February, Paul attempted a similar gambit and filibustered a transportation-related bill as a means of pressuring the Senate to hold a vote on his previous amendment to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt. Democrats blocked Paul's amendment from getting a floor vote.
Asked why he thought this time might be different, Paul said, "You have to just be an optimist around here. I don't know that it will go better (this time) but I'm going to try."
Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the International Republican Institute, one of the NGOs with members facing charges, told The Cable today the new Paul amendment was unwise and would not succeed.
"It won't pass," he said. "A lot of us are very unhappy about the events in Egypt and very unhappy about the treatment of NGOs. But this is not the time to cut off aid to Egypt as they are going through this electoral process. ... Most members of the Senate understand that."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has decided to use a national security waiver to allow over $1.5 billion of U.S. aid to Egypt, bypassing Congressional restrictions even while the Egyptian government's assault on NGOs in Cairo continues.
The State Department hadn't planned to announce the waiver decision today. "We're still expecting a decision this week, but she hasn't made it yet," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Thursday's press briefing. But apparently Clinton had decided, because Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the author of the restrictions, got a call from the State Department today notifying him of the waiver. In a statement Thursday afternoon, he announced the waiver and criticized Clinton's choice.
"I am disappointed by this decision. I know Secretary Clinton wants the democratic transition in Egypt to succeed, but by waiving the conditions we send a contradictory message," Leahy said. "The Egyptian military should be defending fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, not harassing and arresting those who are working for democracy. They should end trials of civilians in military courts and fully repeal the Emergency Law, and our policy should not equivocate on these key reforms."
Leahy's office has been urging Clinton not to use the waiver authority that Leahy himself added to the most recent appropriations bill. Now that the waiver has been exercised, Leahy is arguing that, just because the restrictions on the aid have been removed, that doesn't mean the U.S. government necessarily has to deliver the aid -- at least not all of it up front.
"Now that Secretary Clinton has decided to use the law's waiver authority, she should use the flexibility the law provides and release no more taxpayer funds than is demonstrably necessary, withholding the rest in the Treasury pending further progress in the transition to democracy," said Leahy.
We were told by multiple Congressional sources that the State Department is considering delaying part of the $1.3 billion of military aid and most of the $250 million in economic aid, at least for a while. The Pentagon has been urging Clinton to release some of the military aid because existing contracts with U.S. defense firms were dependent on the funds, multiple Congressional aides said.
Leahy's House counterpart, House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX), also came out against Clinton's decision to waive the restrictions today and said that she had been told it was in fact a partial waiver.
"I am disappointed by the timing of the Secretary's decision to issue a partial waiver of restrictions on FMF funds for Egypt while the Egyptian government's transition is ongoing," Granger said in a statement to The Cable. "The State Department needs to make the case that waiving the conditions is in the national security interest of the United States. I expect the Secretary to follow the law and consult the Appropriations Committee before any funds are transferred."
Critics of providing further military aid to the Cairo government have raised concerns over the actions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which allegedly played a role in the December raids on several NGOs in Cairo, including three funded by the United States: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House.
A number of Americans who worked for NGOs in Egypt were temporarily banned from leaving the country and charged with crimes, but they were eventually allowed to depart earlier this month. Prosecutions against both the foreign workers and the local staffs of the NGOs continue.
The non-military aid is under particular scrutiny because it would be given largely to the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation, which is run by Fayza Abul Naga, the official who is suspected to have played a lead role in the raids and the prosecutions.
"The decision to waive the conditions, partially or in full, on military aid sends the wrong message to the Egyptian government -- that U.S. taxpayers will subsidize the Egyptian military while it continues to oversee the crackdown on civil society and to commit human rights abuses," said David Kramer, president of Freedom House. "A resumption of military aid at this point also sends the wrong message to the Egyptian people -- that we care only about American NGO workers, not about the aspirations of the Egyptian people to build democracy."
Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, agreed with that assessment. The announcement of the waiver, he said, was "extremely disappointing, particularly as Egyptian and American organizations working to support Egypt's transition to democracy remain very much under threat."
The restrictions in the bill were conditioned on Clinton certifying that the Egyptian military is making progress on the transition to democracy, and that the Egyptian government is allowing freedom of expression and assembly. McInerney said the United States can still hold Egypt accountable for those promises.
"I very much hope, as Senator Leahy has expressed, that the administration will still elect to delay the disbursement of the majority of the fiscal year 2012 funds to Egypt's military until further progress in Egypt's transition to democratic civilian rule has been achieved," he said.
Not all senior lawmakers and officials connected with the issue are so eager to cut off U.S. funding to the Egyptian government. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of IRI, has been deeply involved in the issue and traveled to Egypt in the midst of the crisis.
He told The Cable in an interview that the aid served as a valuable form of influence that the United States must use carefully.
"We've got to weigh all the aspects of this issue, it's very complicated and complex. We want to be on the same page as the administration," he said. "In general, I think its two steps forward and one step back in Egypt. But there's also the overall issue of the delicate political situation in Egypt today."
Senate Foreign Relations Middle East Subcommittee Chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) told The Cable that the issue wasn't black and white, and that there should be a way to provide some aid while still keeping the pressure on Egypt to continue reforms.
"We've got to have a measure of accountability. But I think the idea of cutting off aid doesn't make sense," Casey said. "We just have to figure out a better way to make the aid conditional based on those measures of accountability, and I think we can achieve that. I think, in this case, it's a mistake to take an either/or approach."
UPDATE: Read Nuland's full Friday statement on the waivers after the jump:
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The State Department announced on Tuesday that it would exempt 10 European countries and Japan from penalties for doing business with Iran's central bank, because those countries are making significant progress toward weaning themselves off of Iranian oil.
"I am pleased to announce that an initial group of eleven countries has significantly reduced their volume of crude oil purchases from Iran -- Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom. As a result, I will report to the Congress that sanctions pursuant to Section 1245 of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 (NDAA) will not apply to the financial institutions based in these countries, for a renewable period of 180 days," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a Tuesday statement. "The actions taken by these countries were not easy. They had to rethink their energy needs at a critical time for the world economy and quickly begin to find alternatives to Iranian oil, which many had been reliant on for their energy needs."
The European Union banned all new purchases of Iranian crude oil as of Jan. 23 and will phase out existing contracts by July 1, Clinton said. Japan was able to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil even despite energy shortages created by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
"We commend these countries for their actions and urge other nations that import oil from Iran to follow their example," said Clinton. "Diplomacy coupled with strong pressure can achieve the long-term solutions we seek and we will continue to work with our international partners to increase the pressure on Iran to meet its international obligations."
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who co-authored the sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and those who do business with it, praised the State Department's move in a Tuesday statement of his own.
"The sanctions are working," he said. "Countries and companies are stepping up in recognition of the real threat that Iran poses to its neighbors and the global community and are terminating business relationships with Iran. On Saturday, SWIFT - the financial messaging service provider - cut off services to the Central Bank of Iran and 30 designated Iranian banks, and as a result -- for the first time -- we are seeing a real impact on the Iranian economy."
A senior State Department official said Tuesday that there are 12 countries left who import Iranian oil and could be sanctioned but didn't get exemptions today. Butthe official said that if those countries are going to be sanctioned, it won't be for a while.
Since the CBI sanctions didn't actually go into effect until Feb. 29, any case for implementing sanctions against those 12 countries would have to be based on evidence from that date forward, which would take time.
On March 30, President Barack Obama will have to make a determination as to whether price and supply conditions in the energy market allow for countries to switch from Iranian crude oil to other suppliers. If he determines they do, then a new set of harsher sanctions would go into effect on June 28 against any countries that don't have exemptions by then.
The main countries that the United States might be forced to sanction at that time include China, Turkey, India, and South Korea, none of which received exemptions today. The State Department official admitted that the conditions for receiving an exemption are vague.
"On the case of the other countries, the legislation specifies ‘significantly reduce.' It doesn't define what ‘significantly reduce' is," the official said.
The official said that Japan represents a model for how other countries could act to avoid sanctions. But under questioning, the official refused to say exactly how much Japan has committed to reducing its dependence on Iranian oil, calling that "commercially protected information." He said Japan reduced its intake of Iranian oil between about 15 to 22 percent over the last half of 2011, depending on how you look at the data.
One senior Senate aide called into question the State Department's decision to issue Japan an exemption. The aide pointed out that the law requires countries to reduce their intake of Iranian oil in 2012, not 2011, and it's not clear if Japan is going to continue that trend ahead of the June 28 deadline.
"The bottom line is that if Japan has in fact committed to reducing their purchases of Iranian oil by 15 to 22 percent in 2012, this exemption is fully warranted. But if this is just a get out of jail free card issued on the basis of past performance alone, this would not be a faithful application of the law," the aide said.
The aide also pointed out that the 10 EU countries are no-brainers for exemptions, because the EU is in the process of implementing a full Iranian oil embargo anyway.
"This is no diplomatic success, this is just cover to make sure that those EU countries that are complying with the embargo have cover from the sanctions."
The State Department is getting ready to decide if Egypt has done enough to earn its $1.5 billion in U.S. aid for this year, and one leading human rights organization is telling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the answer is no.
"Amnesty International USA is deeply concerned about the ongoing repression of the Egyptian people by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt," the advocacy group wrote in a Wednesday letter to Clinton. "Given the human rights violations in Egypt, the US State Department cannot in good faith certify to the US Congress that the Egyptian government is protecting human rights."
Clinton is in charge of determining whether or not the Egyptian government has met the requirements spelled out in the last congressional appropriations bill as prerequisites for getting the $1.3 billion in annual military aid and another $250 million or so to promote democracy and civil society in Egypt. The law mandates that Clinton certify Egypt is proceeding on the road to a democratic transition, maintaining its commitments under its peace treaty with Israel, and "implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law."
The president can waive those requirements based on national security grounds if he wants.
"We urge you not to make such a certification, and we also oppose any waiving of this certification requirement," the Amnesty International letter states. "Making such a certification would undermine the brave struggle of the Egyptian people for a society founded on respect for human rights and the rule of law. Waiving the certification requirement would forfeit a key form of pressure for the advancement of human rights."
Specifically, Amnesty International opposes the subset of military aid that puts weapons, ammunition, and vehicles in the hands of security forces that have already used such items in human rights violations
We're told that although the State Department is technically in charge of this certification, other agencies are involved in the decision-making process and the Pentagon is pushing internally for at least some of the aid to go through.
Officials and lawmakers threatened to cut the aid to Egypt during the first round of the NGO crisis in January, when the Egyptian government raided several American funded NGOs and charged Americans with crimes for working at those NGOs. Even though those Americans have been allowed to leave Egypt, the Egyptian government's assault on its own civil society continues, Amnesty says.
"The ongoing trial of NGO staff on spurious charges is just one incident in a broader pattern of the new Egyptian regime continuing the old Mubarak practice of muzzling civil society," the group's letter continues.
Amnesty also points out that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which temporarily holds executive power in Egypt, has not rescinded emergency security laws, has continued to perpetrate violence against peaceful protesters, is still trying civilians in military courts, and has worked to exclude women from political participation.
"Furthermore, we call on the State Department to cease the funding, transfer, licensing, or sale of weapons, ammunition, military equipment, and military vehicles that can be used by Egypt's government to suppress human rights," the letter reads. "Any such funding derived from the U.S. Foreign Military Financing program should be halted immediately."
As troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad stormed the opposition-held city of Idlib Tuesday, Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) became the fourth U.S. senator to openly call for U.S. military intervention in Syria ... before he partially walked back those comments in an interview with The Cable.
"Senator, do you support a military intervention in Syria?" The Cable asked Brown in the hallways of the Capitol Building Tuesday.
"Well that's the million-dollar question," he said. "At what point do we do it? Is it 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 killed? At what point do we draw a line in the sand and get involved just based on the humanitarian [considerations] or just our belief that we are a great country and should be helping people?"
"We're at about 10,000 killed so far -- so what do you say?" we pressed.
"I'm at the point right now that I think we should handle it like we did with Libya: Get that coalition and go in and give the opposition a chance to regroup," he said.
"So you're for the U.S. getting involved in another international military intervention in Syria?" we asked. Then the Massachusetts senator appeared to have second thoughts.
"I'm still gathering information," Brown said. "I'm still asking for the appropriate briefings to see what we can do and what the limitations are and how this is different from Libya. And I'll have a more defined statement I think pretty soon."
Brown is not the only GOP senator grappling with the proper way forward in Syria, but other GOP lawmakers at least seemed to have their positions ready at their fingertips. Earlier Tuesday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) confidently told us that he doesn't believe the Syrian revolution is about "democracy."
In another Tuesday interview with The Cable, Senate Armed Services Committee member Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) said she supports increased international pressure on Russia and China but doesn't support U.S. military intervention at this time.
"Right now, I'm very concerned about what's happening in Syria," she said. "There are a number of legislative actions we could take against Russia to stop them from what they are doing."
As for arming the Syrian opposition, Ayotte said, "I think that's something that we should look at doing, but I also think there are other partners that might be in a position to do that, including the Turks."
Robert Giroux/Getty Images
Top administration officials, leading lawmakers, and GOP presidential candidates have all weighed in on Sen. John McCain's proposal to launch U.S.-led airstrikes to halt the violence in Syria, but there is still no consensus on the costs and benefits of entangling the U.S. military in another armed conflict.
"Just as was the case with Libya, there is a broad consensus among regional leaders and organizations on the preferred outcome in Syria: Assad and his cronies must go. There is not, however, a consensus about how this goal could be achieved," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) said at Wednesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Levin didn't say whether he was for or against a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria, but he warned of the risks and talked about the possible impact on the region.
McCain was more clear, repeating his call for foreign air power to be used against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, and calling for the immediate arming of the Syrian opposition -- hopefully with international cooperation from Arab partners and European allies.
"It is understandable that the administration is reluctant to move beyond diplomacy and sanctions. Unfortunately, this policy is increasingly disconnected from the dire conditions on the ground in Syria, which has become a full state of armed conflict," McCain said.
He urged Panetta to remember his time as White House chief of staff during the NATO intervention in Bosnia and quoted President Bill Clinton as saying at the time, "There are times and places where our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war and where we can defend our fundamental values as a people and serve our most basic strategic interests. There are still times when America and America alone can and should make the difference for peace."
McCain also quoted CENTCOM chief Gen. James Mattis, who testified Tuesday that "Assad is clearly achieving what he wants to achieve" that his military campaign is "gaining physical momentum on the battlefield." Mattis also noted that Assad's downfall would be "the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years."
In his testimony, Panetta clearly ruled out any unilateral military action by the United States in Syria, but he left the door wide open to a multilateral mission inside Syria at some later date. Yesterday, President Barack Obama said that no option in Syria has been taken off the table.
"We are reviewing all possible additional steps that can be taken with our international partners to support the efforts to protect the Syrian people, to end the violence, and ensure regional stability, including potential military options, if necessary," Panetta said. "Currently, the administration is focusing on diplomatic and political approaches rather than military intervention."
"We need to have a clear legal basis for any action that we take. For us to act unilaterally would be a mistake," Panetta said. "Can it happen today? Can it happen now? No. It's gonna take some work; it's going to take some time. But when we do it, we'll do it right. We will not do it in a way that will make the situation worse. That's what we have to be careful of."
Dempsey said the Pentagon has planned for several possible military actions in Syria, including delivering humanitarian relief, imposing a no-fly zone, conducting maritime interdiction, establishing humanitarian corridors, and executing limited air strikes. He said the planning was at a "commander's estimate level of detail," and that there had been briefing to the National Security Council staff but not the president directly.
"As you know, we're extraordinarily capable and we can do just about anything we're asked to do," Dempsey said. "The ability to do a single raid-like strike would be accessible to us. The ability to do a longer-term sustained campaign would be challenging, and would have to be made in the context of other commitments around the globe."
Dempsey also confirmed elements of The Cable's Tuesday story on Syria, including the fact that Russia continues to arm the Syrian regime, including with advanced air defense systems.
Panetta said he believed that NATO should start debating the issue of a military intervention in Syria. That discussion so far has not begun in Brussels, according to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Panetta also said the Pentagon will not begin planning for a Syria intervention in detail until directed to do so by the president.
"I don't think there's any question that we're experiencing mass atrocities there," Panetta added.
Yesterday, several top Republican politicians declined to go along with McCain's call for airstrikes on Syria now, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
In a short interview Tuesday, McCain said that didn't bother him one bit.
"I couldn't care less," McCain said. "I know the difference between right and wrong. I know that people are being slaughtered as we speak."
"I refer back to Bosnia and Kosovo. Under President Clinton, we acted although there were Republicans strongly opposed to that. I think it turned out well."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who joined McCain's call for airstrikes along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), told The Cable Tuesday that he preferred a multilateral military intervention in Syria over a unilateral strike.
"The Arab League is the right vehicle," said Graham. "If they request air support I'm willing to be part of the team. But I want the Arab League and the international community to be deeply involved and I want it to be to stop the slaughter."
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration is moving to provide direct assistance to the internal opposition in Syria for the first time, marking a shift in U.S. policy toward a more aggressive plan to help oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Last week, a group of senior Obama administration officials met to finalize a package of options for aiding both the internal and external Syrian opposition, to include providing direct humanitarian and communications assistance to the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable. This meeting of what's known as the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council set forth a new and assertive strategy for expanding U.S. engagement with Syrian activists and providing them with the means to organize themselves, but stops short of providing any direct military assistance to the armed opposition.
For now, riskier options, such as creating a no-fly zone in Syria, using U.S. military force there, or engaging directly with the Free Syrian Army, are all still off the table. But the administration has decided not to oppose, either in public or in private, the arming of the rebels by other countries, the officials said.
"These moves are going to invest the U.S. in a much deeper sense with the opposition," one administration official said. "U.S. policy is now aligned with enabling the opposition to overthrow the Assad regime. This codifies a significant change in our Syria policy."
The package of options will be debated by cabinet-level officials at what's known as a Principals Committee meeting as early as this afternoon, the two officials said. The principals could endorse the entire package or make some changes, the officials said, although the package does have the consensus of the interagency coming out of last week's Deputies Committee meeting.
The administration is planning to greatly expand its interactions with the external Syrian opposition, led by the Syrian National Council, as well as with internal opposition bodies to include Syrian NGOs, the Local Coordinating Councils, and the Revolutionary Councils that are increasingly becoming the de facto representation of the Syrian opposition. The Free Syrian Army works with these councils, but the administration is not ready to engage the armed rebels directly out of concern that they are still somewhat unaccountable and may have contacts with extremist elements.
As part of the new outreach, the State Department and USAID have been tasked with devising a plan to speed humanitarian and communications assistance to the internal Syrian civilian opposition, working through State's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) office. There is no concrete plan yet as to how to get the goods into Syria if the Assad regime doesn't grant access to affected areas.
"We're leaving State and USAID to work that out. That's the million-dollar question. We're working on that now," the official explained.
Meanwhile, the administration wants to bolster the new defense committee established by the SNC last week, hoping to solidify that body's prominence as the contact point for coordinating military and technical assistance to the rebels, if a decision is taken later to move in that direction. The FSA has rejected the SNC's defense committee as being part of its chain of command, but for now the Obama administration sees the SNC as a more credible organization with which to explore options to potentially provide military aid.
"The prevailing narrative is enabling the transition while keeping options open for reaching out to the armed opposition," the administration official said. "There is recognition that lethal assistance to the opposition may be necessary, but not at this time."
At last month's initial Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that arming the Syrian rebels was "an excellent idea," though there are conflicting reports as to whether and to what extent Saudi weapons and cash were already flowing into the country.
In preparation for the next Friends of Syria meeting in Turkey later this month, the Obama administration has decided not to openly oppose direct military assistance to the rebels as long as it comes from another country, not the United States, one of the administration officials said.
"The decision has been made at the next Friends of Syria meeting to not oppose any proposals to arm the FSA and we're not going to publicly or privately message on that," the official said. "We're not going to publicly or privately tell the Friends of Syria not to do this."
Inside the administration, there is still a consensus that U.S. military intervention in Syria is not wise at this time and there are still voices expressing hope that political transition could take place in Syria without all out civil war.
"It's more about what could be accomplished by intervening. So many questions haven't been answered," another administration official said, expressing the widespread internal uneasiness about involving the U.S. military in yet another war in the Middle East. "There's a chance we could get embroiled in a conflict. What does that do to our preparedness for other contingencies?"
Some in the administration still hold out hope that the Russians can be persuaded to play a more helpful role in Syria. But two officials confirmed that Russian arms deliveries to Syria are ongoing and one administration official said that the latest shipment included large amounts of advanced anti-aircraft missile systems, which are meant to help Syria repel any attempt to establish a no-fly zone.
"What that says is that the Russians are doubling down on Assad. They're preparing for the next step, which is the internationalization of the conflict," one administration official said.
For the critics of Obama's Syria policy, these moves represent a step in the right direction but still fall short of what is needed for the United States to halt the violence.
"I am encouraged the Obama administration is exploring steps to provide direct assistance to Syrians inside their country, but the incremental measures reportedly under consideration still do not come to grips with the fundamental reality in Syria, which is that Bashar al-Assad, equipped and resupplied by Iran and Russia, is now waging an outright war against the Syrian people, who are outmatched, outgunned, and urgently in need of decisive international intervention," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable today.
Lieberman, along with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) came out Monday in favor of a U.S.-led intervention in Syria to begin immediately.
"To me this should begin with medical and military assistance for the opposition, including tactical intelligence and weapons, and ultimately should include targeted airstrikes against Assad's bases and forces," Lieberman said. "The United States should help organize such support for the Syrian opposition, but it should be international and include our concerned allies in the Arab League, the GCC, NATO, and the EU."
Lieberman, McCain, and Graham will all have a chance to question the administration on these new moves Wednesday when the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joints Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment on the administration's internal deliberations.
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
Airstrikes against Syria are tempting but ultimately not a good idea, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) told The Cable today, reacting to the Monday call for airstrikes from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), also first reported here.
It's not easy these days to be more hawkish than Ros-Lehtinen, but that's where McCain ended up today after he called for the United States to lead an international military intervention in Syria to halt the killing of civilians by President Bashar al-Assad.
"Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower," McCain said Monday. "To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country."
We caught up with Ros-Lehtinen, who has been vocally opposed to any outreach to the Assad regime since 2009, on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference, where she had just finished her appearance on a panel calling for more Iran sanctions.
Ros-Lehtinen told us she wants the United States to do more to stop the bloodshed there, but active military involvement at this juncture was just a bridge too far.
"Senator McCain's heart is always in the right place. He was right on Egypt and Libya. But I believe that we've got to get our allies involved and get them committed," she said. "So my heart agrees with him, but my head says no."
Ros-Lehtinen said the American people, following decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that seem to finally be winding down, are war weary.
"The American people and the constituents that I represent, they are cautious about getting involved in another military operation," she said. "I understand the humanitarian issues involved... But I hear people saying, ‘Who's going to enforce the no-fly zone? Who's going to do all of this? Is it always the U.S.?'"
Attacks on Syria now could also create a "domino effect" that could lead to a hot war with Iran, which considers Syria a client state, Ros-Lehtinen warned.
"Senator McCain has been right, but I worry the Syria operation may be harder because of its tie-ins to Iran and what will Iran do militarily," she said.
She said her committee will mark up a new Syria sanctions bill she co-sponsored with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) March 8. The bill imposes mandatory sanctions against persons that transfer or retransfer goods or technology that can aid Syria's efforts to obtain WMDs and their delivery systems. Further, the legislation mandates extensive sanctions, including asset freezes and a travel ban, on senior officials of the Syrian regime.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Later today, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, will become the first U.S. senator to publicly call for U.S. led air strikes to halt the violence and atrocities being committed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"After a year of bloodshed, the crisis in Syria has reached a decisive moment," McCain will say Monday afternoon in a speech on the Senate floor, according to excerpts obtained in advance by The Cable.
"What opposition groups in Syria need most urgently is relief from Assad's tank and artillery sieges in many cities that are still contested. Homs is lost for now, but Idlib, and Hama, and Qusayr, and Deraa, and other cities in Syria could still be saved," McCain will say. "But time is running out. Assad's forces are on the march. Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower."
The Obama administration's stance thus far has been to clearly communicate that international military intervention is not on the table in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the United States is willing to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria immediately... but only if Assad agrees to provide access to affected areas.
McCain, referring directly to the requests for more direct assistance from the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, and Local Coordinating Committees inside Syria, will call for the United States to lead an international effort to protect civilian population centers in northern Syria through airstrikes on Assad's forces.
"To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country," McCain will say. "The ultimate goal of airstrikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad. These safe havens could serve as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance -- including weapons and ammunition, body armor and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water, and medical supplies. These safe havens could also help the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups in Syria to train and organize themselves into more cohesive and effective military forces, likely with the assistance of foreign partners."
McCain will point out that more than 7,500 lives have now been lost in Syria and that the United Nations has declared that Syrian security forces are guilty of crimes against humanity, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, the execution of defectors, and the widespread torture of prisoners.
"Increasingly, the question for U.S. policy is not whether foreign forces will intervene militarily in Syria. We can be confident that Syria's neighbors will do so eventually, if they have not already. Some kind of intervention will happen, with us or without us. So the real question for U.S. policy is whether we will participate in this next phase of the conflict in Syria, and thereby increase our ability to shape an outcome that is beneficial to the Syrian people, and to us. I believe we must."
He will also drive home the point that the situation in Syria is now as dire as the situation was in Libya before the U.S. led a NATO intervention there last year.
"The kinds of mass atrocities that NATO intervened in Libya to prevent in Benghazi are now a reality in Homs. Indeed, Syria today is the scene of some of the worst state-sponsored violence since Milosevic's war crimes in the Balkans, or Russia's annihilation of the Chechen city of Grozny," McCain will say.
McCain will then point out that President Barack Obama characterized the prevention of mass atrocities as "a core national security interest" when speaking about Libya and has committed the credibility of the United States to his repeated calls for Assad to step aide.
"If Assad manages to cling to power -- or even if he manages to sustain his slaughter for months to come, with all of the human and geopolitical costs that entails -- it would be a strategic and moral defeat for the United States. We cannot, we must not, allow this to happen," McCain will say.
"Rather than closing off the prospects for some kind of a negotiated transition that is acceptable to the Syrian opposition, foreign military intervention is now the necessary factor to preserve this option. Assad needs to see that he will not win."
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
If the international community gave the Syrian rebels arms, communications equipment, and intelligence, that would help speed President Bashar al-Assad's removal from power, the top U.S. military official in Europe said Thursday.
Navy Admiral James Stavridis, Commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, told the Senate Armed Services that NATO is not doing any "detailed planning" for ways to aid the Syrian opposition or protect Syrian civilians. But under intense questioning from the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Stavridis admitted he believed that giving material aid to the rebels would help them get better organized and push forward the process of getting the Assad to step down.
"Yesterday the secretary-general of NATO, Mr. Rasmussen, told The Cable, quote, ‘We haven't had any discussions about a NATO role in Syria and I don't envision such a role for the alliance,'" McCain said, referring directly to our Feb. 29 exclusive interview with Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"Is it true that NATO is doing no contingency planning of any kind with respect to Syria, including for the provision of humanitarian and medical assistance?" McCain asked Stavridis.
"We're not doing any detailed contingency planning at this point, senator, and there's a reason for that. Within the NATO command structure, there has to be an authorization from the North Atlantic Council before we can conduct detailed planning," Stavridis said. The North Atlantic Council is the body charged with making NATO policy decisions.
After getting Stavridis to confirm he believes the Syrian crisis is now an armed conflict between government and opposition forces, McCain then asked Stavridis if the provision of arms, communication equipment, and tactical intelligence would help the Syrian opposition to better organize itself and push Assad from power.
"I would think it would. Yes, sir," Stavridis replied.
McCain contrasted NATO's reluctance to intervene in Syria with previous NATO missions to halt massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) seconded that comparison at the hearing.
"This does remind me of experiences we had in Bosnia and Kosovo in the '90s," Lieberman said. "It actually took quite a while for us to build the political will, both here and in Europe, to get involved there. And while we were doing that, a lot of people got killed, and the same is happening in Syria now. I hope it doesn't take us so long."
Just down the hall from the SASC hearing, two top State Department officials were giving an entirely different take on the efficacy of arming the rebels. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration just doesn't think that arming the Syria rebels is a good idea.
"We've been very hesitant about pouring fuel onto a conflagration that Assad himself has set," Feltman testified Thursday. "So we're very cautious about this whole area of questioning and that's why we have worked with this international consensus on political tracks, on economic tracks, on diplomatic tracks, in order to get to the tipping point we were talking about earlier."
As Ben Smith in Politico reported Thursday, the Syria issue has divided Congress on traditional party and ideological lines -- lines that were muddled during the debate over intervention in Libya because of internal Republican disagreement. Most GOP senators and leading congressmen, along with all the GOP presidential candidates, are urging the Obama administration to begin directly aiding the Syrian rebels now.
Leading congressional Democrats, to the extent they have commented on the issue, have been more reluctant to get more involved in the Syria crisis. House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told reporters Thursday, "If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try. Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
"It is critical that we all proceed with extreme caution and with our eyes wide open," SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said at the Thursday hearing. "There are serious questions to be answered about the Free Syrian Army, but it is not too soon to think about how the international community could shape its thinking or encourage restraint."
The debate in Congress over aiding the Syrian rebels will ramp up next week, with a March 6 SASC hearing with Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis and a March 7 SASC hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Fifteen foreign NGO workers were allowed to leave Egypt Thursday in what U.S. officials said was a positive step toward the resolution of a simmering crisis. But all sides warn that the crisis is still far from being resolved.
The Egyptian government removed the travel ban on foreign employees of several Cairo-based NGOs that were raided last December, allowing 8 Americans, 3 Serbs, 2 Germans, 1 Norwegian, and 1 Palestinian to speed to the Cairo airport and fly out Thursday. The Americans include Sam LaHood, director of the International Republican Institute and son of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood. Other American- funded NGOs -- including the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House -- have been harassed and had their staffs charged with crimes. Several Egyptian NGOs have also been targeted.
"We are very pleased that the Egyptian courts have now
lifted the travel ban on our NGO employees. The U.S. government has provided a
plane to facilitate their departure and they have left the country. They are
currently en route home," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday.
But she indicated that the United States and Egypt still have some differences to iron out.
"The departure of our people doesn't resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs," Nuland said. "We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process, and we will keep working with the Egyptian government on these issues."
Behind the scenes, the administration and several unlikely allies in Congress have been scrambling in recent days to urge the Egyptian government to produce some tangible progress on the issue before the Americans were dragged into Egyptian courts for trial and before the U.S. Congress moved to cut off Egypt's $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid, $1.3 billion of which goes to the Egyptian military.
According to officials and staffers close to the issue, the bulk of the credit for the progress thus far goes to the administration and first of all Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, who has been working furiously to resolved the crisis in Cairo. Other key officials involved were Brooke Anderson, the National Security Council chief of staff, who was the White House point person on the issue, and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns. The Justice Department and State Department Counselor Harold Koh have also been heavily involved, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey visited Cairo earlier this month and discussed the issue at length.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met twice with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr on the issue last weekend, once on the sidelines of the Somalia conference in London and once on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria conference in Tunis. The State Department also sent a delegation of lawyers to Tunis, an official said on background basis.
According to sources close to the negotiations, in the end the key Egyptian figures who facilitated the deal to were Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Justice Minister Mohamed Abdel Aziz Ibrahim. In fact, U.S. officials believed they finalized the outlines of a deal with those two leaders last week, whereby the judge presiding over the NGO trials would lift the travel ban when the trials opened on Feb. 26.
When the time came, that presiding judge refused to follow through, according to sources, and Ibrahim stepped in to remove him from the case, effectively placing Ibrahim himself in charge of the decision. Ibrahim then lifted the travel ban. The U.S. side agreed to pay $5 million in "bail" money as part of the arrangement.
Two Republican senators who rarely have any nice words about the administration's foreign policy, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), also pitched in. They traveled to Cairo last weekend with Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and John Hoeven (R-ND) and met with a series of Egyptian interlocutors, including Tantawi and representatives of Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The FJP, which holds the largest share of seats in the Egyptian Parliament, issued a public statement on the heels of the McCain-Graham visit, which said the party was unhappy with the current NGO law in Egypt, a relic of the Mubarak era. The FJP statement acknowledged that the foreign NGO workers had played a constructive role in Egypt over the years and described the prosecutions of the NGO workers as "politically motivated."
In a statement Thursday, the four U.S. senators acknowledged the Muslim Brotherhood's cooperation. "We are encouraged by the constructive role played over the past week by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Their statement of February 20 was important in helping to resolve the recent crisis," the senators said.
The American lawmakers had help from the Senate floor, where McCain and Graham were working hard this week to prevent a vote on an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that would have cut off all U.S. aid to Egypt immediately. McCain and Graham successfully prevented the amendment from reaching the Senate floor, but were unsure how long they could continue to do so before affecting other Senate business. This created a sense of urgency that was communicated directly to the Egyptians.
David Kramer, president of Freedom House, said in an interview today that the FJP statement was important because it allowed the SCAF and elements of Egypt's civilian government to lift the travel ban without fearing a domestic political backlash.
"It provided political cover to the authorities that if they took the step they took today, the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn't attack them in the press," he said.
But Kramer emphasized that the government's persecution of NGOs is ongoing. The cases against the Americans haven't been dismissed, and the SCAF has failed to provide an open and transparent system for domestic civil society to operate.
"No Egyptians got on a plane today, just the foreigners," Kramer noted. Several Egyptian Freedom House staffers are still charged with crimes. "This is a very important first step, but there are many steps along the way here. We have to get the investigations closed down. We have to be allowed to reopen and engage in our activities, like we were doing before. The pressure needs to be maintained."
"Today's action helps take away one element of tension. It wasn't helpful to have the focus be on Americans imprisoned in Egypt," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch. "That was taking the focus away from the real problem, which is the Egyptian government's assault on its own civil society."
The threat of a cutoff of U.S. aid to Egypt still remains, Malinowski noted. That prospect was always based on the most recent U.S. appropriations bill, which requires Secretary Clinton to certify that Egypt is making progress on, among other things, protecting freedom of association and moving toward true democracy.
"This is not enough for Hillary Clinton to certify progress under that law, although it might make it easier for her to use her national security waiver," Malinowski argued. A decision by Clinton could be put off until April, he added.
But the crisis has at least suggested that Congress and the Islamists in the new Egyptian legislature can work together, despite their differences in outlook.
"The Muslim Brotherhood will be the leading organization politically. It is up to them to create an environment where the world feels welcome," Graham said on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon. "Maybe we've learned our lesson, that you can't just have partnerships without basic principles. And so, we look forward to working with the Egyptian parliament and people."
As Syrian tanks consolidated their hold on the restive city of Homs, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday that the United States should not provide any direct assistance to the Syrian people at this time.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) spoke Thursday morning in a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, mostly about the defense budget and military acquisitions programs. The Cable asked Smith whether or not the United States has any responsibility to protect civilians in Syria and whether he would support any direct assistance there, be it humanitarian, medical, communications, intelligence, or even military support to the people under attack by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Smith said no to both questions. On the issue of "responsibility to protect," the humanitarian doctrine often cited as a rational for foreign intervention, Smith said it's not a workable policy.
"There are a whole lot of people around the world suffering in a variety of different ways and it would be wrong to say that under no circumstances do we bear any responsibility for that ... But there are more people suffering and more problems in the world than we could possibly solve or even come close to attending to," he said. "Do we say if there is suffering anywhere we as the United States of America have a responsibility to try and fix it? ‘No,' is the answer to that question, because it's a challenge we can't possibly meet."
Regarding Syria specifically, Smith said there are just no good options, and definitely none that would make a difference without costing the United States too much.
"If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try," Smith said. "Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
Syria is different than Libya because the opposition is spread throughout the country, and doesn't hold any territory, according to Smith. Assisting Syrians would therefore be logistically problematic, he said.
"In Syria, it's a mess ... it would be very difficult to act in the first place in a way that would make a difference," he said.
Smith also cited the lack of an international mandate for direct assistance in Syria.
"If that broad international support came together, you know, if there was a clearer military mission that could be achievable, I think it's something that if I were the president I would be looking at every day," said Smith. "Is the situation changing or evolving in a way that puts us in a position to help? I don't think it's there right now."
Smith's comments closely track those of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who told The Cable in an interview Wednesday that NATO has no intention of intervening in Syria or providing direct aid to the opposition in any way.
"The guiding question should be: Would it bring a sustainable solution to the problem if we decided to intervene, if we had the legal basis, if we had support from the region?" Rasmussen said, arguing that any intervention mission simply wouldn't have a high likelihood of success.
The Obama administration has clearly stated several times it does not favor any military intervention in Syria or providing arms to the Syrian rebels, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the United States is interested in providing humanitarian assistance if the Assad regime consents.
The Cable also asked Smith what the U.S. reaction should be if Israel conducts a unilateral military strike on Iran's nuclear program.
"We should have a policy, we should not talk about it publicly, because that would not help the overall situation," Smith said. "To state a policy that says, ‘If Israel attacks...' will only fuel the fire and make people think ‘Well, [the U.S.] must know that they're going to attack."
Office of Rep. Adam Smith
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.