U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford keeps putting himself in harm's way. This Sunday, he attended the funeral of a Syrian activist shortly before it was attacked by Syrian security forces.
"US amb. Robert Ford shows up at the wake of slain #syria activist Giyath Matar. An hour later the funeral tent is trashed by security forces," tweeted Washington Post foreign correspondent Liz Sly Tuesday afternoon.
We found a video that shows Ford at the funeral, which took place on Sept. 11. The State Department today confirmed to The Cable that he was in attendance. We also found a video (warning: graphic) of Matar's tortured and mutilated body, posted by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been meticulously documenting cases of alleged abuse against domestic protesters by the Syrian security forces.
"Security forces corpse [sic] submitted his corpse to his family and told them that you can make from his body a ‘Shawerma' sandwich!!!" the human rights organization reported.
Ford, who was installed as the U.S. envoy to Damascus in a recess appointment, was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. But unless he can overcome a tough confirmation fight on the Senate floor, he will be forced to return to Washington at the end of the year.
The group also posted a video of the body of Ahmad Sulaiman Ayrut, who they allege was killed in the government attack on Matar's funeral.
The State Department condemned Matar's killing at a Monday press briefing, but only later confirmed to The Cable Ford's attendance at the funeral. So far, State has not commented on the violence at the funeral.
"This was a very high-profile human rights activist in Syria, apparently arrested on September 6th and died in custody -- again, further evidence of this regime's brutality, indiscriminate force, and absolute disregard for human life and for the human rights of its citizens," said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
There was no mention of Ford's attendance on the U.S. embassy of Damascus's Facebook page. The last Facebook posting by Ford came on Sept. 8, where he references threats being made on his life by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"[Commenter] Mujtaba Xr warns me that I will face being killed if I continue my criticism of the repression in Syria. I take his post to be a perfectly good example of the kind of intolerance that has provoked such discontent in Syria," Ford wrote. "Remember that I am one of the few international observers here on the ground; if only the Syrian government would allow international media to move around the country freely like we did in Iraq!"
Ford's close call comes only two weeks after he was physically assaulted by a regime supporter while standing outside an anti-government sit-in by some lawyers at the Syrian Bar Association. The State Department didn't say anything about that incident either, until it was reported by The Cable.
Of course, it's possible that Ford is actually trying to get himself kicked out of Syria by the Assad regime. That would allow the Obama administration to spotlight Assad's intolerance and allow the State Department to avoid a fight over Ford's Senate confirmation.
The State Department has opened a brand-new office to manage U.S. policy toward countries attempting democratic transitions in the Middle East.
William Taylor, senior vice president for conflict management at the U.S. Institute of Peace, has moved over to Foggy Bottom to lead the new office, called the Middle East Transitions office, which began operations this week. His deputy is Tamara Cofman Wittes, who is now dual hatted, also continuing on deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. Taylor's chief of staff is Karen Volker, who until August was director of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is now directed by Tom Vajda. MEPI also falls under Wittes' portfolio. Taylor reports up to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.
In a Monday interview with The Cable, Taylor said his office will begin by leading State Department coordination on policy toward Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the three Middle East countries that are trying to make the shift from dictatorship to democracy.
"The idea is we want to focus energy and policy attention on how we support these three transition countries," he said. "The idea is to be sure this gets top-level attention in the department."
Taylor's office will have about 10 to 12 people, and he said he hopes to soon add a resident senior advisor from both USAID and the Pentagon. The office is meant to be permanent, and would expand its operations to cover countries like Syria and Yemen -- if and when those countries attempt a democratic transition.
Taylor's first job will be to lead an effort to develop support strategies for Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Then, his office will go about trying to implement those strategies by working within State, around the interagency process, and then with international financial institutions, non-governmental organizations, and stakeholders on the ground. Taylor said he will attend National Security Council meetings on issues related to his brief.
In President Barack Obama's May 19 speech on the Middle East, he promised to work on establishing enterprise funds for Egypt and Tunisia, which are accounts meant to support start up programs and activities abroad, and said that U.S. support for democracy will "be based on ensuring financial stability; promoting reform; and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy -- starting with Tunisia and Egypt."
Taylor said that the administration was still eager to pursue enterprise funds for these countries, but that legislation would be needed to get it done.
"We're looking at the possibly of enterprise funds model as a possible model for these transition countries but we're going to need a lot of support from Congress," he said, adding that State would also ask Congress for authorizations and appropriations to support the new transitions initiative at State. New funding for diplomatic initiatives is a tough sell in this tight fiscal environment, but transition funding does have some support in both parties.
Taylor was chosen for the job in part because he played a key role in a similar diplomatic effort following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1991, the State Department put together the Freedom Support Act Office, which managed relations with former members of the Soviet bloc.
That office was run by Ambassador Richard Armitage and reported up to Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Taylor worked for Armitage in that office and eventually became its director, a position he held until 2001. The Freedom Support Act Office was combined with the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) office and still exists today.
Taylor was U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine from 2006 to 2009, and before that served as Washington's envoy to the Mideast Quartet. In 2004 and 2005, he directed the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office in Baghdad, and from 2002 to 2003 he served in Kabul as coordinator of U.S. government and international assistance to Afghanistan.
It's generally expected that the United States will veto the Palestinian bid for full member status at the United Nations Security Council next month, but the Palestinian government thinks it has an ace up its sleeve -- a workaround option that would bypass the U.S. veto and allow it to secure U.N. recognition, says the PLO's top representative in Washington.
"The plan as of now is to go the United Nations to seek full member-state status for the State of Palestine," said Maen Rashid Areikat, PLO representative to the United States and head of the PLO mission in Washington, in a Tuesday interview with The Cable. That means submitting a request to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who will then turn that request over to the U.N. Security Council for a vote.
But the Security Council doesn't actually vote on the statehood question, only whether to refer the matter to the U.N. General Assembly. If and when the United States vetoes the idea of referring the Palestinian request to the General Assembly, that request dies. But the Palestinians aren't planning to stop there.
"We hope the United States will reconsider its position and not use its veto power against the Palestinian move at the United Nations," he said. "What happens after a veto? There are so many other options."
Areikat said one option under serious consideration was to invoke U.N. General Assembly Resolution 377, known as "Uniting for Peace," which was put forth by U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1950 as a means of getting around an obstructionist Security Council, which at the time was unable to authorize a response to North Korea's attacks on South Korea because the Soviet Union was rejecting all related Security Council resolutions. Resolution 377 is meant to bypass the Security Council if it "fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression."
"What we could do is go to the Security Council and say that a member state of the Security Council, in this case the United States, has blocked our request and therefore we are seeking Security Council support to take the issue to the U.N. General Assembly, invoking Resolution 377," he said. "If that effort succeeds, we will be a non-member state at the United States, not a member state. That's the difference between the two."
Under Resolution 377, the Palestinians would only need nine out of 15 Security Council votes to refer their statehood request to the General Assembly, which can then address the matter immediately (if in session) or can call an emergency special session, as has been done 10 times since 1950, most recently in 1997, when it was convened to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The other option is for the Palestinian government to submit their request for full member status to the Security Council again, forcing the U.S. to veto it over and over.
"We can keep on going back to the Security Council again and again," Areikat said.
The Obama administration has been working hard to try to convince the Palestinians not to move forward at the United Nations. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at today's briefing that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today. Also, the NSC's Dennis Ross and Acting Special Envoy David Hale were in the Middle East and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today. Hale, but not Ross, will meet with Abbas Wednesday.
The Clinton call was "to urge President Abbas to receive them and hear them with open ears and to continue to work hard with us to avoid a negative scenario in New York at the end of the month," Nuland said. "We will continue to oppose any one-sided actions at the U.N. And we're making that clear to both sides."
"We respect their position, we expect them to respect our position. It's not a secret that they are asking us not to go the United Nations. It's not a secret that we are telling them we have to go to the United Nations," Areikat said.
But he said the Palestinian leadership no longer had faith in the United States or the international community to set forth a process for peace negotiations that both the Israeli and Palestinian sides could agree to. It's been a year since President Barack Obama established Sept. 2011 as the deadline for setting forth a framework for a final settlement, but "nothing has really happened," Areikat said.
"We have been waiting for over a year for the international community and the United States to create a formula that will constitute a basis for resuming negotiations and what we've seen is a total rejection on the part of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government to engage."
Prompted by The Cable, Areikat also responded to comments made in our interview with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren last week, who said that if the Palestinians move forward with their statehood drive, all bilateral agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians could be at risk, including the Oslo Accords.
"The agreement that Oren is accusing the Palestinians of violating is an agreement that Israel has rendered obsolete in the first place," he said, referring to the Oslo Accord specifically. "It's really shocking to hear that he is threatening to abandon the agreements with the PLO, which also provided certain stability to Israel and Israelis. I don't see how by abandoning the Oslo accords Israeli will be serving its own interests."
The State Department last week urged both sides to honor their existing agreements, despite the new diplomatic tussle. Areikat warned that the scuttling of standing agreements could have repercussions for Israel as well.
"If the Israelis want to take an action, there will be a reaction. If they want to throw away an agreement, it will also have an impact on them," he said.
Areikat also criticized leaders of the U.S. Congress, who is threatening to cut some or all of the $550 million in annual aid to the Palestinian government if it moves forward with the statehood push at the U.N., calling such an action "unwise and unconstructive."
"We definitely hope the U.S. Congress understands the fact that any steps taken to put pressure on the Palestinians is going to adversely affect U.S. interests and even the interests of Israel in the region," he said. "I hate to see members of Congress threatening to use financial support to try to influence Palestinian positions on this issue."
UPDATE: A State Department official confirms that Ross did end up meeting with Abbas Wednesday, along with Hale.
The American victims of several terror attacks perpetrated by the regime of deposed Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi are asking the State Department to break off some of Qaddafi's frozen assets and give it to them.
There are about $37 billion of frozen Libyan assets in the United States, some of which were Libyan government funds and some of which were the personal fortune of Qaddafi and his family. When Qaddafi made nice with President George W. Bush's administration, he agreed to pay the U.S. victims of his crimes $1.5 billion in restitution. But now, those victims are saying that isn't enough money to cover the cost of what they were promised, and they want the Obama administration to divert more funds to make up the difference.
"The State Department under President Bush didn't get enough money from Qaddafi to pay the awards. They are likely $200 million to $400 million short," Stuart Newberger, the lead attorney for victims of UTA flight 772, told The Cable. UTA 772 exploded in 1989 over the Sahara desert, killing 171 people, including 7 Americans, one of whom was Bonnie Pugh, wife of the U.S. ambassador to Chad, Robert Pugh. High-ranking members of the Qaddafi regime were implicated in the attack.
The families of the UTA 772 victims, like those of several other Qaddafi attacks, were engaged in litigation against Qaddafi before the State Department made a deal to settle all claims for $1.5 billion. The State Department transferred responsibility for doling out the money to a foreign claims settlement commission run by the Treasury Department in 2008, and dozens of victims are still waiting for their payments.
The victims are entitled to specific awards - such as $10 million if a family member died and $3 million if a family member suffered a severe injury - but their advocates always suspected that the $1.5 billion wasn't enough to cover the awards promised. They also said the State Department underestimated the number of victims of Qaddafi's crimes.
"The issue is how to make sure the awards are paid in full, the way the State Department and the Bush administration intended," said Newberger. "What we want is either the president, the secretary of state, or the Congress to use a very small portion of the frozen Qaddafi assets to be applied to make sure there is no shortfall. Otherwise, these American victims of Qaddafi's terrorism will get much less than was recommended."
Six members of Congress today asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to do just that, in a letter obtained exclusively by The Cable.
"We are concerned that the amount of money not yet distributed from the $1.5 billion Libya Claims Program...may be insufficient to fairly compensate some victims," said the letter, spearheaded by Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's representative in Congress.
Other signers of the letter were Robert Hurt (R-VA), Eliot Engel (D-NY), Michael Grimm (R-NY), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), and Jean Schmidt (R-OH). They want the State Department to confirm that there will be a shortfall, explain what they plan to do about it, and detail any legal obstacles to using the frozen Qaddafi funds.
The victims and their advocates became especially worried when several victims received a letter on Aug. 25 from the Treasury Department stating that some victims would only be given 20 percent of the money they were promised.
"Treasury is prepared to make an initial payment of $1,000. Treasury is further prepared to make a partial, pro-rata distribution totaling 20% of the unpaid balance that remains on your award," stated the letter, also obtained by The Cable.
Newberger said that paying pro-rata portions is a clear indication that the Treasury is aware there is not enough money in the fund to pay the victims. But he also acknowledged that the administration may not be able to peel off Qaddafi funds for the victims without some backing from Capitol Hill.
"The president probably only has limited legal authority for transferring some of this money," he said. "To make his authority stronger under U.S. law, he really needs Congress to pass a law. If the Congress does that, the president is in a much safer and stronger legal position."
In fact, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Johnny Isaakson (R-GA) were able to add an amendment to Sen. John Kerry's bill to authorize the Libya war that directed the administration to use the frozen funds to pay victims. But now that the war is mostly over, that bill has little chance of reaching the Senate floor, much less Obama's desk.
For the administration, it's a no-win situation. If it tries to take the money from the frozen funds, it risks upsetting the Libyan National Transitional Council, which thinks it should decide how to spend Qaddafi's money. If it doesn't act, it could appear to be abandoning the victims of Libya terrorism in the United States.
"They've been very careful not to take a position on this," Newberger said.
The State and Treasury Departments did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.
The victims involved in this effort include those who were part of several Qaddafi-inspired attacks in addition to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie and the bombing of UTA flight 772. They include:
The ongoing war of words between the Obama administration and the Bashar al-Assad regime is quickly descending into a nasty exchange of personal insults and invectives between officials that have borne grudges against each other for years.
Both the U.S. and the Syrian governments have recently taken cheap shots at each other's officials. For instance, the Syrian national television station has called U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford a "dog" and said he must have been "shitting his pants with diarrhea" when he heard the fireworks that were being set off in a downtown square.
This week, the State Department unloaded on Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem. On Tuesday, after the Treasury Department announced new sanctions on three Syrian officials, the State Department sent around some additional quotes to reporters about Muallem, to be attributed as coming from a "senior administration official."
"Walid Muallem has played a key role in trying to insulate the regime from the implications of its own brutality. By devoting himself to strenuously trying to hide Syrian government culpability in the murder and torture of Syrian citizens, Muallem bears some responsibility for the crimes committee. He has intervened with counterparts to try to prevent the U.N. Security Council from taking action," the senior administration official said.
Then came the kicker: "Muallem remains an unapologetic, shameless tool and mouthpiece of Bashar al-Assad," the senior administration said.
At Wednesday's State Department briefing, reporters pressed spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on whether she would repeat these insults on the record, and whether she thought it was constructive to publicly demean the Syrian foreign minister.
Nuland's answer was yes on both accounts.
"He has played a key role in trying to insulate the Assad regime from the implications of its own brutality by devoting himself strenuously to trying to hide the Assad regime's capability and the murder and torture of Syrian citizens. Muallem bears personal responsibility as well for the crimes committed. He's intervened with counterparts to try to prevent the U.N. Security Council from taking action," she said.
"You know, we saw people in the Qaddafi circle demonstrate a clear understanding of right and wrong when the tide began to turn there. They chose to defect. That has not yet happened with senior members of the Bashar Assad regime. Muallem remains unapologetic. He remains as a shameless tool and a mouthpiece of Assad and his regime."
And Nuland had more Muallem bashing quotes in her briefing book:
"Not done. Not done. More Muallem," she said. "He has also served as one of the key links between Damascus and Tehran, and he's strengthened Assad's reliance on Iranian equipment and advice in his relentless crackdown on the Syrian people."
Muallem is one of the key interlocutors between the Obama administration and the Assad regime, and the public sniping doesn't bode well for future contact. It could also be awkward when Muallem comes to New York next week for the U.N. General Assembly, but apparently the State Department no longer cares about playing nice.
Some reports have suggested that the personal nature of the insults is based on long-standing grudges between some members of the Obama administration and the Syrian officials. This Associated Press article links the new rhetoric to Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who survived an assassination attempt, presumably planned by Syria, when he was ambassador to Lebanon during the George W. Bush administration.
"The Assad regime is probably at the top of the suspect list," in terms of who tried to kill Feltman, said Andrew Tabler, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a new book about the U.S.-Syria relationship, In the Lion's Den, although Tabler doesn't think the war of words is based solely on personal grudges.
"Engagement is over, we are now essentially in a policy of confrontation. It's certainly a sign of the incredibly bad state of relations between the two countries," he said. "And it is getting nasty."
The State Department is denying any knowledge or connection to the meetings this month between senior Qaddafi officials and former State Department official David Welch.
Al Jazeera reported today that files found in Muammar al-Qaddafi's intelligence bureau after the fall of the regime show that Abubakr Alzleitny and Mohammed Ahmed Ismail, two top Qaddafi officials, met with David Welch, former assistant secretary of state under George W Bush, on Aug. 2, 2011, in Cairo. Welch was the man who brokered the deal to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Libya in 2008.
"During that meeting Welch advised Gaddafi's team on how to win the propaganda war, suggesting several ‘confidence-building measures', according to the documents," Al Jazeera reported, noting that the meeting was held at the Four Seasons hotel, only blocks from the U.S. embassy.
The minutes of the meeting also include Welch's purported advice that Qaddafi should feed the Obama administration damaging intelligence on the rebels by laundering it through allied governments and that Qaddafi should take advantage of the "double standard" in U.S. policy toward Libya and Syria.
"The Syrians were never your friends and you would lose nothing from exploiting the situation there in order to embarrass the West," Welch reportedly told Qaddafi's officials. Welch, who now works for Bechtel, did not return requests for comment. But Nuland confirmed that the trip occurred.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at today's briefing that Welch was acting on his own. "David Welch, a former assistant secretary, is now a private citizen. This was a private trip. He was not carrying any message from the U.S. government," she said.
Al Jazeera also found a memo of a conversation between an intermediary for Qaddafi's son Saif Al-Islam and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (R-OH). The memo included a request from Kucinich to Saif asking for dirt on the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC), such as evidence of corruption or links to al Qaeda.
"Al Jazeera found a document written by a Libyan bureaucrat to other Libyan bureaucrats," Kucinich said in a statement e-mailed to The Cable. "All it proves is that the Libyans were reading the Washington Post, and read there about my efforts to stop the war. I can't help what the Libyans put in their files."
Kucinich chief of staff Vic Edgerton would not confirm or deny that Kucinich did in fact have a conversation with a Qaddafi official.
"My opposition to the war in Libya, even before it formally started, was public and well known," Kucinich said. "My questions about the legitimacy of the war, who the opposition was, and what NATO was doing, were also well known and consistent with my official duties. Any implication I was doing anything other than trying to bring an end to an unauthorized war is fiction," Kucinich said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is calling for a halt to U.S. aid to the new Libyan government if it refuses to re-arrest Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was convicted of planning the 1998 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Schumer sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today calling on the State Department not to help the National Transitional Council (NTC) -- which is struggling to stand up a government in the wake of the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi -- with either direct aid or by giving them access to frozen Qaddafi funds, unless it jails Megrahi.
"If the new Libyan government continues to shield this convicted terrorist from justice, then they should not get one more cent of support from the United States," said Schumer. "We put American lives and money on the line to help the Libyan people secure their freedom. It's time the Libyan government lives up to its commitment to create a free and accountable society by handing over al-Megrahi so that justice can finally be done."
Megrahi was released by the Scottish government in 2009 on compassionate grounds, because he was supposedly dying of cancer. He enjoyed a hero's welcome when he returned to Libya and has since stubbornly refused to die on schedule. Since the fall of Qaddafi, Schumer, along with several other senators and GOP presidential candidates, have been calling on the NTC to lock him up.
Mohammed al-Alagi, the NTC justice minister, said on Monday that the senators' request had "no meaning" and that the new Libyan government had no intention of extraditing Megrahi to the United States or anywhere else.
CNN's Nic Robertson actually found Megrahi and visited him in his Tripoli home this week, where he appeared to be slipping in and out of a coma and near death. But Schumer doesn't believe the video or the NTC's claims that Megrahi really is going to die soon.
"This would not be the first time that Libyan officials claimed al-Megrahi was in a ‘near death' state. The American people deserve more verification than the word of local Libyan officials," he said. "There is no justifiable basis for the rebels' decision to shield this convicted terrorist."
Clinton travels to Paris on Thursday for a ministers-level meeting of the Libya Contact Group. The State Department won't say whether it will press the NTC on the issue but the Justice Department maintains that the Lockerbie investigation is still open and active.
Full text of Schumer's letter after the jump:
The U.S. government has issued a new policy that allows the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) to do business with U.S. organizations and financial institutions, one more step in helping the country establish a new government.
The United Nations agreed last week to let the United States release $1.5 billion of the $37 billion of frozen Qaddafi assets. The State and Treasury Departments are working with the United Nations on thawing more of the Qaddafi money, but that might take a while. In the meantime, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued a general license that would nullify the part of the executive order that prevents U.S. institutions from dealing with the "Libyan government," in order to allow the NTC to conduct new business with those institutions.
"All transactions involving the TNC are authorized," reads the new General License, signed Aug. 19. (The U.S. government still uses TNC to refer to the new Libyan leadership, though the rebel leadership council has officially changed its name to NTC.)The license explains that this new policy does not affect the frozen Qaddafi assets, but simply allows U.S. institutions conduct future transaction with the NTC.
"It was necessary because the executive order blocks all transactions with the ‘Government of Libya,' and now could impact the TNC" said Treasury Undersecretary David S. Cohen. "So we wanted to clear away that inadvertent technical problem by issuing this license, which says that any interactions with the TNC or any entity the TNC controls is permitted."
Recently, at least one transaction between the NTC and a U.S. institution was blocked, Cohen said.
Of course, the NTC's main goal -- to get its hands on the rest of the frozen Qaddafi assets -- is still a work in progress. The United Nations needs to take action to amend the U.N. Security Council's resolutions to unfreeze those funds, and the U.S. mission at the U.N. is working that issue hard now.
"The general license addresses new transactions, not the frozen assets," Cohen added, pointing out that some of the frozen assets are personal assets of the Qaddafi family and some are the assets of the Libyan government.
"We're going to continue to work through the issues with our colleagues at State and our allies both through the U.N. and the contact group to figure out whether there are additional funds that will be unfrozen and delivered up to the TNC, but that's the next step," said Cohen. "Right now we're focused on transferring over the $1.5 billion that's already been approved for release."
The new Libyan government won't hand over the man convicted for planning the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, but the Justice Department plans to keep hunting down the perpetrators, with or without him.
Senior lawmakers and GOP presidential candidates said last week that the top priority of the new Libyan government should be the rearrest and extradition of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was sentenced in Scotland for the bombing, but then released in 2009 on compassionate grounds because he was supposedly dying of cancer.
CNN's Nic Robertson actually found Megrahi and visited him in his Tripoli home yesterday, where he appeared to be comatose and near death. But Mohammed al-Alagi, the justice minister in Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC), said yesterday that the senators' request had "no meaning" and that the NTC had no intention of extraditing Megrahi to the United States or anywhere else.
"We will not hand over any Libyan citizen. It was Qaddafi who handed over Libyan citizens," Alagi said. He also criticized Qaddafi for handing over Megrahi to the Scots in the first place.
Pressed on the issue at today's briefing, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland would only say that the Obama administration was in touch with the NTC on the issue and that White House officials didn't think the NTC had made any final decisions on what to do about Megrahi.
"We need to let them get their feet under themselves as a governing authority, and then they have agreed that they will look at this … and I don't think we're there yet," she said, adding that the Justice Department had the lead on the issue.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd told The Cable that even if Megrahi is not rearrested or if he dies, the DOJ will continue to hunt down the remaining culprits of the attack.
"We remain firmly committed to bringing to justice everyone who may have been involved in the Pan Am 103 bombing," he said. "The Justice Department investigation into the Pan Am 103 bombing that was initiated on December 21, 1988, remains open and active."
He declined to comment on what exactly DOJ is doing in the Lockerbie investigation, nor did he give any reaction to the NTC's comments on the issue.
There's no consensus on what to do with Megrahi, even among those in Washington calling for his rearrest. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) wants him brought to the United States. Mitt Romney suggested that he be brought to the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
In an interview with The Cable, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said he thinks Megrahi should be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. "There were a lot of people besides Americans who were killed in that bombing," he said.
"I think this guy should see justice, but I also understand that the Libyans want to handle it themselves," McCain said. "Let's see how they handle it. As long as we can ensure justice was done, I think the families of the victims would be OK with that."
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) doesn't believe that Megrahi is near death, and he is angry at the NTC for refusing to hand him over.
"This wouldn't be the first time that Libyan officials claimed al-Megrahi was on his deathbed. We're going to need a lot more verification than the word of local Libyan officials," Schumer said. "There is no justifiable basis for the rebels' decision to shield this convicted terrorist."
A video has emerged of U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford being assaulted by a pro-regime demonstrator on the streets of Damascus last week.
The assault took place before Ford's unapproved trip to the city of Jassem on Aug 23. Ford was present at a gathering of demonstrators who support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad outside the Cham Palace Hotel in Damascus when one demonstrator ran up to Ford and tried to wrap him in a poster that featured Assad's face.
Ford's security intervened quickly and rushed Ford to his car. The incident was then replayed in a highly produced segment on a Syrian television station owned by Mohamed Hamsho, a businessman who is the brother-in-law of the president's brother, Maher al-Assad. Hamsho was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department earlier this month for siding with the Assad regime during its brutal crackdown on protesters.
Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian activist opposed to Assad and who lives in Maryland, said the TV report accuses Ford of trying to lead a protest in Damascus and even features an out-of-context quote from Edward Peck, the former U.S. diplomat who is now a strong critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East and who took a ride on the May 2010 flotilla that tried to break the Gaza blockade and was attacked by the Israel Defense Forces.
"The reporting is of course stupid" Abdulhamid wrote. "The plain facts are: as Ambassador Ford observed a loyalist demonstration, some of the demonstrators jumped at him when they recognized him and tried to wrap a poster of Bashar Al-Assad around him, but the Ambassador's security details managed to rush him safely into his car. There was no anti-Assad demonstration at the time, security in that area is simply too tight."
A State Department official told The Cable today that the video was "a weak, banal, laughable attempt by the Syrian thugs to have the international community focus on anything but the real story, which is the government's continuing campaign of terror on its own people through torture, murder, and illegal imprisonment."
Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a new book about the U.S.-Syria relationship, In the Lion's Den, said that the Assad regime has been harassing Ford for weeks with stunts like this.
For example, the same TV station recently showed a video of fireworks in downtown Damascus, after which the anchor said Ford must have been "shitting his pants with diarrhea," Tabler recounted.
After Ford visited anti-regime protests in the city of Hama in July, the regime encouraged supporters to pelt the U.S. Embassy with rocks and eggs. The protesters smashed embassy windows and wrote graffiti on the walls calling Ford a "dog."
"It's annoying and shows you the base nature of that regime," said Tabler. "This regime hates to be in the spotlight. Robert Ford's actions there place those kinds of things in the spotlight and that's why they are harassing him."
Of course, it's possible that Ford is actually trying to get himself kicked out of Syria by the Assad regime. That would allow the Obama administration to spotlight Assad's intolerance and allow the State Department to avoid a fight over Ford's Senate confirmation.
Until that happens, Ford is going to continue to do his job and try to interact with the Syrian people, said Tabler. But, he added, "the way things are going, it's probably a matter of time" before Ford gets booted.
View the video here:
UPDATE: A State Department official writes in to say that Ford was not attending a pro-regime demonstration. He was watching an anti-government sit-in by some lawyers at the Syrian Bar Association. He was assaulted while standing outside the bar association, waiting to see whether the pro-government thugs assembled outside would assault the protesting lawyers when they came out. The thugs didn't like that he was watching.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) denied that he promised to help Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi buy U.S. weapons in a late-night tent meeting between the two statesmen in 2009, as a WikiLeaked diplomatic cable implied.
"It's just outrageous," McCain told The Cable in an exclusive interview. McCain said that he never indicated to Qaddafi that he would help him get weapons in any way. "Of course not, that would have been ridiculous," he said.
The specific allegation made in the diplomatic cable sent by Joan Polaschik, the top U.S. diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli at the time, was that McCain had agreed to push Congress to allow the delivery of eight C-130 Hercules military transport planes that Qaddafi had purchased in 1972 but are still sitting in limbo at Dobbins Air Reserve Base.
Prior to sending her report on the meeting back to Washington, Polaschik said she did not have the opportunity to clear her cable with McCain and the rest of the delegation: Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Susan Collins (R-ME), as is the custom with such reports.
Polaschik was at the meeting, but McCain denied Polaschik's account and gave a different version of his conversation with Qaddafi on that topic.
"[Qaddafi] asked me, 'Well, we'd like to get our C-130 upgrades.' I said, 'Well, that's what you want,' but I was noncommittal," McCain said. "I said, 'I understand that's your need,' but I never said anything and I never did a single thing to follow up."
"I knew his record and I'm certain that Collins, Lieberman, and Graham would corroborate my version of events," McCain said.
The State Department did not respond to requests for comment on McCain's remarks.
So why would the head of the U.S. Embassy write a cable claiming that progress had been made on selling weapons to Qaddafi?
"At that time, the embassy was very interested in having a relationship with Qaddafi, but I can't imagine why that diplomat said the things they said. It's beyond me," McCain said.
He also said that the embassy asked him not to raise the case of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was about to be released by Scottish authorities. McCain ignored that request, however, and raised the issue of Megrahi with both Qaddafi and his son, Mutassim al-Qaddafi.
McCain also wanted to explain to The Cable his now infamous Aug. 15, 2009, tweet, in which he wrote, "Late evening with Col. Qadhafi at his 'ranch' in Libya - interesting meeting with an interesting man."
"I thought it was interesting because I thought it was bizarre," McCain explained.
The entire experience was strange, McCain said, because the Libyans had postponed the senators' 4 p.m. meeting until 10 p.m. and then drove them out to the desert, where they spent most of their time interacting with Mutassim.
When Col. Qaddafi finally came out, he looked as if he had been sleeping and said several things that McCain said he found strange.
"One of the things he said to me was, 'If you had pulled all the troops out of Iraq, you would be president of the United States.' I've thought of a lot of reasons why I'm not president, but that wasn't one of them," McCain said.
"Overall, I thought it was a very strange and bizarre experience."
The cable was first released and reported on in May, but resurfaced in several news stories following Qaddafi's fall.
Hundreds of supporters of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) movement converged on the State Department on Friday to hear former U.S. congressmen and senior officials call for the U.S. government to take the MEK off its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) emceed the rally in front of the State Department headquarters. The event also featured speeches by former Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA), former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former CIA Deputy Director of Clandestine Operations John Sano.
"One of the greatest moments was when my uncle, President [John F.] Kennedy, stood in Berlin and uttered the immortal words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,'" Kennedy exclaimed. "Today, I'm honored to repeat my uncle's words, by saying [translated from Farsi] ‘I am an Iranian,' ‘I am an Ashrafi."
The crowd erupted in cheers and applause and began chanting, "MEK yes, mullahs no! They are terrorists, they must go!"
Kennedy advocated taking the MEK off the terrorist list, which it has been on since 1997, and accused the Iraqi government of committing war crimes by killing innocent members of the MEK at Camp Ashraf. 3,400 MEK members live in the desert camp in Iraq under restrictive conditions.
"To my friends in the State Department behind us, who continue to hold fast to an old policy that is supported by Tehran, you are on the wrong side of history," Kennedy shouted. "To [Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki, your brutal and deadly assault on Camp Ashraf will land you in the International Criminal Court, where you will be held accountable."
"I love you," Kennedy told the crowd. "If you take the MEK off the list, you will unshackle a group that will help take out the mullahs in Iran."
Next up was Rendell, who called on the international community to militarily intervene in Camp Ashraf, comparing it to Muammar al-Qaddafi's assault on Benghazi earlier this year.
"The international community conducted a military intervention in Libya to protect innocent civilians. We should do the same thing to protect the innocent people in Camp Ashraf," Rendell said.
MEK leader Maryam Rajavi, who lives in Paris with her husband Massoud Rajavi (who hasn't been seen in public since 2003), is banned from traveling to the United States. But she spoke to the rally via a video message on a big screen, and accused the State Department of giving implicit permission to the Iranian and Iraqi governments to kill children.
"The terror listing in the U.S. is openly used as a justification to legitimize such bloodletting, by both the cruel mullahs as well as their proxy government in Iraqi," she said. "Therefore, the Iranian people are asking the United States, ‘Why are you not annulling the license to kill our children?'"
The Cable's informal headcount put the number of attendees at about 1,000 to 1,500, with long lines of young Iranian-Americans wearing shirts with photos of dead MEK members imprinted on them. Some attendees had photos of the Rajavis on their shirts. Add to that flags, confetti, and a full drum line.
We asked Kennedy if he had been paid for his appearance at the rally, but he refused to answer. Ali Safavi, president of a pro-MEK group Near East Policy Research, said the speakers were paid through a speakers bureau, which receives money from wealthy Iranian-Americans in the United States. He also said those Iranian-Americans work with the law firm DLA Piper, but he denied the allegation that DLA and these individuals help funnel money from the MEK to the former U.S. officials.
In a crowd made up of people who were mostly of Middle Eastern origin, a group of African-American attendees wearing MEK gear stood out. One man, who would only identify himself as "The Great Lonnell," was holding a "Delist the MEK" banner while wearing a shirt that said, "Behold the Great Beast."
"We are here representing on behalf of the Iranian community. This vicious dictator who is calling himself a president is murdering these people, he's slaying them, and nothing is getting done," the Great Lonnell said. "And they are here rallying to get the attention of a government that has deaf ears."
The Great Lonnell came to Washington from Staten Island, NY -- along with 200 people from a church he attends -- to support the MEK's struggle for human rights. He and his group have been attending MEK rallies for several months, he said.
The Great Lonnell then pulled your humble Cable guy aside and asked to pitch Foreign Policy another story.
"Do you want to write my own story?" he asked. "I am the Beast that will come to the earth, from Revelations in the Old Testament. I am that person."
The Cable was not able to confirm that The Great Lonnell was in fact the Beast from Revelations.
UPDATE: Zaid Jilani and Ali Gharib from ThinkProgress interviewed attendees at the rally, many who had tenuous if any links to the MEK and little understanding of why there were there. Many had traveled from far away on fully funded trips. Some appeared to be homeless. Watch the video here:
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
The U.N. sanctions committee struck a deal to release to the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) $1.5 billion of frozen Qaddafi assets late on Thursday afternoon, but only a fraction of those funds will actually be placed in the TNC's hands.
Under the compromise between the U.S. -led members of the committee and South Africa, the lone holdout, the official document releasing the funds won't specify that the money is being released to the TNC -- it will only say that the funds are going to the "relevant Libyan authorities." A senior U.S. official said that this would have no practical effect, but explained that it allowed South Africa, which has not yet formally recognized the TNC, to sign on to the agreement.
The $1.5 billion represents about half of the frozen funds held in the United States and only a fraction of the estimated $30 billion of Qaddafi funds frozen worldwide.
$500 million of the newly-thawed assets will go to U.N. organizations involved in relief missions in Libya and will be disbursed directly to them. Another $500 million will be paid directly to fuel vendors, with $300 million of those funds reimbursing vendors for fuel that has already been delivered, leaving $200 million for future fuel needs.
The last $500 million will be placed in the hands of what's called the temporary financial mechanism, an account created by the Libya Contact Group, which is made up of countries supporting the TNC. The TNC will have to go to the Contact Group with specific bills or receipts to get the money, which will be given to them on a case-by-case basis for education, health, or humanitarian needs.
The TNC has assured the United States that none of the money will be used for military items, the senior U.S. official said.
"Today, we have secured the release of $1.5 billion in Libyan assets that had been frozen in the United States. This money will go toward meeting the needs of the people of Libya. We urge other nations to take similar measures. Many are already doing so," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.
"As funds are released, we look to the Transitional National Council to fulfill its international responsibilities and the commitments it has made to build a tolerant, unified democratic state -- one that protects the universal human rights of all its citizens."
Clinton also called on the TNC to prevent revenge and reprisal attacks against Qaddafi supporters , protect Qaddafi's weapons stockpiles from falling into the wrong hands, provide basic services, and move quickly to start the process of democratic transition.
A Reuters reporter found 30 dead Qaddafi loyalists Thursday in a military encampment in central Tripoli who appeared to have been executed.
"From the beginning, the United States has played a central role in marshalling the international response to the crisis in Libya," Clinton said.
Meanwhile, today in Istanbul, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns led the U.S. delegation to the political directors' level meeting of the Libya Contact Group, its first since the Qaddafi regime fell. Assistant Secretaries of State Jeffrey Feltman and Phil Gordon also attended. The issue of whether to introduce foreign troops in Libya was discussed.
"It is our understanding that the TNC is unlikely to request a formal peacekeeping force, but it may need U.N. and international community help supporting its policing needs. And precisely what it may ask for remains to be determined," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Clinton will attend the ministerial level meeting of the contact group in Paris next week.
The Cable also asked the senior U.S. official why the U.S. government calls the rebel council the TNC, when the rebel council seems to refer to itself as the NTC (National Transitional Council).
"The TNC in its own documents and statements, refers to itself sometimes as the TNC and sometimes as the NTC, so we've chosen to stick with the TNC, which they began using first, since they seem to use both," the official said.
This week's toppling of the Qaddafi regime in Libya shows that the Obama administration's multilateral and light-footprint approach to regime change is more effective than the troop-heavy occupation-style approach used by the George W. Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, a top White House official told Foreign Policy today in a wide-ranging interview.
"The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis of legitimacy for this but also will provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for communications, in an exclusive interview on Wednesday with FP. "While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition."
Despite criticism from Congress and elsewhere, President Barack Obama's strategy for the military intervention in Libya will not only result in a better outcome in Libya but also will form the basis of Obama's preferred model for any future military interventions, Rhodes said.
"There are two principles that the president stressed at the outset [of the Libya intervention] that have borne out in our approach. The first is that we believe that it's far more legitimate and effective for regime change to be pursued by an indigenous political movement than by the United States or foreign powers," said Rhodes. "Secondly, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the U.S. wasn't bearing the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contributions."
Rhodes said that the United States is not going to be able to replicate the exact same approach to intervention in other countries, but identified the two core principles of relying on indigenous forces and burden sharing as "characteristics of how the president approaches foreign policy and military intervention."
Rhodes also weighed in on several other aspects of the Libya saga:
The U.S. embassy in Tripoli told a 2009 congressional delegation led by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) not to raise the issue of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi during its visit to Libya, according to diplomatic cables newly released by WikiLeaks.
This week, senior lawmakers and GOP presidential candidates said that the top priority of the new Libyan government should be the re-arrest and extradition of Meghrahi, who was sentenced in Scotland for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, but then released in 2009 on compassionate grounds because he was supposedly dying of cancer. Just before his release, McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) visited Libya to meet with Muammar al-Qaddafi, but were advised by the U.S. embassy in Tripoli not to raise the Megrahi issue because it could become an irritant in the newly restored U.S.-Libya relationship.
"We do not expect the issue to be raised during your visit, but if it is, we believe the most helpful response would be to note that this is an issue for the Scottish Executive and that it would not be constructive to discuss the case as a bilateral issue," read the Aug. 10, 2009 cable.
The cable said that the Qaddafi government had requested compassionate release for Megrahi on July 24 and was discussing the matter with Scottish officials, but that the U.S. embassy in Tripoli had not conferred with the Qaddafi regime on the matter at all.
As Politico noted today, McCain and Lieberman totally ignored the embassy's advice and raised the Megrahi issue early and often with both Qaddafi and his son Muatassim, as an Aug. 14, 2009, diplomatic cable sent from Tripoli embassy reported.
"Muatassim reacted defensively, telling the CODEL that Megrahi ‘is an innocent man, and we believe it.' Muatassim then compared Megrahi's case to that of the Bulgarian nurses convicted in Libya of intentionally infecting 400 Libyan children with the HIV virus, arguing that they had been welcomed in Bulgaria as returning heroes even though they had been sentenced to life in prison," the cable read.
Col. Qaddafi emphasized that if Megrahi was released, neither he nor any other Libyan official could control the manner in which the Libyan people reacted. "They could even demonstrate against me," he said, forebodingly.
Senators and GOP candidates are set to press the Obama administration's to make the Megrahi case a key agenda item in the U.S.-Libya relationship with Transitional National Council, which now appears poised to take power.
For now, the administration's position is simply that they always officially opposed Megrahi's release. But they are not saying whether they will publicly call for his re-arrest or extradition to the United States.
"The secretary's made clear this guy should be behind bars," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. "The Department of Justice has the lead on these issues."
McCain memorialized his visit to Libya with a now infamous Aug. 15, 2009, tweet, in which he wrote, "Late evening with Col. Qadhafi at his ‘ranch' in Libya - interesting meeting with an interesting man."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford went on another trip outside Damascus to view the anti-government protests on Tuesday, this time in direct violation of travel restrictions placed on him by the Assad regime.
"Ambassador Ford went down to Jassem, which is about 70 kilometers south of Damascus, to see for himself what was up there," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at today's press briefing. "This has been another town that has been engaged in peaceful protest. He was there for about four hours. He had a chance there to talk to a number of Syrians, including those in the opposition, and then he drove back to Damascus."
Sounds like a nice little trip: another example of Ford's commitment to justify his continued presence in Damascus -- against the opposition of many congressmen and foreign policy pundits -- and a useful means of engaging with the Syrian opposition.
But after Ford's trip to the city of Hama last month to observe the unrest there, the Syrian government slapped travel restrictions on the U.S. envoy and his team, barring them from leaving Damascus. The State Department in turn retaliated with similar restrictions barring Syrian diplomats from leaving the Washington area.
Of course, Ford could have requested permission to leave Damascus, but instead he chose to tell the Syrian government about his trip only after he returned to the U.S. embassy.
"In this case, he informed the Syrian Foreign Ministry after the visit, and he made clear to them that the reason that he didn't inform them before the visit was because they haven't been approving any visits by anybody, anywhere," Nuland said. She explained that Ford had requested permission three times over the last six weeks to go to the city of Aleppo, but was denied in all three cases.
"So is he trying to get expelled from the country?" one member of the State Department press corps asked Nuland.
"He is trying to do his job, which is to be able to maintain broad contacts with a broad cross section of Syrians and to make sure that they know where the United States stands," she responded. She added that Ford had received the support of State Department leadership in advance of the trip.
Meanwhile, Syrian ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha, who has been neglecting his blog lately, has returned to Washington after spending some time back home. Moustapha is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly using Syrian embassy resources to spy on Syrian-Americans in Washington with the aim of intimidating them and threatening their families back in Syria.
How would the State Department feel if Moustapha just ignored the U.S. government and began hopping around the United States without permission? Nuland said that he would be granted permission if he requested to travel somewhere, and that some Syrian officials had recently been granted permission to travel to California.
After the briefing, a State Department official held a little gaggle with reporters on a background basis, as is the post-briefing custom. One reporter pressed the official to acknowledge that, if the tables had been turned and a foreign ambassador didn't follow rules laid out by the U.S. government, he would be expelled.
All the official would say is, "In this case, after he was turned down three times, we just felt he needed to do his job."
Ford's expulsion from Damascus would actually solve a tricky problem for the State Department, which is facing a tough confirmation fight for him this fall. Ford was sent to Damascus last year under a recess appointment, which expires at the end of the year. The only way for Ford to stay in Damascus longer than that is for the Senate to confirm him.
Though Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) reversed himself and now supports keeping Ford in place as ambassador, there are still multiple GOP senators who have no intention of letting Ford's nomination get through the Senate.
Given these dynamics, Ford's unauthorized visit to Jassem represents a win-win scenario for the State Department. On the one hand, it bolsters the State Department's case that Ford is a crucial link to the Syrian revolution. And if he gets thrown out of Syria, State can avoid a messy confirmation fight they are almost sure to lose.
Representatives from the countries that are aiding the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) will convene in Istanbul, Turkey, this Thursday to develop new plans for assisting the Libya rebels as they assume control over their country.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is currently in New York, has been working the phones on Libya all day. First, she had a conference call with Chris Stevens, the State Department's special envoy to the TNC, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who was then in Cairo. She then spoke with TNC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil.
Clinton then convened a call with several members of the Libya Contact Group, including French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, Denmark's Foreign Minister Lene Espersen, the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, and Qatari's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al Thani.
"The agenda covered financial support for the TNC and the Libyan people, continuing efforts to ensure the protection of civilians, reinforcing the TNC's efforts to pursue an inclusive and broad-based democratic transition, and preparations for immediate needs for essential services and humanitarian relief," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Monday's briefing.
The State Department will be sending Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon to Istanbul for the Contact Group meeting, which is being held at the political directors' level. Typically, the State Department would send the undersecretary of state for political affairs to such a meeting, but that position is vacant while the administration awaits the confirmation of Wendy Sherman, President Barack Obama's nominee for that post.
The Cable reported last week that U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon will be temporarily brought back to Washington to stand in for Sherman while she awaits confirmation, but Nuland said that Shannon would begin work in Washington late Monday and Gordon, who has been assisting Clinton during this crisis, was prepared to go to Istanbul to represent the United States.
Feltman was in Benghazi last week and emphasized the importance of preventing retribution and violence in his discussions with the TNC, Nuland said.
Several Qaddafi officials reached out to the State Department in the final days leading up this weekend's event, but the State Department didn't pursue negotiations with any of them, Nuland said.
"There have been lots of feelers from lots of folks claiming to represent Qaddafi, including more desperate ones in the last 48 to 24 hours. But none of them were serious because none of them met the standard that we insist on, that the international community insisted on, which is to start with his willingness to step down," she said.
The TNC's top priority at the Istanbul meeting will be to convince the international community to speed up the release of some of the estimated $30 billion in frozen Qaddafi assets. Those assets are frozen both by U.N. Security Council resolutions and unilateral measures taken by the United States and others.
"Our diplomats will work with the TNC as they ensure that the institutions of the Libyan state are protected, and we will support them with the assets of the Qaddafi regime that were frozen earlier this year," President Obama said today.
The State Department has sped up the process for releasing some of the funds to the TNC, Nuland said. It is pursuing a dual-track approach, preferring to work with the U.N. sanctions committee but also planning to release money unilaterally if the United Nations does not act quickly.
"I can't give you a precise answer of how much and when, but know that we are focused like a laser on it now," she said.
Daniel Serwer, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said that the U.N. sanctions committee route could be extremely tedious and that the administration should start by giving the TNC funds slowly, while also requiring the TNC to account for how it is spending the money.
"What's important is to begin a steady flow and to have mechanisms in place to insure transparency and accountability in the flow," he said. "The TNC needs a flow of funds, it doesn't need to be a giant flow. Giant flows of money can be poisonous in these kinds of situations."
Good afternoon, everybody. I just completed a call with my National Security Council on the situation in Libya. And earlier today, I spoke to Prime Minister Cameron about the extraordinary events taking place there. The situation is still very fluid. There remains a degree of uncertainty, and there are still regime elements who pose a threat.
But this much is clear: The Gadhafi regime is coming to an end, and the future of Libya is in the hands of its people.
In just six months, the 42-year reign of Moammar Gadhafi has unraveled. Earlier this year, we were inspired by the peaceful protests that broke out across Libya. This basic and joyful longing for human freedom echoed the voices that we had heard all across the region, from Tunis to Cairo.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said on Monday that the first order of business for the new Libya government, after it secures control over the country, should be to hand over the man responsible for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.
"The world is about to be rid of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the brutal tyrant who terrorized the Libyan people. It is my hope that Libya will now move toward a representative form of government that supports freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. As a first step, I call on this new government to arrest and extradite the mastermind behind the bombing of Pan Am 103, Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi, so justice can finally be done," Romney said in a statement Monday.
Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer and the former head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in Scotland in 2001. Qaddafi agreed to pay the Lockerbie victims about $2.7 billion in 2002 as part of a deal that saw Libya's gradual reintegration into the world community, and led to Qaddafi's regime being taken off the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Megrahi was released under compassionate grounds in 2009, under the belief he was dying of cancer, with only months left to live. He is reportedly still alive. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on Megrahi in September 2010 to investigate how the decision to release Megrahi was made, but no British officials agreed to testify.
Last month, Megrahi was spotted on video at a pro-Qaddafi rally in Tripoli.
It's not only Romney who has lamented the decision to release Megrahi, and called on the new Libyan government to transfer him back to international custody.
"The families of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103 have suffered so much
already, and the images of Megrahi at a pro-Qaddafi rally in Libya only add
salt to their wounds," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) on July 27. "Parading one terrorist
out to support another is an affront to justice and further affirmation that
Megrahi was released from prison on false pretenses. We will continue to
fight for justice on behalf of the Pan Am 103 families."
In June, Lautenberg and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder to put the Megrahi issue at the top of the U.S. agenda when dealing with a new Libya government.
"While we recognize there are many critical foreign policy decisions to be made with regard to Libya at this extraordinary time, we ask that justice for the Lockerbie victims and their families remain a top priority and not be overlooked," they wrote.
Romney has been a critic of the Obama administration's approach to Libya, saying that the United States should lead on such international issues rather than playing second fiddle to European countries.
"America has been feared sometimes, has been respected, but today, that America is seen as being weak. We're following the French into Libya," he said in March. "I appreciate the fact that others are participating in this effort, but I think we look to America to be the leader of the world."
Romney supported the military intervention in Libya but criticized Obama for relying too much on multilateral organizations for legitimacy.
"[Obama] calls for the removal of Moammar Gadhafi but then conditions our action on the directions we get from the Arab League and United Nations," Romney said in March. "He's tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced."
In July, when the war appeared to be at a stalemate, Romney further criticized Obama for not explaining the endgame in Libya and for exceeding the mandate provided by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.
"We approved the humanitarian mission as a people," he said. "We did not approve an expanded and muddled mission, which is what we see."
UPDATE: Gov. Rick Perry's campaign issued this statement on today's Libya news:
The crumbling of Muammar Ghadafi's reign, a violent, repressive dictatorship with a history of terrorism, is cause for cautious celebration. The lasting impact of events in Libya will depend on ensuring rebel factions form a unified, civil government that guarantees personal freedoms, and builds a new relationship with the West where we are allies instead of adversaries.
Former Gov. John Huntsman's campaign sent out the following:
The impending fall of Colonel Gaddafi is one chapter in the developing story of a nation in turmoil. Gaddafi has been a longtime opponent of freedom, and I am hopeful -- as the whole world should be -- that his defeat is a step toward openness, democracy and human rights for a people who greatly deserve it.
UPDATE #2: Menendez called for Megrahi to be expedited to the U.S. in a Monday afternoon statement sent to The Cable.
The Qaddafi reign of terror is ending and the TNC, as the legitmate government of Libya, must move quickly to embrace democratic reform. To that end the, TNC should extradite al-Megrahi to the United States to answer for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103. There would be no better signal to the world that a new Libya believes in justice and has every intention to adhere to international law.
Now that the Libyan rebel movement, led by the Transitional National Council (TNC), appears to be taking over Tripoli, their need for access to the frozen billions of dollars of Qaddafi assets is even more urgent, the TNC's top representative in Washington told The Cable today.
Ali Aujali, the former ambassador for Qaddafi who defected in March and now serves as the charge d'affaires at the rebel-controlled embassy in Washington, said that the TNC's long struggle for control over the funds that were frozen by U.N. Security Council resolutions and U.S. executive orders must be overcome for the rebels to assert control in Tripoli.
"The immediate next step is to get Qaddafi, that's number one. Number two, we need money. The third thing is that TNC will move to Tripoli as soon as it's a secure place," Aujali said. "We need this money, because we need to supply food, we need medical treatment for our injured, we need to pay salaries, we need to run facilities."
For more than three weeks, the U.N. sanctions committee has been considering whether to unfreeze some of the estimated tens of billions of dollars in frozen Libya assets. But Aujali said it is the position of the TNC that it does not need the approval of the sanctions committee to access the funds.
"I don't think we need sanctions committee authorization because the TNC will inherit the regime," he said. The U.N. has not officially recognized the TNC as the government of Libya.
But don't expect the TNC to keep the institutions of the Qaddafi regime intact. Aujali said that the institutions of the Libya state were so corrupted and so controlled by the Qaddafi family that they are of little use in the new Libya.
"All the institutions are to serve Qaddafi and his Green Book. We need to build everything from zero: democratic institutions, civil society, government organizations. Everything was controlled by Qaddafi and his sons," he said.
While the exact schedule has not been set, Aujali's understanding is that, after the TNC moves to Tripoli, it will set up a conference to draft a new constitution, which will then be approved or rejected by the Libyan people in a referendum. He said the TNC would then start to organize elections, a process he predicted could take about eight months.
Aujali said the TNC was committed to preventing retribution on the ground in Tripoli and upholding the ideals of inclusiveness and respect for the rule of law. He implored the U.S. government to increase its coordination and support for the rebels.
"I want the administration to unfreeze the frozen money, to commit to support the Libyan people, to interact with the TNC as much as they can, and to keep the NATO mission action until the threat of Qaddafi is no more," he said.
Aujali said that he hasn't been in regular contact with the State Department over the weekend, because he's been focusing on following the events on the ground in Tripoli. But CNN reported that Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who is in Cairo and was recently in Benghazi, was contacted by Qaddafi regime officials as recently as Saturday.
"I think they were looking for a way to find a lifeline, buy time, to prevent what was then becoming inevitable, which was the uprising in Tripoli," he said.
In an interview with ABC News Monday morning, Feltman said that it was clear the rebels were winning that that he didn't think a violent unraveling of the security situation was likely in Libya, as happened in Baghdad when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein fell.
"A lot of that sectarian mix that existed in Saddam Hussein's Iraq doesn't exist here in Libya," Feltman said. He also said that "the overwhelming vision that we are hearing" from people across Libya is that "they want a Libya that is moderate, that is secular."
Anthony Cordesman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on Monday that the Obama administration needs to develop an aggressive yet nuanced plan to increase U.S. involvement and aid in Libya to support the TNC, while at the same time not giving the impression that Western ideas were being imposed there.
"Bad as our current economic problems are, it would be incredibly foolish not to offer aid to Libya (and Egypt, Tunisia, and any other states caught up in this wave of change.)," he said. "Failing to provide that aid will not simply be penny wise and pound foolish; the price of such a U.S failure will eventually be paid in U.S. and allied blood."
As rebel forces poured into Tripoli, the White House called for Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, whose whereabouts now are still unknown, to recognize publicly that he is no longer in control and called on the rebel leadership to prove it will be a competent and inclusive leader of a new Libya.
President Barack Obama convened a conference call with members of his national security team at about 9 PM from advisor Valerie Jarret's House in Oak Bluffs, a resort town on Martha's Vineyard. At about 10 PM, the White House released a statement from Obama calling on Qaddafi to step aside and calling on the Transitional National Council, the Benghazi-based government-in-waiting, to demonstrate leadership in order to ensure a smooth transition.
"Tonight, the momentum against the Qadhafi regime has reached a tipping point. Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant," Obama said in the statement. "The Qadhafi regime is showing signs of collapsing. The people of Libya are showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator."
The White House called on the TNC to protect civilians, protect the institutions of the Libya state, and ensure human rights, inclusiveness, and democracy as it takes over power. The administration also called on the TNC not to permit retribution on the streets of Tripoli.
"Going forward, the United States will continue to stay in close coordination with the TNC. We will continue to insist that the basic rights of the Libyan people are respected," Obama's statement said.
The officials on Obama's call were Chief of Staff Bill Daley, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. James Winnefeld, Allied Joint Forces Commander Adm. Admiral Sam Locklear, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, NSC Chief of Staff Brooke Anderson, NSC Director for Strategic Planning Derek Chollet, Loren Schulman, and State Department Policy Planning Director Jake Sullivan.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that Brennan had been giving Obama regular updates since Sunday morning and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued a statement in the afternoon that also called on the TNC to reach out to all of the sectors of Libya society.
"As Assistant Secretary [for Near Eastern Affairs Jeff] Feltman's visit to Benghazi underscores, we continue efforts to encourage the TNC to maintain broad outreach across all segments of Libyan society and to plan for post-Qadhafi Libya. Qadhafi's days are numbered. If Qadhafi cared about the welfare of the Libyan people, he would step down now," Nuland's statement read.
The Obama administration formally recognized the TNC in July and the TNC representative in Washington, Ali Aujali, formally took over control of the Libyan embassy last week. The TNC has weathered some internal strife during the six-month fight against the Qaddafi regime; it is also still currently engaged in a legal struggle with the international community to get its hands on billions of dollars in frozen Qaddafi assets.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who has been an active supporter of the TNC throughout the Libya war, called on the Obama administration to increase its contacts and support for the TNC, now that they appear to be on the verge of taking power. He laid out a long list of tasks for the TNC if they are able to secure and hold Tripoli.
"In particular, we must support the new Libyan authorities to ensure they are able to prevent acts of retribution, initiate a credible process of national reconciliation, secure weapons depots and critical infrastructure, protect vulnerable populations, establish security and rule of law in Tripoli and throughout Libya, and begin the broadest possible outreach across Libyan society for an inclusive and transparent political transition," Lieberman said in a statement Sunday evening.
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) issued a joint statement setting out what they see as the TNC's task ahead and calling on the international community to assist them.
"The Libyan people have won their freedom, but now they must build the durable institutions necessary to keep it, including a transparent and inclusive political process, a free and independent media, an impartial system of justice and the rule of law, a free economy, and unified, professionalized security forces that answer to civilian authority," they wrote.
Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted that the onus was on the TNC to prove its competence. "The #TNC must quickly demonstrate it can credibly move #Libya forward. There will be lots of jockeying as a new political order is formed," he said.
The Bahraini government and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) will not hold what would have been the 8th annual Manama Security Dialogue this year because of the social upheaval and subsequent government crackdown in the country.
"We have decided not to convene the Manama Dialogue in December 2011," IISS CEO and President John Chipman told The Cable. "Instead, we have decided to hold two ‘Sherpa Meetings', one in January 2012, one in May 2012, involving high level officials from all the states that normally participate in the Manama Dialogue, to prepare for the intended resumption of the Manama Dialogue summit in December 2012."
The Manama Dialogue is the region's largest annual meeting of influential national security officials and experts. Chipman said that the Sherpa meetings are meant "to sustain the momentum" of the dialogue, as well as to build support for high-level government participation for the event in December 2012.
IISS notified government officials about the change in an information note last month.
"These Sherpa meetings will involve senior government officials from those states who normally participate in the Manama Dialogue," reads a note on the Sherpa meetings provided to The Cable by IISS. There will be about 65 officials from 20 countries at each meeting, which will be off the record and held at IISS's Manama office.
The most recent Manama Dialogue featured attendance by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, and your humble Cable guy. It's the Middle East counterpart to IISS's annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, which we also attended.
The Manama Dialogue is not the only international event in Bahrain that has been delayed this year for political reasons. The Bahrain Grand Prix Formula 1 racing event was postponed from March 2011 to October and then cancelled outright. The next F1 racing event in Bahrain is scheduled for November 2012.
President Barack Obama said yesterday that he wants to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down from office, and promised to implement more sanctions on the Syrian regime. But conservatives in Washington have several additional ideas for how to up the pressure on Assad.
Thirty-two mostly conservative national security experts wrote a letter to Obama today on the letterhead of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies commending him for calling on Assad to step down and urging him to quickly ramp up the pressure on his regime. "We are concerned... that unless urgent actions are taken by the United States and its allies, the Assad regime's use of force against the Syrian people will only increase and the already significant death toll will mount," the letter said.
The signatories want Obama to push hard for multilateral energy sector sanctions and to advocate for the passage of new Syria sanctions legislation, which was introduced in Congress earlier this month. They also think the administration should encourage Germany, Italy, and France to stop buying Syrian oil, forcefully urge energy trading firms from Switzerland, Holland, and elsewhere to stop selling Syria refined petroleum products, and sanction any person involved in Syrian pipeline construction, including insurance firms, shipping companies, financing entities, and ports managers.
They also want harsher sanctions on Syria's central bank, punishment for anybody who buys Syrian debt, additional U.N. sanctions based on Syria's record of weapons and nuclear proliferation, and the recalling of U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford.
The letter reminded the president that the fall of the Assad regime would not only be a boon for the Syrian people, but also have "game-changing implications" for the balance of power in the Middle East. "It would deny Iran the use of its major ally as a proxy for terrorism, stem the flow of Syrian arms to Hezbollah, reduce instability in Lebanon, and lessen tensions on Israel's northern border," the signatories wrote.
The group commended Obama's new executive order that requires the immediate freeze of all Syrian government assets that fall under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibits U.S. citizens from doing any business with the Syrian government. The new sanctions also ban the import of Syrian petroleum products into the United States, and ban Americans from doing business with Syrian petroleum companies.
The signers include former NSC Middle East official Elliott Abrams, the Council on Foreign Relations' Max Boot, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, AEI's Fred Kagan, the Brookings Institution's Bob Kagan, former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, former CIA Director James Woolsey, top GOP consultant Randy Scheunemann, and former NSC official Jamie Fly, now executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.
The calls for Ford's recall have been echoed in both the House and Senate. House Foreign Relations Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) yesterday praised the administration's move but reiterated her call for Ford for come back to Washington.
Several nations such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have recalled their ambassadors from Damascus but the Obama administration argues that Ford's activities on the ground, including a recent visit to protests in Hama, are helping the opposition. Ros-Lehtinen disagrees.
"It is also important that the administration take the next step in ending its engagement policy and reverse its mistake of sending a U.S. ambassador to Syria," she said in a statement. "The continued presence of an ambassador in Damascus sends a mixed message to the Syrian regime and gives legitimacy to Assad and his cronies."
Full text of the letter after the jump:
As the Obama administration tightened sanctions against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Congress is warming to the idea of confirming U.S. envoy to Damascus Robert Ford.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) came out this morning in support of the confirmation of Ford, who was sent to Damascus via a recess appointment last year. Several senators, including Lieberman, objected at the time to the United States sending an ambassador to Damascus, arguing that it would amount to a reward for Syrian bad behavior. Now, just as several countries, including Saudi Arabia, are pulling out their ambassadors, Lieberman is arguing that Ford must stay.
"This time, I believe the Senate should quickly vote to confirm Mr. Ford as our top diplomat in Damascus," Lieberman wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Wednesday. "While the Obama administration originally envisioned Amb. Ford's primary purpose as engagement with the Syrian regime, that is no longer the case. Rather than being an envoy to Assad, Mr. Ford is now first and foremost our ambassador to the Syrian people and a bridge to the democratic transition they demand."
Lieberman's about face, which was largely due to Ford's trip to the restive city of Hama last month to observe the anti-regime protests there, removes one obstacle to his confirmation. Other senators who were opposed to confirming him in the past include Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL). Neither Kyl nor Kirk has said whether they will continue to oppose Ford's nomination this time around.
Some on Capitol Hill don't like the optics of the United States confirming an ambassador to Syria while other countries withdraw their envoys as a means of registering their opposition to Assad's crackdown, which has increased in brutality over the past 10 days.
"Senator Lieberman is one of the great national security leaders of this generation, and Robert Ford is a skilled diplomat, but it makes no sense to have an American ambassador in Damascus now," one senior GOP congressional aide told The Cable. "It's a sad day when the Saudi king has greater moral clarity than the president of the United States."
Regardless, the gap between the Obama administration's stance on Syria and Congress's demands for action is narrowing. Administration officials have been hinting that the White House will officially call for Assad to step down this week, perhaps on Thursday, signaling the end of the administration's two-year effort to engage the Syrian government.
The State Department was also heavily invested in the visit to Syria yesterday of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, even sending Fred Hof to Ankara coordinate pressures and messaging with the Turks. The Davutoglu visit doesn't seem to have given protesters a respite from the Syrian regime's crackdown, though: Troops loyal to Assad reportedly killed at least 35 people today.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland previewed the administration's coming change in rhetoric at Tuesday's briefing. "In the case of Syria, the message from 2009 was, if you are prepared to open Syria politically, if you are prepared to be a reformer, if you are prepared to work with us on Middle East peace and other issues we share, we can have a new and different kind of partnership," she said. "And that is not the path that Assad chose."
Today, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions against the Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, and Syriatel, the largest mobile phone operator in Syria.
"By exposing Syria's largest commercial bank as an agent for designated Syrian and North Korean proliferators, and by targeting Syria's largest mobile phone operator for being controlled by one of the regime's most corrupt insiders, we are taking aim at the financial infrastructure that is helping provide support to Assad and his regime's illicit activities," Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said in a statement.
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the administration action is in part a recognition of the facts on the ground in Syria and in part an attempt to stay ahead of Congress, which is preparing to move forward with a new Syria sanctions bill when congressmen return to work in September.
The bill, authored by Lieberman, Kirk, and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), would authorize President Barack Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.
Whether or not Ford gets confirmed will be a key test of whether Congress can get on board with the administration's approach.
"We need to have someone who is meeting with the opposition and people who want to interact with the U.S. in the future," said Tabler. "Unfortunately in this town, its either peace process or isolation. We need a more creative policy."
Almost a month after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States now sees the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) as the official government of Libya, the TNC is on the verge of reclaiming the Libyan embassy in Washington but it's nowhere near getting its hands on billions of dollars in frozen assets formerly held by Muammar al-Qaddafi.
The Libyan rebels, who are represented in Washington by former Qaddafi envoy Ali Aujali, have been working out of donated office space in northwest Washington for months. The State Department signed an order last week handing control of the Libyan embassy, located in the Watergate complex, over to the rebels. However, they have yet to move in to their new digs
Sources close to the TNC mission in Washington said that Aujali is in Canada right now, helping the Canadian government expel their own Qaddafi officials and setting up the TNC embassy in Ottowa. He is planning to return to the United States after the State Department finalizes his diplomatic status, which will allow him to become the official head of mission of the new Libyan embassy.
When that happens, the TNC will gain access to the $13 million in the embassy's bank accounts, which is probably enough to keep the lights on, pay salaries, and maybe even pay their lobbyists, Patton Boggs. But the bulk of Qaddafi's funds remain frozen and will likely remain so for quite a while.
"We had difficult internal U.S. procedures with regard to the banking situation, et cetera," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Tuesday's briefing. "And we're also in an environment where U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970 put some restrictions on what we can do. So we're continuing to work internally on various routes to get some of this money to the TNC."
There is probably only about $150 to $200 million of frozen Qaddafi money in U.S. banks, but even that money is affected by the U.N. sanctions. The rest of the $30 billion is held outside the U.S. banking system. What's more, Nuland said that the United States wants to make sure that the money "if given, is used properly and for humanitarian purposes."
"So it's going to be a little bit of time yet, but please know that we are working on it and we're working on it hard," she said.
Meanwhile, the State Department continues to communicate privately to the TNC that the investigation into the killing of their military commander, Abdel Fatah Younis, last month is crucial to maintaining the TNC's credibility and reputation.
Publicly, Nuland portrayed the killing and the reorganization of their cabinet as a watershed moment in the TNC's evolution into a functioning, democratic organization ‘So, frankly, while the killing was an awful event, the fact [is] that the TNC has not just stood pat but has really taken this as an opportunity for internal reflection, for renewal," she said.
One of the State Department press corps members responded to her, "I'm not sure I've ever heard a glass-half-full explanation better than that one in a long time."
As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, lawmakers and activists are stepping up their efforts to convince the White House to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power.
The U.N. Security Council issued a presidential statement on Wednesday afternoon condemning the violence in Syria and calling for those responsible for human rights violation to be held accountable. The statement did not call for an international investigation into the crimes, as some members had wanted, and does not carry the force of a Security Council resolution, which was ultimately unattainable.
"It is clear that President al-Assad is not committed to pursuing the reforms that would meet these goals. As such, the United States and the international community must hold the regime accountable, and pressure them to change course," 68 U.S. senators wrote in a new letter to President Barack Obama today. "Implementing additional sanctions would show the Syrian people that we stand with them in their struggle for human rights and a more representative government, while also making it clear to the Syrian regime that it will pay an increasing cost for its outrageous repression."
The senators are calling on the administration to prohibit U.S. businesses from operating or investing in Syria, impose stringent sanctions on Syria's banking sector, restrict the travel of Syrian diplomats within the United States, and block property transactions in which the Syrian government has an interest. In addition, the senators are calling on Obama to engage with European allies on ending purchases of Syrian oil, and cutting off investments in Syria's oil and gas sectors.
The letter comes only one day after Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) introduced a bill that would authorize Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.
Obama's Syria team, which is centered at the State Department, has been increasing its rhetoric and activity against the Assad regime, having now made the internal calculation that Assad will have to leave sooner or later. "We've definitely been very clear that we don't see Assad in Syria's future," a senior administration official told Foreign Policy this week.
Another administration official who does not work directly on sanctions predicted that new designations of Syrian officials for targeted sanctions could be coming in "days, not weeks." Still that movement is not enough for the administration's critics.
"I don't understand their Syria policy," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a SFRC member who is calling for a tougher administration stance. "I wish there was a little more clarity on it, I'm sorry there isn't."
Other observers beg to differ. "The administration has been criticized as muddled, I think this is no longer the case," said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Now the idea has crystallized inside the administration that the Assad regime is on its way out and all options are on the table, short of military action."
At his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said that, additional U.S. unilateral sanctions "probably aren't going to have that big of an impact," because "the big companies working in the energy sector in Syria are from Europe or Syria's neighbors."
But the administration isn't opposed to the new congressional legislation, Tabler said. Ford was simply acknowledging the fact that the United States doesn't have much leverage in Syria and therefore must work through other countries to increase pressure on Assad.
"[T]he point that Ford was trying to make was that in order to get the change on the ground, you have to get the European countries to join in," Tabler said. "The question is whether this congressional action will lead to more European action or not."
"It's foreign companies, in particular those based in the EU, that the U.S. needs to persuade to pull out of Syria. Ford is absolutely right about that," said a senior Senate aide who works on Syria. "In fact, that's precisely why the congressional sanctions introduced yesterday don't target U.S. companies. They target the foreign energy companies that are doing business with Syria."
Regardless, the administration still has yet to issue an outright call for Assad to step down now, as it did with Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Qaddafi. That's one of the main requests of Syrian opposition activists, several of whom met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department on Tuesday. They want Obama to be more public in his support of the Syrian opposition.
"The president had remarks on Egypt and Libya, but no speech on Syria," said Radwan Ziadeh, a George Washington University professor who was part of the group. "Also we need the United States to lead international action on Syria at the United Nations Security Council level."
Ziadeh said that Clinton promised to throw her support behind the condemnation of Syria just passed at the United Nations, but did not pledge that the administration would do the other things the activists are requesting, including leading a drive for Syrian officials to be charged with war crimes at the International Criminal Court.
The one hour meeting was also attended by Syria activists Marah Bukai and Mohammad Alabdalla, as well as Ford, Special Advisor Fred Hof, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tamara Wittes, and a deputy of Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner.
The activists had been requesting a meeting with Clinton for over a month, Ziadeh said. They have seen greater senior administration attention on Syria in recent days, which they view as positive, but are waiting for that attention to be translated into a more bold and public stance, he noted.
"She said that they want a transition in Syria to start as soon as possible," said Ziadeh. "It's important to see how much Secretary Clinton is personally involved. But now we need to push the White House to have a speech by President Obama very soon."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the single senator that attended his confirmation hearing today that while the administration's sanctions on the Syrian regime are working, newly proposed congressional sanctions probably won't do much good.
Ford, who was sent to Damascus under a recess appointment because he could not be confirmed last year, was back in Washington for one more confirmation push before his recess appointment expires on Dec. 31. The U.S. envoy was expected to face harsh criticism from a number of GOP senators who believe the Obama administration has not been tough enough on regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But after the debt ceiling vote was done, most lawmakers patted themselves on the back and immediately skipped town. Only Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) was left by the time Ford's hearing begun.
Ford played it cautiously for most of Casey's questioning, repeating administration calls for a transition to democratic rule in Syria, condemning the brutality of the regime against its people, and praising the Syrian opposition while being clear-eyed about the challenges that the opposition faces.
"It's a diverse group, they're not very well organized. That's not surprising," Ford testified, explaining that he meets with opposition representatives constantly. "It's important for the Syrian opposition to develop their ideas, Syrian ideas, for their democratic transition."
Ford also joined the meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Syrian activists earlier today at the State Department.
"It's really important now to give these Syrians an ear and to amplify their voices," he said at the hearing. "My job is to help establish the space for Syrian activists ... to develop and organize the political transition that must occur if Syria is to be stable again."
When asked about the prospect of new congressional sanctions, Ford indicated that the bill introduced today by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), might not be the best way to put pressure on the Assad regime. Their bill would authorize President Barack Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.
"Unilaterally, additional American measures probably aren't going to have that big of an impact," said Ford. "The big companies working in the energy sector in Syria are from Europe or Syria's neighbors."
"We would look to find ways to with our partners to enhance our [existing] sanctions," he added, adding that those discussions are underway. "The challenge is getting targeting that works and really has an impact."
However, Ford did make a point to emphasize that the administration's Syria sanctions, which have designated several Syrian regime officials as targets for asset freezes, are effective. More such designations are expected in the coming days.
"The [administration's] sanctions do bite. We do see more business people slowly shifting sides, and that's important," he said. "So we do think sanctions are having an impact."
Clearly, the senators who sponsored the bill disagree with Ford's assessment that additional sanctions will not have an impact.
"The United States should impose crippling sanctions in response to the murder of civilians by troops under the orders of Syrian President Assad," Kirk said in a release. "The Arab Spring will sweep away this dictatorship, hopefully with the help of American sanctions similar to those leveled against the Iranian regime."
Kirk and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) have been among the most critical senators of the administration's approach to Syria. Both argue that Ford's presence there represents an unwise concession to the government. The Cable caught up with Kyl in the Senate hallways on Tuesday and asked him if he will try to thwart Ford's nomination.
"I don't have any plans with regard to his nomination," Kyl said.
We predicted that the senators on the committee might not show up for the hearing, so we caught some SFRC members earlier in the day to see where they stood on the administration's strategy of slowly but surely increasing pressure on the Assad regime.
"I think we do should everything we can to ratchet up our pressure on Syria," said SFRC member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). "The administration has made a series of good movements seeking to tighten the noose economically and anything we can do to enhance that will have my support."
"I don't understand their Syria policy," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a SFRC member who is calling for a tougher administration stance. "I wish there was a little more clarity on it, I'm sorry there isn't."
At the hearing, Casey praised Ford and recounted reports of the Syrian authorities torturing children. He said that Assad "must step down" and that more can be done to pressure Syria in international bodies.
"Ambassador Ford's recent trip to Hama was a testament to his commitment to represent the values of the United States," Casey said.
Ford speculated that the members of the U.N. Security Council were now more ready than before to take action on Syria. He also said that while Hezbollah continues to support the Syrian government, the group has been silent recently due to the anger their pro-Assad statements aroused among the Syrian people.
On the core issue of whether Assad should go, Ford stuck with the administration's position that Assad has lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people, but stopped short of calling for him to step down now.
"Our conclusion is that this regime is unwilling or unable to lead the democratic transition the Syrian people are demanding," he said. "And there's really no difference between unwilling or unable as far as we're concerned."
Before Ford's hearing, half a dozen senators showed up for the confirmation hearings of two more sitting ambassadors who have to go through the process again because they received recess appointments: Ambassador to Turkey Frank Ricciardone and Ambassador to the Czech Republic Norm Eisen.
Wednesday's scheduled hearing for Wendy Sherman to become undersecretary of State for political affairs was outright cancelled because no senators were going to be there.
Ricciardone no longer has to worry about the complaints of now-retired Sen. Sam Brownback, but he still faces potential opposition from Kirk and Menendez. Kirk doesn't want the administration to make a missile defense deal with Turkey and Menendez wants the administration to refer to the destruction of the Armenian population during and after World War I as "genocide."
Eisen, who left his post as White House ethics czar in August 2010, was held up last year by Finance Committee ranking Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) over alleged actions and misrepresentations related to the June 2009 removal of Gerald Walpin as inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Eisen said that representing the United States in the Czech Republic had special meaning for him, because his mother was born there but was forced to flee due to Nazi persecution. Lieberman, who is not on the committee, showed up to introduce Eisen and commended those in attendance for not being part of the "the herd of senators who fled town after the vote."
DOHA, Qatar - As Bashar al-Assad's shock troops storm cities and towns across Syria, leaving a death toll in the triple digits that has only stoked the fires of rebellion even hotter, Barack Obama's administration is stepping up measures aimed at fatally weakening the Syrian dictator's regime.
Critics of the U.S. president's policy, particularly on the right, have long charged his administration with being soft on Assad. But the United States is now unequivocally committed to his ouster, having lost whatever little faith it had in the Syrian leader's willingness to reform. "He is illegitimate," a senior administration official says flatly. "We've definitely been very clear that we don't see Assad in Syria's future."
To that end, the administration is working closely with its European allies and Turkey, seeking to steadily ratchet up the pressure on a regime that analysts, including within the government, increasingly see as doomed. "All of the factors that keep the regime in power are trending downward," the senior official says, pointing to a swiftly collapsing economy and worsening "cohesion" within the regime. "Assad is in on every decision, without a doubt, but as time goes on there's more infighting."
Read the rest here.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is set to mark up a fiscal 2012 State Department and foreign assistance authorization bill July 20, which proposes sweeping changes to the security assistance provided to several governments that have rocky relationships with the United States.
The draft version of the bill, obtained by The Cable, would prevent the allocation of any funds that fall under the State Department's jurisdiction to the government of Pakistan until the administration can reassure Congress that Pakistan is assisting with the investigation into who helped hide Osama bin Laden, a step that will include making bin Laden's relatives available to the U.S. government. Islamabad must also demonstrate that it is not holding up visas for U.S. personnel who are set to go to Pakistan and not diverting U.S.-provided weapons for purposes other than fighting terrorists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
That would effectively defund the Kerry-Lugar aid program, which allocated $1.5 billion in fiscal 2012 and another $400 million in foreign military financing. $800 million in U.S. aid was also suspended earlier this month -- but those funds came from the Pentagon's coffers, not the State Department.
The bill would also prohibit the use of any State Department funding to assist the government of Lebanon until the White House certifies to Congress that no member of Hezbollah or any other terrorist group serves in a policy position in the Lebanese government -- a step that would currently be impossible, because Hezbollah is a major coalition partner in the current government. The Obama administration would also need to certify that Lebanon's security services are free from Hezbollah members, that all Lebanese government ministries are financially transparent, and that the Lebanese government is dismantling all foreign terrorist organizations, which includes Hezbollah
In other words, no foreign military financing or international military education and training (IMET) funding for Lebanon would be permitted if this bill, authored by HFAC Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), were to become law.
Similar restrictions on funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA) make it equally unlikely that any State Department assistance to the Palestinian Authority would be allowed. The bill would condition the aid on the president certifying that the PA is doing several things, including that they have "halted all anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian Authority-controlled electronic and print media and in schools, mosques, and other institutions it controls, and is replacing these materials, including textbooks, with materials that promote tolerance, peace, and coexistence with Israel."
Funding for Yemen would also face a series of difficult restrictions, including the stipulation that the president must certify that the Yemeni government "is not complicit in human rights abuses." Hundreds of protesters have been killed since the 5-month old uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is still recovering in Saudi Arabia.
Ros-Lehtinen's bill doesn't stop at restricting foreign assistance to countries that have fraught relations with the United States. The bill would also set into law that it "shall be the policy of the United States to uphold and act in accordance with all of the reassurances provided by the President in an April 14, 2004, letter to the Prime Minister of Israel."
That's a direct swipe at Obama's May 19 declaration that Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations should be based on 1967 borders with agreed swaps. The bill would also require the State Department to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
On China, Ros-Lehtinen's bill would call for a U.S. consulate in Tibet and a Tibet interest section in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. It would also eliminate the East-West Center in Hawaii, a think tank studying U.S.-China relations, and prohibit funding for the U.S.-China Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security that the two countries agreed to establish in January.
The bill also includes language on reinstating the "Mexico City Gag Rule," which would prevent funding for any non-governmental organization that discusses abortion. Republican members of HFAC are also expected to introduce amendments on everything from the United Nations to Libya.
Of course, the bill could change before Wednesday's markup. In fact, this is only the latest of several drafts that have been provided to The Cable over the last couple of weeks. We're told that this draft is close to what the final version that will be presented to the committee.
But that doesn't mean the bill will become law any time soon. Assuming the House leadership gives the bill floor time, it would still have to be reconciled with a version being drafted by the Senate. And the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by John Kerry (D-MA), isn't about to put forward a bill that contains such dramatic limits on the Obama administration's foreign policy.
HFAC staffers insist that they want to devise a strategy for their bill to become law by working with the Senate.
The last time a State Department authorization bill actually became law was 2005, although the House did pass one in 2009. Regardless, insiders see the bill as guidance for House appropriators, who plan to mark up the State Department and foreign assistance appropriations bill July 27. That bill could actually become law if Congress ever resolves the current budget crisis and tackles government funding levels for next year.
For those readers out there who aren't budget geeks, the authorization bill simply sets out policy and is not binding when it comes to dollar amounts. The appropriations bill sets funding, and as such actually places money in the State Department's coffers.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gets to Istanbul on Friday, senators and their staffs will be watching closely to see if she moves the ball forward on an agreement to station U.S. missile defense radar there, an agreement many Republicans oppose.
"We write with concern over recent reports that the administration may be nearing completion of a bilateral agreement with the Turkish Government to base a U.S. AN/TPY-2 (X-Band) radar in Turkey," wrote Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) in a July 12 letter to Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta obtained by The Cable.
The senators want the radar to be based in either Georgia or Azerbaijan, which they argue are better locations for defending against a missile attack from Iran. But more broadly, they are concerned that Ankara will place a number of onerous restrictions on the radar, such as demanding that no data be shared with Israel. The senators have also accused Turkey of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran, which they said calls into question their reliability as a partner in organizing a missile defense system aimed at Tehran.
In a May 12 meeting with Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, a senior Missile Defense Agency representative told the senators that "a forward-deployed X-Band radar in either Georgia or Armenia would have significant advantages for the missile defense of the United States," the senator wrote.
The senators wrote a May 16 letter to Miller asking for a complete analysis of alternative sites, but they said that they have yet to receive any response.
Kyl and Kirk also suggested that they will attempt to thwart any missile defense agreement with Turkey unless the Turks agree to share data with Israel, stop violating Iran sanctions laws, and keep the system under the control of U.S. personnel.
For both the Obama administration and the George W. Bush administration preceding it, international missile defense deployment has always been based on both security and diplomatic considerations. The Bush administration plan to place missile defense infrastructure in Poland and the Czech Republic was a key aspect of strengthening relationships with those two countries, until the Obama administration scuttled it.
A senior GOP Senate aide explained the insider rationale to The Cable.
"Secretary Clinton knows the Congress well and she knows that support for a radar in Turkey will quickly collapse on both sides of the aisle if the Turks get any control over its operational activity or veto rights over sharing data with Israel," the aide said. "Given Turkey's strained relationship with Israel and non-compliance with U.S. sanctions against Iran, there's a strong feeling that if the Turks have any operational control over the radar we can be sure it will be turned off the day we need it most."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.