Four different Senate Republicans have four different ideas on how to alter U.S. aid to Egypt, in a struggle that is also becoming about the future of Republican leadership on foreign policy.
The Senate is working now on the next Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government from April until October -- and aid to Egypt is the main foreign policy issue likely to be attached to the funding measure. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), John McCain (R-AZ), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Rand Paul (R-KY) all have introduced amendments to the CR dealing with Egypt aid, but they all have competing ideas on how to condition it in light of Egypt's changing security challenges and the fragile path to democracy under the government led by Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsy.
Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has also introduced an amendment on Egypt aid, making it five total amendments that are now the subject of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations.
"We have five different amendments that have been offered on Egypt," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said on the Senate floor Thursday, lamenting that the Senate was confronted with tackling the Egypt aid issue in a rush on a temporary funding bill. Reid doesn't really want to do Egypt policy on this bill at all.
"This is a CR for six months. We have a functioning Foreign Relations Committee. That's where this should take place," he said. "We all have concerns about Egypt. Our funding in Egypt, maintaining stability in the region, supporting Israel. We have, as I've indicated, five senators who have filed five separate, distinct amendments. And literally staffs with senators have worked all day coming up with an amendment that Democrats and Republicans could agree on. It hasn't been done. Doesn't mean it can't be done, but it hasn't been done. I would again remind senators that this is a Continuing Resolution. The long-term solution to the situation in the Middle East is not a short-term CR. Whatever we do on this bill would expire in six months anyway."
But despite Reid's reluctance, senators are likely to coalesce around one or two Egypt aid amendments that could get a vote on the Senate floor next week. The first senator to introduce an Egypt amendment was Rubio, who spoke about it in an interview this week with The Cable.
"This is not about cancelling foreign aid to Egypt per se. This is about restructuring it in a way that lines up with the interests of the taxpayers of the United States of America," Rubio said. "Their real security needs are largely internal and we want to recalibrate our military aid to Egypt to meet their actual needs. Egypt doesn't need tanks, it doesn't need jet fighters, it's not going to be invaded by neighbors in the near future."
For Rubio, the Egypt amendment is his opening salvo in what promises to be a year of increasing involvement in an array of foreign policy issues. He promised he would have similar amendments in the future on aid to other countries as well.
"Foreign aid is important because it increases our influence and in particular our ability to influence things around the world to advance our interests. But foreign aid is not charity.... That means that every single dime we give in foreign aid should be conditioned," he said.
Rubio is also concerned about the Morsy government's commitment to the Camp David accords, their unwillingness or inability to maintain security in the Sinai Peninsula, and their treatment of opposition parties and non-governmental organizations.
"We've heard some of the comments of the president of Egypt and some of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's downright offensive, and that's their ideology and we've seen some of that come through in their public policy," he said.
Rubio's original amendment would have blocked disbursements of economic support funds (ESF) and new foreign military financing for Egypt until the administration could certify that the Morsy government was enacting economic and political reforms, not restricting religious and human rights, not undermining free and fair elections, improving its treatment of foreign NGOs, fully implementing the peace treaty with Israel, taking all available actions to end smuggling into Gaza and combat terrorism in the Sinai.
The Rubio amendment required the administration to certify that the government of Egypt had apportioned specific amounts of aid to counterterrorism and the Sinai but gave the administration the authority to waive the new aid restrictions every six months.
The McCain amendment takes a different, less confrontational approach. It only would impact foreign military financing, not economic support funds, and clearly states that any change in Egypt military aid should only affect new contracts, not existing contracts for items already in the manufacturing pipeline.
The McCain amendment requires the administration to report back to Congress about how the Egyptian military is spending the money and how it might be spent better in the security interests of both Egypt and the United States. But there's no cut off of aid and no waiver authority. Last year, Egyptians got angry when Congress imposed new restrictions on military aid to Cairo, only to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waive them anyway.
After McCain filed his amendment, Rubio made some changes to his amendment to bring it closer in line with McCain's. Rubio's new amendment now conditions ESF funds in a way that's closer to what's already in present law. Backroom negotiations between the two offices are ongoing.
The Leahy amendment is seen as the Democrats' attempt to take what they liked of the Republican amendments and try to reach a compromise text. It most closely follows McCain's approach by requiring the administration to report on the military aid spending but also requires the administration to report on political reform, human rights, and NGO treatment in Egypt.
Paul's amendment would cut off all assistance to Egypt until Morsy says in English and Arabic that he intends to uphold the Camp David accords. Inhofe's amendment would conditionally suspend the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. Inhofe has also co-sponsored the Paul amendment.
"For months, I have been calling for President Obama and his administration to hold president Morsy accountable for failing to promote promised democracy in Egypt and for the instability in the region," Inhofe said on the Senate floor this week. "Under President Morsy and his radical Muslim Brotherhood, the United States' historically good relationship with Egypt is at a standstill."
Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said Wednesday that the al-Nusra Front that is rallying rebels in Syria is simply a rebranding of al Qaeda in Iraq and should be treated as such.
"The Assad regime's brutality has created an environment inside Syria that al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) is working hard to exploit. In an effort to establish a long-term presence in Syria, AQI is trying to rebrand itself under the guise of a group called al-Nusrah Front," Ford wrote in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat Wednesday. "By fighting alongside armed Syrian opposition groups, al-Nusrah Front members are seeking to hijack the Syrian struggle for their own extremist ends."
Ford's article comes one day after the State and Treasury departments officially designated the al-Nusra Front as an alias for AQI and thereby applied a range of U.S. sanctions on al-Nusra and its members.
"The al-Nusrah Front was formed by AQI and has pledged allegiance to its leader, Abu Du'a. Over the last year, AQI leaders have dispatched personnel, money, and materiel from Iraq to Syria to attack Syrian regime forces. Al-Nusrah Front has claimed responsibility for nearly 600 attacks -- in most major city centers. These acts, which have killed and wounded hundreds of Syrian civilians, do not carefully target the regime. Nusrah doesn't care if it kills civilians," Ford wrote.
The move also comes one day after President Barack Obama, in an interview with ABC, announced that the United States is formally recognizing the Syrian opposition council (formally called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. That announcement was expected to be made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today in Morocco at the Friends of Syria meeting, but she took ill and sent Deputy Secretary Bill Burns in her place.
The recognition is a political designation and is meant to both bolster the new council's legitimacy versus groups like al-Nusra and facilitate international aid to the Syrian opposition groups the United States does not consider terrorists. But experts note that the new council has a long way to go before it can show enough credibility to stand as the government in waiting to follow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"Experts and many Syrians, including rebels, say the move may well be too little, too late," the New York Times noted Tuesday. "They note that it is not at all clear if this group will be able to coalesce into a viable leadership, if it has any influence over the fighters waging war with the government or if it can roll back widespread anger at the United States."
Ford said that Syrians fighting Assad should reject help from al-Nusra, which isn't likely considering that it is supplying a host of weapons and fighters to the rebel cause, as the regime ups the stakes by employing Scud missiles, incendiary bombs, and even naval mines dropped from planes.
"Al-Nusrah Front has declared publicly its hope to impose an Islamic state. It rejects the very principles of freedom for which Syrians now are struggling. Al-Qa'ida's devastating violence in Iraq should give pause to any opposition member weighing the costs of affiliating with al-Nusrah Front. As the Syrian opposition works towards greater cohesion and continues pursuing their legitimate aspirations, the Syrian opposition must consider carefully from whom they accept assistance," he wrote.
The United States will increase its humanitarian assistance to the Syrian opposition, along with allied countries, but has no plans to directly arm the rebels or employ Western military assets to protect them from the Assad regime's assault from the air.
"We are looking at a quantitative, not a qualitative, difference in the aid we are providing," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told The Cable in a short interview in Manama, Bahrain, Dec. 8.
Despite that, Ford wants the Syrian rebels to identify with the West and not the al-Nusra Front and its allied groups inside Syria.
"The American people and our international partners stand with you during this struggle," he wrote. "This is your revolution, your country, and your future -- not al-Qa'ida's."
Darrel Issa (R-CA), the committee chairman leading House Republicans' investigation into the Obama administration's handling of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, has concealed witnesses, withheld documents, publicly aired unconfirmed allegations, and excluded Democrats from a hastily planned trip to Libya last weekend, according to his colleagues across the aisle.
"Although Chairman Issa has claimed publicly that ‘we are pursuing this on a bipartisan basis,' the Committee's investigation into the attack in Benghazi has been extremely partisan," reads a memo circulated today by the Democratic staff of the committee and obtained by The Cable. "The Chairman and his staff failed to consult with Democratic Members prior to issuing public letters with unverified allegations, concealed witnesses and refused to make one hearing witness available to Democratic staff, withheld documents obtained by the Committee during the investigation, and effectively excluded Democratic Committee Members from joining a poorly-planned congressional delegation to Libya."
On Wednesday, Issa, who heads the House Oversight Committee, will hold his much-anticipated hearing on the administration's actions leading up to and following the attack that cost the lives of Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The hearing, entitled, "The Security Failures of Benghazi," will feature testimony from Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Programs Charlene Lamb, Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom, who was stationed in Libya before the attacks, and Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, a Utah National Guardsman who was leading a security team in Libya until August.
The hearing follows up on an Oct. 2 letter from Issa and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the chairman of the national security subcommittee, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in which Issa said the committee had received information "from individuals with direct knowledge of the events in Libya" that the Sept. 11 attack was "the latest in a long line of attacks" on Western diplomatic assets in Benghazi.
That letter was based on testimony from Nordstrom, according to the memo, who told the committee that the State Department had ignored two cables he send requesting more security. Nordstrom blamed the allegedly low security staffing in Benghazi on Lamb, whom he claims said that only three security agents were needed because there was a "safe haven" nearby. But Issa and Chaffetz sent their letter to Clinton less than 12 hours after interviewing Nordstrom, who was not in Libya at the time of the attack, the memo alleges.
"[Nordstrom's] statements were not confirmed before the letter was sent, and the State Department was not given an opportunity to respond before the allegations were made public," the memo said.
Wood spelled out his allegations in a series of interviews this week, including one with CBS News, in which he alleged that the State Department had declined his request to maintain a "Site Security Team," in Libya past August. But Issa concealed the majority staff's conversations with Wood from the Democratic side of the committee until Oct. 5, the same day he appeared on CBS, according to the memo.
"Chairman Issa has refused multiple requests to make Lt. Col. Wood available to speak with Democratic Members or staff prior to the hearing on Wednesday. In addition, although Republican staff provided an email address for Lt. Col. Wood after he appeared on CBS Evening News, Lt. Col. Wood has failed to respond to any inquiries from Democratic staff," the memo states.
Issa and Chaffetz also effectively excluded Democratic committee members and staff from joining a congressional delegation to Libya last weekend by concealing the trip until less than 24 hours before it was scheduled to leave, the memo charges.
"Republican staff did not inform the minority until last Thursday that a delegation would be departing the next day, Friday, October 5, 2012, for Tripoli. Due to this inadequate notice, no Democratic Members or staff were able to join," the memo says. "Based on a copy of the itinerary provided to the minority staff, it also appears that this delegation was hastily and inadequately planned. The itinerary did not identify a single U.S. government official, Libyan official, or other individual the Committee planned to interview during the entire delegation. In fact, the itinerary listed as the sole Committee activity in Libya: ‘TBD.'"
The memo also criticizes Mitt Romney and several congressional Republicans for taking issue with the statements of Obama administration officials in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack, especially the Sept. 16 statements by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, in which she said that the assessment at that time was that the attack was spontaneous and inspired by an anti-Islam video.
"The State Department has been cooperating fully with the Committee's investigation. It has agreed to all requests for hearing witnesses, it has offered additional hearing witnesses beyond those requested, it has promptly organized transcribed interviews with Department officials, it has been collecting documents sought by the Committee, and it has offered additional briefings for Committee staff," the memo states, although it notes that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) excluded Oversight Committee leaders from a classified briefing on the issue Tuesday.
"Contrary to House Rules, the Chairman and his staff refused to provide copies of documents obtained by the Committee during this investigation and concealed witnesses, preventing the minority from questioning these witnesses directly in order to gain a more complete understanding of their views and to vet the accuracy of claims made by Chairman Issa," the memo states.
The memo also argues that it was the House GOP that slashed funding for State Department security and embassy protections prior to the attack.
The House passed appropriations bills that cut $248 million from the administration's request for the Worldwide Security Protection account in fiscal 2011 and 2012, and $211 million from the Worldwide Security Upgrades portion of the Embassy Security, Construction and Maintenance (ESCM) account in those years.
The final amounts given to both accounts after the Senate weighed in were $88 million above the House levels, but still $371 million below what the administration requested.
"Since gaining the majority in 2011, House Republicans have voted to reduce embassy security funding by approximately half a billion dollars below the amounts requested by the Obama Administration," the memo states.
Last week, committee ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings (D-MD) expressed concern that partisanship was overtaking the investigation.
"While I fully support careful, responsible, and robust congressional oversight, I do have concerns about rushing to hold a public hearing based on incomplete information if the purpose is to meet some arbitrary political timetable. On such a critically important issue, I believe we should proceed in a bipartisan and responsible manner by gathering the facts before drawing any public conclusions," he said.
A spokesman for Issa did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama has made his administration's successes against terrorist groups -- above all last year's killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden -- a central plank of his re-election campaign.
But according to the State Department's latest annual counterterrorism report, al Qaeda affiliates are gaining operational strength in the Middle East and South Asia, even though terrorist attacks worldwide are at their lowest level since 2005.
The report cited 2011 as a "landmark year" due to the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and other key al Qaeda operatives, and noted that the terrorist group's "core," largely based in Pakistan, had been weakened.
"I would not say that we are less safe now than we were several years ago, because the al Qaeda core was the most capable part of the organization by quite a lot, and was capable obviously of carrying out catastrophic attacks on a scale that none of the affiliates have been able to match," Coordinator for Counterterrorism Dan Benjamin said Tuesday at a briefing introducing the report.
Democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa also testified to the terrorist organization's decline, he said, though he offered a few cautionary notes.
"We saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful, public demands for change without any reference to al Qaeda's incendiary world view," Benjamin said.
"This upended the group's longstanding claim that change in this region would only come through violence. These men and women have underscored in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al Qaeda exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim majority nations."
Though AQAP benefited from the long and tumultuous political transition in Yemen, Benjamin said he expects the trend lines to go "in the right direction" under new president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Syria, on the other hand, remains a major cause for concern with no solution in sight. The New York Times reported Sunday that Muslim jihadists are "taking a more prominent role" in the resistance.
"We believe that the number of al Qaeda fighters who are in Syria is relatively small, but there's a larger group of foreign fighters, many of whom are not directly affiliated with al Qaeda, who are either in or headed to Syria," Benjamin said.
Iran remains the preeminent state sponsor of terrorism, according to the report, as its Lebanese client, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, is engaging in the most active and aggressive campaign since the 1990s.
Of the more than 10,000 attacks carried out in 70 countries, 64 percent occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but both Afghanistan and Iraq saw a decrease in the number of attacks from 2010.
In Africa, there was an 11.5 percent uptick in attacks, a result of Nigerian militant group Boko Haram's more aggressive strategies and tactics. Despite criticism from Congress, the Obama administration has refused to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization on the grounds that its attacks are not representative of its general ideology, though the State Department did designate three of its leaders terrorists in June.
The report also mentions the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated group attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan. On Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to pass a resolution urging the State Department to add the network to the list of terrorist groups, which would become effective with President Barack Obama's signature.
Governments worldwide restricted religious freedom in 2011 through the implementation of blasphemy laws and legislation that favored state-sanctioned groups, while religious minorities who experienced political and demographic transitions tended to suffer the most, stated the 2011 State Department International Religious Freedom Report, which was released Monday.
"Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that pressure is rising," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a speech Monday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "When it comes to this human right ... the world is sliding backwards."
The report highlighted the deteriorating situation in China, whose government continued to increase restrictions on religious practice for Tibetan Buddhist monks in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas. This repression resulted in "at least 12 self-immolations by Tibetans" last year, a trend that Tibetan prime minister Lobsang Sangay emphasized in a recent interview with The Cable. The Chinese government also cracked down on Muslims living in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and religious groups unaffiliated with China's official state-sanctioned "patriotic religious associations," particularly Christian house churches.
Other designated "Countries of Particular Concern" included Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Burma, also known as Myanmar. According to the report, Burma eased some restrictions on religious freedom, though it continued to "monitor the meetings and activities of all organizations, including religious organizations, and required religious groups to seek permission from authorities before holding any large public events." The Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, which the Burmese government refuses to recognize as citizens, were especially targeted.
In Egypt, where the population democratically elected an Islamist government, the country's post-Mubarak transition remains tenuous, as Coptic Christians still face persecution. On October 9, for example, hundreds of demonstrators -- mostly Copts -- were attacked by Egyptian security forces in the Maspiro area of Cairo.
"Now, I am concerned that respect for religious freedom is quite tenuous, and I don't know if that's going to quickly be resolved, but since 2011 and the fall of the Mubarak regime, sectarian violence has increased," Clinton said. "We don't think that there's been a consistent commitment to investigate and apply the laws."
Regarding recently elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook said during a briefing Monday that the U.S. government expects him follow through on his commitment to religious freedom and diversity.
"President Morsi has said publicly that in his new government, he will include Coptic Christians, secular citizens, and a woman," she said. "So we are looking for him to follow through on what his promise was."
The new government in Libya, which stopped enforcing Ghaddafi-era laws that restricted religious freedom and institutionalized the free practice of religion in its interim constitution, was cited as a case of tangible success.
"They [the Libyan government] have come to believe that the best way to deal with offensive speech is not to ban it, but to counter it with speech that reveals the lies," the Secretary said.
Another trend on the rise in 2011 was global anti-Semitism, fueled by anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt, Holocaust denial in Iran, the desecration of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries and France, and the openly anti-Semitic and nationalistic Jobbik party in Hungary.
In a rare moment amid a presidential campaign more often focused on bread-and-butter issues like jobs, economic growth, and deficit spending, the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney teams are ramping up their foreign-policy messaging this week as the former Massachusetts governor sets off for a major trip abroad.
In what has become a new ritual of American politics, both candidates will address the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Reno this week.
Ahead of Obama's Monday afternoon visit there, the president's campaign released a new video touting his administration's treatment of veterans and the president's moves to complete the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq last year.
Romney will speak to the conference on Tuesday before heading off on a three-nation foreign trip. On July 25, Obama surrogate and former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy will square off with Romney advisor Rich Williamson, George W. Bush's envoy to Sudan, in a debate at the Brookings Institution.
Earlier Monday, Flournoy and Colin Kahl, another former defense official, held a conference call with reporters, during which Kahl pledged that Obama would visit Israel in his second term if he is re-elected.
Kahl's pledge comes in response to the Romney camp's criticism that the president has been a fickle ally of Israel, a critique the GOP candidate is looking to exploit during his upcoming stop in Jerusalem.
After Romney speaks to the VFW Tuesday, he heads off that evening to London to attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and meet with British officials. Romney then goes on to Israel and Poland before returning to the United States.
On their own conference call with reporters, several Romney policy advisors emphasized that Romney will not be criticizing Obama's foreign policy on the trip.
"This trip is really an opportunity for the governor to learn and listen," said Lanhee Chen, the Romney campaign's policy director. "There are a number of challenges the world is facing today and this is an opportunity for him to visit three countries that each have a strong and important relationship with the U.S."
"So this trip demonstrates Governor Romney's belief in the worth and necessity of standing with our allies and locking arms with our allies," said Chen. "Each of these nations shares our love of liberty as well as our fortitude to defend it. They are each pillars of liberty and have fought through periods where liberty was under siege. This trip is an opportunity for us to demonstrate a clear and resolute stand with those nations that share our values."
The Obama campaign set his own marker for Romney's trip.
"He'll need to prove to the American people that he sees foreign-policy issues as worthy of substantive discussion rather than just generalities and sound bites in this campaign," said Obama senior advisor Robert Gibbs Monday. "This trip and this campaign begs several questions and I think Mitt Romney owes it to the American people to say where he stands on these important issues as he's trying out to be leader of the free world."
In London, Romney will meet with the leaders of the British government and opposition, including Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Foreign Minister William Hague, Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg, and former prime minister Tony Blair.
In Israel, Romney will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Perez, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Kadima Party Leader Shaul Mofaz, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
This will be Romney's forth trip to Israel. He made a family trip there in the late 1990s and then visited in January 2007 and gave a speech at the annual Herzliya conference. In January 2011, Romney visited Israel as part of a three-nation trip that also included stops in Afghanistan and Jordan.
Romney is visiting Poland at the invitation of former president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and he will also meet with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, and Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski. He will also visit Polish sites of historical significance, his advisors said.
In Poland, Romney will thank Poland for its commitments of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and tout Poland's relative economic success during the European fiscal crisis.
"This is a country that stands in sharp contrast economically to the rest of Europe... and Poland's success is rooted in its commitment to the principles of free market economies and capitalism," said Romney advisor Ian Brzezinski.
Although Romney will hold public events at all three stops, don't expect any big policy speeches or attacks on the administration's international actions.
"This trip is solely an opportunity to listen and the contrasts will be kept here in the States," said campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
The Palestine Liberation Organization has denied recent reports that the White House issued a notice threatening to cut all aid to the Palestinian Authority if it launches a renewed drive for recognition at the United Nations.
"This is absolutely not true," PLO representative to Washington Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable this week. "We do not know what they are saying. It's unfounded."
According to numerous online sources, Palestine National Council political chairman Khaled Mesmar, an Obama administration envoy issued the threat during a recent visit to Ramallah, and Areikat's comments come just days after senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that the Palestinian Authority plans to ask the U.N. General Assembly to recognize Palestine as an observer state. Last year's bid for statehood membership was blocked by the United States, and the top foreign aid leaders in the House of Representatives issued a similar threat in August 2011.
On Capitol Hill, the Palestinian Authority has faced increasing scrutiny since it sought U.N. recognition last September. House Foreign Relations Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has spearheaded congressional efforts to prevent federal budgetary allocations to the Palestinian Authority -- which have averaged nearly $600 million since Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 -- from being released, along with House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX). In March, Ros-Lehtinen agreed to release $88.6 million of $147 million slated for Palestinian development aid in the West Bank and Gaza that Republican lawmakers had placed on hold in August 2011, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton overruled the decision and notified Congress in April that the entire package would be disbursed.
"On the congressional level I think that what we are facing is a total ignorance and lack of understanding of the political dynamics and variables that are involved in U.S. assistance to the Palestinians," Areikat said in a short interview. "We are shocked to know that these members of Congress don't even have the minimum knowledge or understanding of Palestinian positions or the impact of U.S. assistance on improving the living, economic, and humanitarian positions of the Palestinian people. Resorting to this tool to try to influence Palestinian leaders into changing their political position is something that has proven in the past to be counterproductive, and it will not lead to a change in the Palestinian political position."
As Ros-Lehtinen continues to place holds on FY2012 funds, however, the Palestinian Authority is facing financial collapse. Saudi Arabia transferred $100 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority after Israel applied for a $100 million International Monetary Fund loan on its behalf and was refused, but the PA's budget deficit for the current year has already surpassed the $1 billion mark. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Monday that the PA is unable to pay about 150,000 of its employees.
The House's stance on foreign aid to the Palestinians has drawn the attention and ire of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA).
"House Republicans want to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority," he said during a speech at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition's annual conference on Tuesday. "I can't imagine anything that would tumble the Middle East more rapidly into a radical tailspin."
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), a co-signatory of the Cohen-Yarmouth-Connolly letter, which stresses the importance of American leadership to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, agrees.
"No, I do not support cutting off funds to the Palestinian Authority," he said in an emailed statement Tuesday. "I oppose them unilaterally seeking statehood, the deal should be bilateral, but cutting them off would lead to more conflict not less."
Members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, worry increasingly about corruption within the Palestinian government, as a committee oversight hearing last week about the Palestinian Authority's "chronic kleptocracy" demonstrated.
"As a major political donor to the Palestinians, we need to be extremely concerned that our aid will be construed as support for a corrupt regime," House Foreign Relations Committee senior member Gary Ackerman (D-NY) said during the hearing. "If they unintentionally wind up enriching loathsome regime figures ... then we have a hard choice as our support for the people is outweighed by unintended, undesirable consequences of that flow."
Areikat dismissed the hearing as a politically motivated smear tactic.
"By holding these hearings all the time, the House Foreign Relations Committee is ignoring an important fundamental principle in the U.S. system, which is giving the other party the chance to present its case," he told The Cable. "They have been holding all these hearings on the Palestinian Authority while the Palestinian Authority and its representatives are absent, so it's only a charade. It's a politically motivated campaign that has nothing to do with transparency and accountability."
Congress directed the State Department and USAID to spend money helping Iraq's minority population but those agencies can't prove they spent the funds appropriately, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report.
"Since 2003, minority groups in Iraq have experienced religiously and ethnically motivated attacks, killings, and forced displacements. Concern for Iraqi religious and ethnic minorities led various congressional committees and Congress as a whole to issue a series of directives to provide assistance to these groups," the GAO wrote. "GAO found that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) could not demonstrate how the projects that it reported to Congress met the provisions of the 2008 directive because of three weaknesses."
First of all, USAID could only demonstrate that about 26 percent or $3.8 million of the $14.8 million in projects USAID conducted were actually spent where Congress directed -- in the Ninewa plain region of Iraq. Second, USAID could not show that minority groups were actually the beneficiaries of those programs. Lastly, USAID did not show it used unobligated Economic Support Funds, as Congress has directed.
Overall, State and USAID spent $26.9 million to respond to two separate congressional directives on the issue, with the vast majority going to essential and humanitarian services and less than $1 million going to cultural preservation.
In its response letter to the GAO, USAID Acting Assistant Administrator for Management Angelique Crumbly wrote that despite the deficiencies the GAO found in USAID's paperwork and record keeping, "USAID met the needs of internally displaced persons and ethnic minorities to a greater extent than what is presented in the GAO report."
Read the entire report here.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, and discussed issues including Agent Orange, soldiers missing in action, and deepening cultural and economic bilateral ties with Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. "The United States greatly appreciates Vietnam's contributions to a collaborative, diplomatic resolution of disputes and a reduction of tensions in the South China Sea," said the secretary, who is accompanied by Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Robert Hormats, Chief of Protocol Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan. Tomorrow Clinton will arrive in Vientiane, Laos, for meetings with Prime Minister Thonsing Thammavong and other senior government officials, making her the first secretary of state to visit the country in 57 years.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington today on a two-week trip that includes a stop in Israel, a stop in Egypt, and a new effort to head off a possible new round of tensions with Palestinian leaders.
Clinton's travel will take her to France, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Egypt and Israel. The first item on Clinton's international agenda is Syria, and Clinton will attend the Friday meeting in Paris of the Friends of Syria group, the U.S.- and Turkey-led diplomatic initiative that is meant to coordinate international action to resolve the Syrian crisis.
Clinton isn't expected to make any significant changes in the U.S. position on Syria, which is still, in a nutshell, to avoid direct intervention, look the other way while Gulf Arab states arms the opposition, and work with Russia to facilitate a Yemen-like political transition.
"[T]he secretary will consult with her colleagues on steps to increase pressure on the Assad regime and to support UN-Arab League Special Envoy Annan's efforts to end the violence and facilitate a political transition to a post-Assad Syria," read a statement sent out by the State Department today.
While she's in Paris, Clinton will also meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, "to discuss both parties' efforts to pursue a dialogue and build on President Abbas' exchange of letters with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu," the State Department said.
Reuters reported that reported that Clinton requested the meeting and will also press Abbas not to pursue a new United Nations resolution that condemns settlements in "occupied" territories. Expectations on the Palestinian side for any progress in Paris are low, according to Reuters.
On the Israeli side, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told an audience last week at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival that a new unilateral settlement freeze was not likely. "The Palestinians under Abu Mazen refused once and again to get into the room without a precondition... I believe that most of the responsibility is on their shoulders," he said.
The U.S. and Palestinian leaderships have also been at loggerheads over the Palestinian drive to seek membership in U.N. bodies, such as UNESCO. U.S. law required the end of all American contributions to UNESCO after that body admitted Palestine as a member earlier this year.
On July 8, Clinton will go on to Tokyo to attend an international conference on the future of Afghanistan, a follow-up to last December's conference in Bonn, Germany. In Tokyo, Clinton will talk about the "transformation decade" in Afghanistan, which she will say begins in 2015, after the bulk of U.S. and international forces leave that country.
"The Afghan Government in turn will lay out its plan for economic reform and continued steps toward good governance," the State Department said in its release.
The next day Clinton will go to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to speak to a meeting of the Governing Board of the Community of Democracies, an informal multilateral coalition of countries that promotes democratic values,, speak at a women's conference, and meet with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj and Prime Minister Sükhbaataryn Batbold.
On July 10 Clinton moves on to Hanoi for a day of meetings with government and business leaders before traveling to Vientiane, Laos, on July 11. Her stop in Laos will mark the first visit to that country -- one of the world's last avowedly communist states -- by a U.S. Secretary of State in 57 years and Clinton will meet with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong.
After her brief stop in Laos, Clinton will arrive late in the day July 11 in Cambodia. While there, she will participate in three major conferences: the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting, and the U.S.-ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference. Tensions between China and its neighbors over maritime disputes is sure to be high on the agenda.
After two days in Phnom Penh, Clinton will go to the city of Siem Reap on July 14 to meet with business leaders and deliver the keynote address at the Lower Mekong Initiative Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Dialogue. The Lower Mekong Initiative is a development-focused forum that joins the U.S. with several southeast Asian nations.
The next day it's off to Cairo, where Clinton is reported to have a meeting scheduled with the new President Mohamed Morsy. She will stay in Egypt until July 16, and will meet with senior government officials, civil society, and business leaders, and inaugurate the U.S. consulate in Alexandria.
The last stop on Clinton's tour is Israel, where she will be meeting with as yet undisclosed Israeli leaders "to discuss peace efforts and a range of regional and bilateral issues of mutual concern," the State Department said.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is also expected to travel to Israel to meet with leaders there sometime this summer.
A group of 27 foreign policy, security, and Middle East experts sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on this week criticizing the administration's counterterrorism-focused approach to Yemen and urging the White House to heed policy recommendations geared toward "achieving a successful democratic transition" in the war-torn Gulf country, which experienced a popular uprising last year that ousted longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Although the United States has "drastically increased the number of drone strikes" against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the letter states, this strategy "jeopardizes our long-term national security goals." A comprehensive focus on Yemen's economic and political problems, it continues, "will better serve the stability of Yemen and, accordingly, our national security interests, rather than ... direct military involvement."
The letter, spearheaded by the Yemen Policy Initiative, a dialogue organized by the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), outlines several diplomatic, political, economic, humanitarian, and security policy recommendations that include increasing assistance to democracy-building institutions, working with the international community to immediately address Yemen's "food security needs," sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Yemeni capital Sanaa, and rethinking the strategy of drone strikes, which the signatories argue "could strengthen the appeal of extremist groups."
"The real essence [of the letter] was that we have a new government in Yemen, and what we need to do is recalibrate or rebalance the relationship to make it clear to both the Yemenis and to the American people that our interests and the focus of our efforts there are not solely AQAP," former U.S. ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine told The Cable. "Al Qaeda is a short-term, immediate issue ... we need to took to the medium-term and long-term."
Stephen McInerney, executive director of POMED, argues that while U.S. policy in Yemen is "shortsighted" and "too narrow," AQAP is still a real threat.
"By no means are we downplaying counterterrorism issues," he said in a short interview with The Cable.
U.S. diplomats were actively involved in negotiating the power transfer agreement that resulted in Saleh's official ouster in November 2011, and President Obama signed an executive order in May green-lighting sanctions against parties that try to disrupt the transition. In April, the White House authorized a campaign of stepped-up drone strikes against terrorists in Yemen. The Yemeni military, under new President Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, has recently concentrated on routing AQAP militants from their strongholds in southern Yemen and claims to be making progress.
There are also indications that the Obama administration is taking a broader approach to its Yemen policy. Earlier this month, a delegation from the U.S. House of Representatives visited Sanaa, where congressmen met with government officials as well as businesspeople, NGO representatives, and civil--society leaders. Last week, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) director Rajiv Shah also traveled to Sanaa and announced that the agency would give an additional $52 million to Yemen in 2012.
It's a start, the letters' signatories say, but they'd like to see more.
"The U.S. does have a broad policy of engaging both in security cooperation and development assistance, but unfortunately most Yemenis don't perceive U.S. engagement to be that way," Danya Greenfield, deputy director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, told The Cable. "We need to clearly articulate that the U.S. is really invested in their long-term development ... to ensure that there is ongoing sustainable security both for Yemen and the U.S."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departs today for Europe, where she will travel to Finland, Latvia, and Russia through June 30. Tomorrow, Clinton will hold bilateral meetings with senior Finnish officials in Helsinki to discuss foreign-policy issues including Syria, Iran, and the European economy. On June 28, Clinton will travel to Riga to meet with senior Latvian officials about NATO missions and the country's economic recovery. From there, the secretary will go to St. Petersburg, where she will lead the U.S. delegation to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's Women and the Economy Forum. Clinton, who is accompanied by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, is also scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and civil society leaders.
As a third round of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers ended conclusively Tuesday, Israeli vice prime minister and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz called on the so-called P5+1 to focus on stopping Iran's uranium enrichment during a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace.
"Such an agreement we didn't see in the last meetings," he said. "Not in Baghdad, Istanbul, and in Moscow ... [A deal] should be based on stopping all continued enrichment activity, removing all enrichment materials, and inspecting and dismantling all underground facilities, mainly Qom."
Mofaz, a former defense minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who was recently brought into Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, added that while now is the time for diplomacy and sanctions, Israel along with the United States and other Western countries should prepare all options.
"From my best view, the use of military power should be the last option, and if necessary should be led by the U.S. and Western countries," he said. "We should ask ourselves how much we would delay the Iranian program -- for how many months, for how many years -- and the second question is what will happen in our region the day after."
Diplomacy, though, is only good for so long, he stressed.
"When you say that this is the time for diplomatic activity and sanctions, it doesn't mean that you have two, three, or five years," he explained. "We have a limit of time, and the limit of time is until the Iranian leader will take the last step to having a bomb."
Mofaz also addressed the ongoing crisis in Syria, where well over 10,000 people have been killed and thousands more driven from their homes since the uprising began in March 2011.
"My expectations are that the Western countries should give humanitarian support to the Syrian people," he said. "We cannot be part of it, and it is clear why."
Mofaz was more optimistic about Israel's strained relationship with Turkey, which he believes will be resolved "in the coming months" because it is strategically necessary for both parties
On the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Mofaz says he does not support Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon's recently proposed program of coordinated unilateralism, in which Israel would not attempt to annex any territory east of the security fence and the Knesset would pass a law encouraging settlers to move to the other side of the fence.
Mofaz said that Israelis and Palestinians must "break the ice" and get back to the negotiating table. The future permanent border between Israel and a Palestinian state should be determined by the settlement blocs that house more than 250,000 settlers, he said, adding that Israel should continue to build in those blocs.
Brett McGurk withdrew himself Monday from consideration to be the next ambassador to Iraq, just one day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was due to vote on his nomination.
McGurk faced opposition from at least six GOP senators on the committee, all of whom wrote to President Barack Obama last week to ask him rethink McGurk's nomination. Those six senators expressed concern that McGurk was too inexperienced for the job, had been a key part of the failed 2011 effort to negotiate and new Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, and may have acted inappropriately in 2008 in beginning a relationship with a reporter who was covering him in Baghdad.
McGurk later married that reporter, Gina Chon, who resigned from the Wall Street Journal last week after the paper said she failed to disclose the relationship to her editors at the time and improperly shared unpublished news stories with McGurk. The June 5 disclosure of private e-mails between the two, exposed on the Cryptome website, fueled the calls for McGurk's withdrawal on Capitol Hill.
Other senators, including John McCain (R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), also expressed concerns with the McGurk nomination that could have delayed the nomination after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted. But Democrats on the committee failed to rally to McGurk's defense, setting the stage for him to withdraw before the vote could take place.
Although the State Department and the White House repeatedly said they stood by the McGurk nomination, his withdrawal also takes them off the hook and paves the way for a new nominee to replace Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, who is expected to leave Iraq in the coming weeks.
"Iraq urgently needs an ambassador. The country is in the midst of a political crisis and our mission is undergoing rapid transformation," McGurk wrote to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in his letter, according to the New York Times.
In his letter, McGurk lamented that Chon had lost her job and said that he came to the decision to withdraw while visiting Arlington Cemetery.
"We have both lost friends in Iraq," he wrote. "In their memory, I remain forever committed to helping the country I love and the country I have come to know forge a lasting partnership. For me, this is a lifelong calling."
A new issue has emerged in the confirmation of Brett McGurk to become the next ambassador to Iraq and it has nothing to do with the intimate e-mails he sent to a Wall Street Journal reporter in 2008.
One Republican senator is now making an issue out of McGurk's role in the case of Ali Musa Daqduq, the alleged Hezbollah commander who was transferred from U.S. to Iraqi custody last December and acquitted in an Iraqi court last month. He remains in Iraqi custody pending an automatically triggered appeal, but could be released thereafter.
The Daqduq issue is just the latest concern various Republican senators have raised over McGurk's nomination. Some GOP lawmakers want answers about his relationship in Iraq with reporter Gina Chon while he was negotiating the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement in 2008. The Wall Street Journal accepted Chon's resignation today. Others question McGurk's role in the failed negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq past 2011, and his overall qualifications for the job.
Daqduq, a Lebanese citizen whom U.S. military officials claim is a Hezbollah commander, was imprisoned by U.S. forces in Iraq and accused of leading a team that kidnapped and killed five U.S. soldiers in Iraq in January 2007. Last December, 21 U.S. senators wrote a letter urging the administration not to hand him over out of concern that the Iraqi government might release him.
On Monday, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) sent McGurk a series of questions demanding answers on the U.S. government's actions on the case as well as McGurk's personal involvement.
"How would you characterize your role in the transfer of Hezbollah terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq from U.S. to Iraqi custody?" reads the first question.
"Before the American withdrawal from Iraq last year, what steps, if any, did you take to stop the transfer of Hezbollah terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq from U.S. custody?" the next question reads.
Kirk asked McGurk if he will agree to provide Congress with copies of all State Department and National Security Council emails, letters, communications, telephone call readouts and readouts of meetings that mention Ali Musa Daqduq in all of 2011.
Kirk also wants to know what efforts are underway to get Daqduq back in U.S. custody, whether the U.S. government has formally requested his extradition, and whether McGurk would support the sale of military equipment to Iraq if the Iraqi government doesn't handover Daqduq.
Republican senators have also criticized McGurk for beginning his relationship with Chon, to whom he is now married, while he was simultaneously exchanging information with her regarding U.S. government activity.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) already cancelled a meeting with McGurk over that issue as well as over unconfirmed allegations that McGurk was caught on video engaging in improper sexual behavior on the roof of Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace in 2004.
Now, Sen. James Risch (R-ID), who praised McGurk in his confirmation hearing last week, is also expressing reservations about his confirmation.
"Prior to these email revelations, I had reservations about confirming Brett McGurk as ambassador to Iraq," Risch told The Cable through a spokesman. "Now that additional issues have been raised, more information will be needed and I reserve final judgment until all the facts are brought to light."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the first senator to raise concerns about the McGurk nomination, was apparently unswayed by last week's hearing. "His concerns regarding Mr. McGurk's time in Iraq, particularly related to his failure to negotiate a residual force as everyone envisioned, remain," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.
No senator can issue a formal hold on the McGurk nomination until the Senate Foreign Relations Committee votes to approve it, and no vote has been scheduled. But the concerns about McGurk's professional and private actions in Iraq are mounting and may reach a tipping point soon, Republican Senate aides say.
"Senator Kirk's questions touch on one of the most emotional issues involved in the McGurk nomination and several senators might have placed holds on McGurk for this reason alone," one senior GOP Senate aide said. "This, on top of McGurk's other problems, creates serious doubt as to the future of this nomination."
UPDATE: According to a State Department official, McGurk left Iraq on Oct. 22, 2011, was not involved in the negotiations with Iraq over the issue, and was serving as a senior advisor to the ambassador focused on other matters. "Simply put, Brett McGurk was not involved in the Daqduq issue in any way, shape, or form," the official said.
The biggest single new initiative in the State Department's $51.6 billion budget proposal for next year was a Middle East Incentive Fund -- $770 million in mostly new money to help State respond to the Arab Spring by supporting emerging democracies and their civil societies. But the House of Representatives declined to fund it in their version of the appropriations bill.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee for State and Foreign Ops didn't give any money to fund the initiative in their fiscal 2013 appropriations mark, released last month. The leaders of that subcommittee claim that State failed to give them enough detail about the program to justify the new outlay of funds. Now, the State Department is depending on its allies in the Senate to save the program when the Senate Appropriations Committee marks up its bill next week. The episode is an example of the disconnect between State and Congress over how to respond to the Arab Spring as well as the difficulty of securing new money for diplomatic initiatives in this tight budget environment.
"This is something that Secretary Clinton has really -- and with the President -- has focused principally on," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides said in February when announcing the initiative. "The notion is we're in a new world. The Arab Spring has come; we need to make sure we have the tools and the flexibility in which to fund these initiatives. I cannot tell you today where that money will be spent because we'll be, obviously, in consultation with the Hill. We'll be coming up with initiatives that we'll then be discussing with the Hill."
"But this is something we coordinated and talked a lot about with our friends on the Hill, the idea is to have some flexibility to support everything from Tunisia, to support areas like potentially in Egypt and in areas where things are changing every day in Syria, things where changing, the world is evolving as we see it, and we felt it was important to have a pool of money," he said.
At the time, budget experts warned that it would be difficult for the State Department to get Congress to spring for the program because State didn't seem to have a lot of detail about what the money would be used for.
"That will be controversial because there's no content. It's a contingency fund and Congress doesn't like to give State contingency funds," said former Office of Management and Budget National Security Director Gordon Adams at the time.
State did brief all the relevant committees on the new fund and provided as much detail and context as they could, but it wasn't enough for the House subcommittee leaders, Reps. Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY).
"The administration could not justify the broad authority requested to override existing laws. However, the House bill does provide State some flexible funding to be responsive, within the existing account structure, while increasing congressional oversight on key countries," Granger's spokesman Matt Leffingwell told The Cable.
The "existing account structure" he referred to is the economic support funds that are given each year on a country-by-country basis. Congress prefers granting State country-specific aid because it's easier to track and oversee.
"Congresswoman Lowey supports U.S. engagement in the region and believes we must have the flexibility to respond to rapid changes and developments. Existing accounts within the bill provide that important flexibility," Lowey's spokesman Matt Dennis told The Cable.
Outside experts working closely on the issue said that the State Department didn't properly explain the new fund or its benefits to Congress and didn't have specific enough proposals to give lawmakers assurance the money would be spent wisely.
"This incentive fund is an important new initiative, but unfortunately it seems the administration has done a pretty poor job of pitching it to the hill. There's a lot of confusion in Congress about what this fund is for and why it's important," said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.
"This fund should be a signature initiative of the administration to respond to the historic events in the region, and these funds could be essential to the administration's ability to respond to events that haven't yet unfolded in places like Syria, where there is no existing U.S. assistance package in the budget," said McInerney.
Using economic support funds is not a great option because those funds are already devoted to specific causes and diverting them from other places would hurt other priorities, McInerney argued.
"The administration won't be able to use that flexibility without significant cuts to existing programs. Without some support from Congress, it's really tough to get it off the ground," he said.
Tamara Wittes, head of the Brookings Institute's Saban Center on the Middle East, pointed out that within the $770 million State requested for the new fund, it included a $65 million annual request for an existing program called the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is how State has been funding civil society development in the region. So now, MEPI's funding is also at risk.
"Congress may not realize that MEPI funding was embedded in this proposal, but they need to be aware of the impact of their decision on America's ability to partner with citizens in the region who are working for positive change," she said. Wittes was head of the MEPI office and deputy director of State's new Middle East Transitions Office before she left government earlier this year.
The new Middle East Incentive Fund is State's way of trying to shift America's aid approach in the region from the military-dominated focus of the recent decades to an approach focused on the promotion of civil society and political reform, said Wittes.
"We have to look at the overall ratio of our assistance and how that is seen by the people of the region. In order to seize the opportunity that the Arab Spring presents, we need to shift the logic of our relationships to one that emphasizes projects with people," she said.
The fight to save the fund now goes to the Senate, where the Senate Appropriations Committee is set to mark up its State and Foreign Ops bill as early as next week. David Carle, the spokesman for State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), told The Cable, "Sen. Leahy does intend to include some amount for the fund, for the reasons the administration requested it -- to provide flexibility to respond to changing events in the ME and NA regions."
The Senate subcommittee hasn't decided how much of the request to support. Their version of the bill could be conferenced with the House version. More likely, Congress will not complete any appropriations bills this year and the two versions will simply inform a temporary funding measure crafted by congressional leadership in late September.
The new fund does have one powerful staunch supporter in Congress, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA).
"This is something that's been percolating a long time on the Hill and in the administration and it's really a no-brainer," Kerry told The Cable in a statement. "We're witnessing a period of historic change in the Middle East, and it's impossible to predict what will happen next month, let alone next year, which is why the State Department should have the flexibility to deal with unforeseen contingencies. Positive incentives for economic and democratic reforms also make sense. American assistance in itself may not convince governments that are resisting reform to change, but in places that have already begun to chart a new course, like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, it can help empower moderates and reformers."
The State Department declined to comment.
UPDATE: A reader points out that the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee's report on the bill does direct $70 million to MEPI, separate from the Middle East Incentive Fund.
President George W. Bush predicted Tuesday that the remaining authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East are unsustainable and will give way to movements driven by the quest for freedom and human rights.
"These are extraordinary times in the history of freedom," Bush said in Tuesday morning remarks. "In the Arab Spring, we have seen the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. Great change has come to a region where many thought it impossible. The idea that Arab people are somehow content with oppression has been discredited forever."
Bush was speaking at an event to celebrate and publicize the "Freedom Collection," a set of artifacts from democratic struggles around the world, collected by the George W. Bush Institute, run by former magazine editor and State Department official James Glassman.
Bush cautioned that there were risks to democratic change and that sometime overthrowing authoritarian regimes leads to periods of instability, but argued that American had to always support those fighting against oppression.
"Some look at the risks inherent in democratic change -- particularly in the Middle East and North Africa -- and find the dangers too great. America, they argue, should be content with supporting the flawed leaders they know in the name of stability," he said. "But in the long run, this foreign-policy approach is not realistic. It is not realistic to presume that so-called stability enhances our national security. Nor is it within the power of America to indefinitely preserve the old order, which is inherently unstable."
In a return to the soaring rhetoric of his second inaugural address, Bush said that America's role in each country undergoing change in the Arab world will be different but that the United States must always side with people against dictators and should do everything it can to help emerging democracies build civic institutions and a pluralist political culture.
"America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East, or elsewhere. It only gets to choose what side it is on. The tactics of promoting freedom will vary, case by case," he said. "But America's message should ring clear and strong: We stand for freedom -- and for the institutions and habits that make freedom work for everyone. The day when a dictator falls or yields to a democratic movement is glorious."
Bush was introduced by Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid. "All of us here today join you in hoping and praying for the end of violence and the advance of freedom in Syria," Bush said to him, joking, "I actually found my freedom by leaving Washington."
Chinese activist Bob Fu spoke after Bush. He was followed by Laura Bush, who introduced Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who answered questions live via Skype.
Suu Kyi said that while she favored a non-violent approach to confronting dictatorships, she understood that the Syrian people had no choice but to meet the government's violence with violence of their own.
"We should all help people's struggle for freedom around the world," she said. "I would like to say to the people of Syria, we are with you in your struggle for freedom."
Suu Kyi will soon go on her first trip abroad in 24 years after recently being released from house arrest and elected to the Burmese parliament. She will travel to London and Oslo, Norway, where she will formally accept her peace prize, granted in 1991 while she was under house arrest.
Suu Kyi could not confirm rumors that a large number of Burmese government ministers are about to resign. She did say that she supports Sen. John McCain's idea to "suspend" some sanctions against the Burmese state as further incentive for the military government to continue reforms.
"This is a possible first step," she said. "That is a way of sending a strong message that we will try to help the process of democratization but if this is not maintained we will have to think of other ways of making sure the aspirations of the Burmese people for democracy is respected."
"I believe that sanctions have been effective in persuading this government to go for change," she said. "I do advocate caution, though. I sometimes feel that people are too optimistic about what we are seeing in Burma. You have to remember that the change in Burma is not irreversible."
The United States needs to do more to protect civilians in Syria, including considering setting up safe zones inside Syria and potentially arming the opposition, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable in an interview Tuesday.
Kerry also warned that if the balance of power is not tilted in Syria in the opposition's favor, it's unlikely that President Bashar al-Assad will step down. A political transition that sees Assad removed from power remains the goal, he said, but the United States must step up its efforts to make that goal a reality.
"You have to change the current dynamic. That's to me the bottom line," Kerry said. "We have to increase the pressure, change the calculations, and succeed in creating a capacity for a movement to a negotiated reform process with a transition that takes place through elections at the right moment."
"That's could be something Russia might buy into and the international community might as well, but Assad won't unless the on the ground calculations change," said Kerry, who just returned from a conference in Jordan that included Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Kerry said his trip had helped convince him that more must be done to help the internal Syrian opposition, well beyond the low levels of humanitarian and communication aid the United States is providing now.
"The concept of a safe zone is a reality and worth the discussion. The concept of working with the Turks and the Jordanians, if everybody is on the same page, there could be some [military] training [of the opposition forces]. If we can enhance the unity of the opposition, we could consider lethal aid and those kinds of things," Kerry said.
But he cautioned that the United States should insist on greater unity within opposition ranks before it provides lethal aid, noting that international efforts to train opposition fighters could help establish that very unity. Safe zones within Syria would have to be defended by some foreign military force, but not necessary the United States or NATO, Kerry explained.
"King Abdullah [of Jordan] made some very interesting suggestions about Jordanian possibilities with respect to that and the Turks also have some options," he said. "I'm talking about Gulf states and the Arab League engaging and leading on this with NATO perhaps as a support structure behind the scenes to back it up," he said.
Asked if there were any conditions under which he would support U.S.- or NATO-led airstrikes on the Syrian military, Kerry said, "Sure."
"If Assad was killing his people in a continued massive way without any regard to his word, the truce, the inspections, and monitors, etc.," Kerry said, adding that we haven't yet gotten to that point.
"Of course the violence is continuing, but not in the kind of way that would suggest to you that airstrikes would make the difference," he continued. "There are a bunch of things that would need to start happening before you put that on the table."
Kerry confirmed that there's a debate inside the administration on when to officially declare that U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan's plan has failed, even though two administration officials said last month that the plan "is failing." The question is whether to let Annan declare it himself or to round up partners and allies and preempt Annan by calling it earlier.
"My view is it would be better for Annan to make a judgment about his own mission but his mission cannot become a vehicle of interminable delay, and we have to be prepared to take measures necessary to protect life and move the process," Kerry said. "If [Annan] can pull a rabbit out of a hat, terrific, but I think we have to be planning a lot of contingencies while he's operating because I'm not optimistic."
Kerry sees new hope that the United States and Russia can find some common ground on the way forward in Syria, and he sketched the outlines of what that might look like.
"There were distinct ways in which hopefully we can get on the same page in order to create a process that might be helpful. You don't want the place to just collapse," Kerry said. "There's a unanimity that Assad has to be part of the transition and to get him out. The question is how. [Lavrov] thinks that Assad has to transition out of there in a respectful way, through a peaceful process."
Any effort to intervene directly in Syria should be Arab-led, Kerry said, but he denied the accusation that the United States is failing to lead or even "leading from behind," as many Republicans allege.
"This ‘failing to lead' refrain is just a political refrain," he said. "The United States doesn't have to go off and do everything to be the leader. Actually, it's pretty smart to get somebody else to do some things for you. You save the American taxpayer a few dollars, you don't put American troops at risk, and you get the job done."
Kerry noted that the administration is planning for a range of contingencies, including safe zones. But the administration has been clear that it has no intention of providing lethal aid to the opposition or using U.S. or NATO assets to directly confront Assad's forces.
In remarks May 6 to the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough said that the administration recognized that Assad has no intention to halt the violence but said that the administration had not yet reached the point of abandoning the Annan plan or abandoning their current approach, which relies solely on diplomatic and economic pressure.
"And the question is whether you make the leap to the next step, which is either the United States undertakes military action or enables others to take military action," McDonough said. "Obviously we plan for every contingency, in the event we need that, but we just don't think the analysis at the moment is that-we do not believe that intervention hastens the demise of the regime."
There is no formal planning going on inside NATO to prepare for defending Turkey from the violence spilling over from Syria, even though Turkey is considering whether to formally invoke NATO's chapters on collective defense, a top Obama administration official said Monday.
"Our Supreme Allied Commander [Adm. James Stavridis] can do a certain amount of planning... but there has been no formal tasking and there has been no formal request by the Turks for consultations in an Article 4 or Article 5 scenario," said Liz Sherwood-Randall, the National Security Council's senior director for Europe, in remarks Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu briefed his foreign minister and defense minister counterparts on Syria at a high level meeting in Brussels this month, and reports said that Davotoglu discussed at length a cross border attack by Syrian forces on a refugee camp inside Turkey that killed two. Davotoglu is also reported to have said the Syrian regime has "abused a chance offered by the Annan plan."
The Obama administration also believes that the Annan plan "is failing," is currently searching for a "plan B" in Syria, and is preparing military related options in case diplomacy breaks down. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that NATO might have to get involved earlier this month, during a ministerial meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group in Paris.
"Turkey already has discussed with NATO, during our ministerial meetings over the last two days, the burden of Syrian refugees on Turkey, the outrageous shelling across the border from Syria into Turkey a week ago, and that Turkey is considering formally invoking Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty," Clinton said.
The Republican Party appears to be deeply split on whether the United States should call on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, a Senate committee vote revealed today.
The divisions were on display during a one-hour debate Thursday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), after which the Republican members of the panel remained irreconcilably divided over how aggressively the United States should work for Assad's removal.
Thursday's markup of a resolution condemning the violence in Syria, put forth by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Casey (D-PA), was the first real congressional debate over U.S. policy in Syria since protests broke out there more than a year ago. It was a heated debate, and by the time the dust settled, half of the Republicans on the committee joined with the Democrats to insist that Congress call on Assad to step down, overruling the other half of the Republicans on the panel, who argued that such language should be scuttled from the resolution.
Rubio, in a speech Wednesday at the Brookings Institution aimed at burnishing his foreign-policy credentials, explained that he was fighting against a growing isolationist trend in his own party. "I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left," he said.
Little did he know that his next battle with members of his own party on foreign policy would come only a day later.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) opened up Thursday's SFRC business meeting by warning of the dangers of Assad remaining in power.
"The stakes in Syria are very, very high. The prospects of a full-fledged civil war are very real," Kerry said, explaining that he will travel to the region during the next Senate recess, which begins tomorrow. "If Assad were to remain in power ... it would really mark a turning point in this Arab awakening and we would have a lot of difficulties dealing with that for a long time to come."
But as soon as Kerry started considering the Rubio-Casey resolution as introduced, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) objected to the paragraph that "calls upon the President to continue to provide support, including communications equipment to organizations in Syria that are representative of the people of Syria."
Corker wanted to make sure that Congress wasn't endorsing arms sales to the Syrian opposition, so the committee agreed to add the words "non-lethal" before "support." Corker also tried to make the resolution specify that no money would go to the opposition, but that was voted down by all nine committee Democrats and three of the nine committee Republicans: Rubio, Johnny Isaakson (R-GA), and John Barrasso (R-WY).
The real fireworks came when Corker tried to remove the line saying that the Senate "reaffirms that it is the policy of the United States that the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people cannot be realized so long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power and that he must step aside."
"I think it's odd to state as a national policy that we want to see Assad gone," Corker said.
Kerry pointed out that President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have all called publicly for Assad to go, so it already is national policy and the Senate would simply be endorsing that. Kerry offered to take out the phrase "he must step aside."
Ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) objected even to that. "I still feel that we should not include a reference to Assad in the paragraph," he said.
"For us to get into a situation where are making these sorts of judgments seems to be overstepping without really having a fundamental debate," said Lugar "We crept on this before during the Libya situation... and we've never really had a debate. The personalization of this resolution is not a good idea."
Rubio defended his resolution, stating he agreed with the administration. He was backed up by several Democrats, including Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
Durbin said that if the Senate passed a resolution weaker than the administration's position, the signal to the world would be that the United States is backing down. "Wouldn't this give some solace to Assad that he might be able to survive and continue?" he asked.
"Many thousands of people have been killed in Russia and China and even in Burma," Lugar responded. "The president could say [Russian President-elect Vladimir] Putin must go, or Chinese leaders, because they are committing crimes in Lhasa all the time. But we are not affirming that... This is a shift in making foreign policy that I am very uncomfortable with."
Kerry tried his best several times to find compromise language that would satisfy both sides, suggesting that the resolution call for a democratic transition decided by the Syrian people -- with the obvious implication that Syria's future would not include Assad.
"It's conceivable that diplomacy might create some transition process." Kerry said, referring to the gradual handover of power by President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. "Who knows?"
Menendez was having none of that argument.
"To somehow leave in vagueness that Assad, despite his slaughter, can somehow find a way to survive, is very difficult to accept," Menendez said. "Otherwise, it undermines the purpose and the power of these resolutions and sends the wrong message to the people struggling and dying."
Ultimately, Kerry gave up and called the vote and the committee voted 12-6 to keep the call for Assad to go in the resolution. Rubio, Isaakson, and Barrasso again joined the Democrats in the vote to scuttle Corker's amendment.
In the final vote to approve the resolution, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) voted in favor by proxy, making the final vote 13-6. Four Republicans voted for the resolution, five against. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) broke ranks with the Democrats and voted against the resolution by proxy.
"The committee is split on Syria but I think you'll find a different result when we get to the floor," Rubio told The Cable in a short interview. "I think there will be much more support for it from Republicans than the committee's vote reflected."
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Two top Obama administration officials said today that the diplomatic initiative to end the violence in Syria, led by U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, "is failing."
Under intense questioning during Thursday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, both Kathleen Hicks, the current deputy under secretary of defense for policy, and Derek Chollet, National Security Council senior director for strategy, said that the Annan plan was headed toward collapse and that new options for confronting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were being prepared.
Asked by the committee's ranking Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, if Assad had complied with the six points of the Annan plan for Syria, which charts a path away from violence toward political negotiations, Chollet acknowledged that violence is actually increasing.
"Do you believe the Annan plan has succeeded or failed?" McCain asked both officials.
"I would say it is failing," Chollet said.
"I would say it is failing and that Annan himself is extremely worried about the plan," Hicks concurred.
Annan lamented reports of increased violence Wednesday but said he still wanted to increase the number of monitors on the ground.
"If confirmed, this is totally unacceptable and reprehensible," said Annan."Equally, a credible political process is required if we are to sustain any long-term calm on the ground."
As The Cable reported last week, Chollet was added recently to the senior leadership of the Syria policy team and is coordinating the interagency process to look for a "Plan B" for U.S. policy for if and when the diplomatic initiatives break down.
Several times during the hearing, McCain complained that the United States was not leading in Syria, waiting for others to request more assertive action and hiding behind the excuse that there was no international consensus on the way forward.
"My view is that the United States is leading diplomatically," said Hicks, pointing to the Friends of Syria group of countries that meets periodically to discuss the issue as well as repeated action at the U.N. Security Council.
"Actually, we have not led the Friends of Syria, at least according to the Friends of Syria, because I have met with them, so that's not a fact," McCain said.
The Pentagon is planning for the possibility that the U.S. military might be called upon to participate in a mission to establish safe zones along the Turkey-Syria border, according to Hicks.
"We are doing a significant amount of planning for a wide range of scenarios, including our ability to assist allies and partners along the borders," she said.
But Chollet said that Turkey has not yet requested a discussion within NATO about setting up safe zones inside Syria, which would require military support. He added that if Turkey did request such a discussion, NATO would be obliged to take up the matter.
"I am unaware of any official or any serious discussions for that matter about how NATO might help Turkey in that regard," Chollet said.
McCain said that expanding the U.N. observer mission, which only has 15 people on the ground right now, would likely not solve the problem. He referred to Thursday's Washington Post editorial, "Where U.N. monitors go in Syria, killings follow."
The editorial noted reports that the Assad regime is sweeping into villages and towns as soon as the monitors leave, killing civilians and punishing those who are suspected of cooperating with the U.N. mission.
McCain was scolding and sometimes sarcastic about what he regards as a feckless U.S. Syria policy.
"I'm glad to hear that we are playing such a ‘leadership role'," McCain said. "I can guarantee you nobody in the Middle East thinks that. I can guarantee you that this is a shameful situation where people are being slaughtered. We are talking about economic sanctions and diplomatic sanctions. We should be helping these people."
Hicks has been nominated to be principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, succeeding acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, and Chollet has been nominated to be assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, succeeding Sandy Vershbow, who is now NATO's deputy secretary-general.
On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Alan Juppe raised the idea of intervening militarily against the Assad regime in Syria and said that the Security Council might have to consider a Chapter 7 resolution, which could authorize the use of force. "We cannot allow the [Assad] regime to defy us," he said.
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The White House is unhappy with the options it's been given on Syria and is searching for a new strategy for removing President Bashar al-Assad, The Cable has learned.
"There was a fundamental decision made at the highest level that we need a real Syria policy with more options for the president," one administration official with knowledge of the internal deliberations said. "Our allies were coming back to us and saying ‘What's your next move?,' and we were forced to admit we didn't have one."
The new push includes adjustments in personnel handling the portfolio. Before March, National Security Council Director Steve Simon headed up the internal interagency process. Now, multiple officials confirm that NSC Senior Director for Strategy Derek Chollet has been added to the leadership of the Syria policy team and has been coordinating the interagency process for several weeks. Simon, Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, State Dept. Special Advisor Fred Hof, and Ambassador Robert Ford are still very active on the Syria portfolio.
Simon, Feltman, and Hof have been traveling all week and will be with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris Thursday. There she will attend an ad-hoc meeting of foreign ministers where "core" members of the Friends of Syria group will confer on next steps.
Chollet, the former deputy to Anne-Marie Slaughter at the State Department's Policy Planning shop, has also been nominated to be the next assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, replacing Sandy Vershbow, who is now deputy secretary general of NATO. Chollet has taken on the day-to-day management of the interagency process while he awaits confirmation.
New options are now being considered internally, including another discussion of setting up buffer zones inside Syria, one administration official confirmed. The administration has also authorized direct contact with the internal Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and at least one State Department official has met with the FSA's nominal leaders in Turkey.
The rethink comes eight months after Obama explicitly demanded the Syrian leader's removal, saying, "The time has come for President Assad to step aside."
His administration is still struggling to come up with a way to make that call a reality.
There's a growing consensus inside the administration that the violence in Syria is not abating and that multinational diplomatic initiatives such as the plan put forth by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan are not convincing Assad to enter into a political process to transition to democracy, much less yield power and step down.
Clinton hinted Wednesday that fresh options are under discussion.
"We are at a crucial turning point," Clinton said, speaking from Brussels. "Either we succeed in pushing forward with Kofi Annan's plan in accordance with the Security Council direction, with the help of monitors steadily broadening and deepening a zone of non-conflict and peace, or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered."
The potential shift in U.S. policy predates the Annan plan, however.
Following a failed effort to convince Russia and China to endorse a resolution condemning Assad in February and the subsequent attempts to convince Russia to play a more constructive role following Vladimir Putin's election to the presidency in March, top levels of the Obama administration began exploring other options, according to multiple U.S. officials, congressional officials, and experts briefed on the discussions.
One administration official said that the hope that Russia could be convinced to reign in Assad has now faded, as has the notion that Turkey and the Arab Gulf states would be willing to bankroll the Syrian opposition and even arm the FSA while the United States largely confined itself to a diplomatic role.
The administration's position had been to look the other way while Arab states armed the Syrian opposition, but pledges of aid by Gulf states have not materialized and the Turkish government, which has committed to an anti-Assad position and is hosting the FSA, is waiting for the United States to chart a clear way forward.
"They are not thinking two steps ahead. That's why there is a demand for a plan B," the administration official said, referring to the White House. "The position they took at the last Friends of Syria meeting is not sustainable."
The United States has pledged $25 million in humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and communications equipment to the internal opposition. But lawmakers who met with internal opposition leaders last week said that they hadn't gotten that assistance.
"The most stunning, unsettling conclusion I drew from the leaders of the Free Syrian Army was that they have essentially got no help from anyone. They are literally running out of ammunition while Assad's forces are being resupplied by Iran and Russia," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable in an interview.
Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spent their Senate recess on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border, meeting with Turkish officials, FSA leaders, and refugees.
"What they want us to do is to lead. They want us to lead the Friends of Syria, who have given them increasingly sympathetic rhetoric but not the wherewithal to defend themselves," he said.
The Syrian internal opposition is buying weapons and ammunition on the black market at exorbitant prices and claims that large parts of the Syrian military are demoralized but are unwilling to break with the government until they see the opposition has real international support.
"They are all waiting for the U.S. to say ‘We're in this,'" Lieberman said.
There was at least one State Department official inside the McCain-Lieberman meeting with leaders of the FSA, Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh and Col. Riad al-Asaad, two U.S. officials confirmed. The FSA leaders asked the United States to provide RPGs, anti-aircraft guns, and ammunition. The FSA leaders also said they have proof that the Assad regime is using helicopter gunships to attack civilians in the city of Idlib, as apparently shown in this YouTube video.
Turkish officials told McCain and Lieberman that they were willing to let weapons flow over their borders and consider other more aggressive steps to help the internal Syrian opposition, but that they won't do so unless Washington leads the way.
The Turks told the senators there are currently 25,000 registered Syrian refugees in southern Turkey, although the registrations have not kept pace with the flow of refugees across the border so the actual number could be much higher. The Turks also said that if the refugee total tops 50,000, they will require help.
"They Turks want American leadership and they know American leadership is totally absent. The Turks say they may -- if this flood of refugees continues -- they may need international assistance," McCain said. "Every place we talked to, they want American leadership. It's just disgraceful that they haven't acted so far."
The administration official explained that the White House does not want to become so heavily involved in the Syria conflict, for example by directly arming opposition fighters, because it puts the United States on the hook for their success and would probably require increased levels of commitment as the conflict drags on.
"They've got this half-pregnant position that is offensive to the sensibilities of the people on the ground and confusing to the Turks," the official said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
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The international community should support a transition to democracy in Syria, but shouldn't arm the rebel fighters, Kurdistan regional President Massoud Barzani said in Washington Thursday.
"It's important that the future government of Syria be a democratic coalition that protects the rights of Kurds and all other Syrians," Barzani said at a Thursday speaking event at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
He said the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) supports whatever dialogue and negotiations that the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition may enter into and said that the safety and security of Syrian Kurds was a high priority. As for the Kurdistan National Council of Syria, a recently formed umbrella group representing Kurdish opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Barzani said the KRG would help, but not with weapons.
"We are ready to support them, but not with military support or providing ammunition ... It could be moral support, political support, financial support. And we will use our influence to help solve their problems," he said. "It would be good for them to enter into talks and negotiations so they can reach an agreement with the other groups of the opposition."
"What we see right now, neither the current government not the opposition have anything decreed to provide for the Kurdish people," he said. "But that issue is left to them, so whichever way they conduct their negotiations, we will support the outcome of their negotiations."
Barzani's comments were starkly different than those of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said this week that Assad "will not fall" and said he was against any process that led to the overthrow of the Syrian regime.
Barzani said he met with President Barack Obama twice and also met with Vice President Joseph Biden on Wednesday, and told them that Maliki is consolidating power in a dictatorial way. He said Obama and Biden reassured him that the United States would remain committed to cooperation with Kurdistan and committed to helping Iraqi solve its serious internal political problems.
"Iraq is facing a serious crisis ... it's coming towards one-man rule," Barzani said. "We have a situation in Baghdad where one man is the prime minister and at the same time he is the commander in chief of the armed forces, he is the minister of defense, he is the minister of the interior, and he is the chief of intelligence. And lately, he has been communicating to the head of the Central Bank that that should also come under the power of the prime minister. Where in the world can you find such an example?"
Barzani called for a multiparty, multiethnic process to address the issue of power sharing in Iraq. If that process fails, Barzani said he would hold a referendum in Kurdistan to determine the way forward. He implied, but didn't say explicitly, that that referendum would be for Kurdish impendence.
"The current status quo in Baghdad is in no way our option and we will not accept that as an option," he said. "Otherwise, we will be obliged to go back to the people and have the people make their decisions."
The Maliki government is reneging on its agreements that allow Kurdistan to sign its own oil contracts and is taking total control of Iraq's armed forces, according to Barzani.
"The new Iraqi army needs to be formed on the basis of being an army of the country, not the army of an individual," he said.
Barzani said he disagreed with former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's decision to publicly denounce Obama's selection of former NSC staffer Brett McGurk to replace Jim Jeffrey as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Allawi said McGurk was too close to Maliki to be objective.
"Had Allawi consulted with me, I would have told him not to issue that statement. He has been nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and he will implement U.S. policy," Barzani said.
Barzai also staunchly defended the innocence of fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, against whom Maliki's government has brought charges. Hashemi had been evading those charges in Kurdistan and is now in Saudi Arabia, though he has pledged to return to Iraq.
"He is still the vice president of Iraq. He has not been convicted, and this issue has been politicized," Barzani said, adding that Maliki had told him to help Hashemi escape Iraq, revealing the politicization of the issue.
"Why does Maliki send me a message so we should help him sneak out of the country? If he's a criminal, why should he be given that opportunity to sneak out? They wanted to show that everybody wants to respect the judicial system except for us."
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In an escalation of the United Arab Emirates' crackdown on foreign NGOs, the UAE government has detained foreign employees of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and is preventing at least one of them from leaving the country.
Late Wednesday, the director of NDI's Dubai office, Patricia Davis, an American, and her deputy director Slobodon Milic, a Serbian national, were stopped at the Dubai airport by UAE government authorities as they tried to leave the country, according to three sources briefed on the incident. Davis was eventually allowed to leave the UAE, but Milic was not. He was detained by authorities, and subsequently released but is still barred from leaving the UAE. The UAE government has also notified NDI that they plan to file criminal indictments against foreign NGO workers in the UAE for foreign interference in political affairs, the sources said.
"We understand that the deputy director for NDI in the UAE was briefly detained and then released. We are seeking more information from the government of the UAE on the matter," a State Department official told The Cable. "As the Secretary has said many times, we believe NGOs play a valuable and legitimate role in a country's political and economic development. They should be able to operate consistent with regulations and standards and without constraints."
"We will continue to support civil society in the UAE and across the region. NDI is a respected organization that has been working across the region and beyond to promote civil society development and democratic values. The State Department is a firm supporter of NDI's activities," the official said.
The move mirrors the actions taken by the Egyptian government over the past three months, which included barring over a dozen foreign workers from leaving Egypt -- including Americans working for NDI, the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Freedom House -- and subsequently indicting them on criminal charges.
The U.S. government paid $5 million in "bail" money to secure the March 1 release of American NGO workers trapped in Egypt, including Sam LaHood, the Cairo director of the IRI and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then waived congressional restrictions on the $1.5 billion of annual U.S. aid to Egypt, which would have required that the State Department certify that Egypt was moving toward democracy and upholding civil rights.
Several of the American NGO workers who were indicted by the Egyptian government were not in Egypt at the time, and the National Journal reported Wednesday that the Egyptian government has asked Interpol to issue international arrest warrants for those NGO workers. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is trying to convince Interpol to reject those requests.
The UAE government shut down and revoked the license of the NDI office in Dubai last week, just days before Clinton visited the region and raised the issue in a meeting with Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
"We very much regret it," Clinton said after the meeting. "We are as you know, as anyone who has visited the United States, strong believers in a vibrant civil society ... I expect our discussions on this issue to continue."
A U.S. congressional staff delegation has been in the UAE this week as well, and has been raising the NDI issue with both UAE and American officials on the ground. One congressional staffer in Dubai told The Cable Wednesday that UAE officials argued to the staff delegation that NDI was operating without a license, had no legal right to be operating in UAE, and was writing things that weren't true.
NDI Middle East Director Les Campbell said last week that his organization has no programs in the UAE, and the office "was simply a regional hub which supported programmes in places like Qatar and Kuwait."
The congressional staffers pressed the UAE officials to comment on the rumors that the UAE government was acting on behalf of the Saudi government, which is said to object to NDI's programs for Saudi women. But the UAE officials denied any knowledge of Saudi interference or pressure to the congressional staffers.
The staffer also said U.S. Ambassador to the UAE Michael Corbin downplayed the UAE government's actions in his meeting with the congressional delegation.
"Even more troublesome was [the U.S.] ambassador's statement in response to questions we raised about the shutdown in a meeting on Tuesday. He essentially suggested that it wasn't that big of a deal since NDI doesn't do any work in the UAE," the staffer said. "Moreover, he seemed to sympathize with their concerns given the changing situation in the Middle East and he characterized work that organizations like NDI do as ‘fomenting' political change."
Officials at NDI's Washington office and the UAE embassy in Washington declined to comment.
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The Obama administration is moving to provide direct assistance to the internal opposition in Syria for the first time, marking a shift in U.S. policy toward a more aggressive plan to help oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Last week, a group of senior Obama administration officials met to finalize a package of options for aiding both the internal and external Syrian opposition, to include providing direct humanitarian and communications assistance to the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable. This meeting of what's known as the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council set forth a new and assertive strategy for expanding U.S. engagement with Syrian activists and providing them with the means to organize themselves, but stops short of providing any direct military assistance to the armed opposition.
For now, riskier options, such as creating a no-fly zone in Syria, using U.S. military force there, or engaging directly with the Free Syrian Army, are all still off the table. But the administration has decided not to oppose, either in public or in private, the arming of the rebels by other countries, the officials said.
"These moves are going to invest the U.S. in a much deeper sense with the opposition," one administration official said. "U.S. policy is now aligned with enabling the opposition to overthrow the Assad regime. This codifies a significant change in our Syria policy."
The package of options will be debated by cabinet-level officials at what's known as a Principals Committee meeting as early as this afternoon, the two officials said. The principals could endorse the entire package or make some changes, the officials said, although the package does have the consensus of the interagency coming out of last week's Deputies Committee meeting.
The administration is planning to greatly expand its interactions with the external Syrian opposition, led by the Syrian National Council, as well as with internal opposition bodies to include Syrian NGOs, the Local Coordinating Councils, and the Revolutionary Councils that are increasingly becoming the de facto representation of the Syrian opposition. The Free Syrian Army works with these councils, but the administration is not ready to engage the armed rebels directly out of concern that they are still somewhat unaccountable and may have contacts with extremist elements.
As part of the new outreach, the State Department and USAID have been tasked with devising a plan to speed humanitarian and communications assistance to the internal Syrian civilian opposition, working through State's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) office. There is no concrete plan yet as to how to get the goods into Syria if the Assad regime doesn't grant access to affected areas.
"We're leaving State and USAID to work that out. That's the million-dollar question. We're working on that now," the official explained.
Meanwhile, the administration wants to bolster the new defense committee established by the SNC last week, hoping to solidify that body's prominence as the contact point for coordinating military and technical assistance to the rebels, if a decision is taken later to move in that direction. The FSA has rejected the SNC's defense committee as being part of its chain of command, but for now the Obama administration sees the SNC as a more credible organization with which to explore options to potentially provide military aid.
"The prevailing narrative is enabling the transition while keeping options open for reaching out to the armed opposition," the administration official said. "There is recognition that lethal assistance to the opposition may be necessary, but not at this time."
At last month's initial Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that arming the Syrian rebels was "an excellent idea," though there are conflicting reports as to whether and to what extent Saudi weapons and cash were already flowing into the country.
In preparation for the next Friends of Syria meeting in Turkey later this month, the Obama administration has decided not to openly oppose direct military assistance to the rebels as long as it comes from another country, not the United States, one of the administration officials said.
"The decision has been made at the next Friends of Syria meeting to not oppose any proposals to arm the FSA and we're not going to publicly or privately message on that," the official said. "We're not going to publicly or privately tell the Friends of Syria not to do this."
Inside the administration, there is still a consensus that U.S. military intervention in Syria is not wise at this time and there are still voices expressing hope that political transition could take place in Syria without all out civil war.
"It's more about what could be accomplished by intervening. So many questions haven't been answered," another administration official said, expressing the widespread internal uneasiness about involving the U.S. military in yet another war in the Middle East. "There's a chance we could get embroiled in a conflict. What does that do to our preparedness for other contingencies?"
Some in the administration still hold out hope that the Russians can be persuaded to play a more helpful role in Syria. But two officials confirmed that Russian arms deliveries to Syria are ongoing and one administration official said that the latest shipment included large amounts of advanced anti-aircraft missile systems, which are meant to help Syria repel any attempt to establish a no-fly zone.
"What that says is that the Russians are doubling down on Assad. They're preparing for the next step, which is the internationalization of the conflict," one administration official said.
For the critics of Obama's Syria policy, these moves represent a step in the right direction but still fall short of what is needed for the United States to halt the violence.
"I am encouraged the Obama administration is exploring steps to provide direct assistance to Syrians inside their country, but the incremental measures reportedly under consideration still do not come to grips with the fundamental reality in Syria, which is that Bashar al-Assad, equipped and resupplied by Iran and Russia, is now waging an outright war against the Syrian people, who are outmatched, outgunned, and urgently in need of decisive international intervention," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable today.
Lieberman, along with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) came out Monday in favor of a U.S.-led intervention in Syria to begin immediately.
"To me this should begin with medical and military assistance for the opposition, including tactical intelligence and weapons, and ultimately should include targeted airstrikes against Assad's bases and forces," Lieberman said. "The United States should help organize such support for the Syrian opposition, but it should be international and include our concerned allies in the Arab League, the GCC, NATO, and the EU."
Lieberman, McCain, and Graham will all have a chance to question the administration on these new moves Wednesday when the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joints Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment on the administration's internal deliberations.
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Airstrikes against Syria are tempting but ultimately not a good idea, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) told The Cable today, reacting to the Monday call for airstrikes from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), also first reported here.
It's not easy these days to be more hawkish than Ros-Lehtinen, but that's where McCain ended up today after he called for the United States to lead an international military intervention in Syria to halt the killing of civilians by President Bashar al-Assad.
"Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower," McCain said Monday. "To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country."
We caught up with Ros-Lehtinen, who has been vocally opposed to any outreach to the Assad regime since 2009, on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference, where she had just finished her appearance on a panel calling for more Iran sanctions.
Ros-Lehtinen told us she wants the United States to do more to stop the bloodshed there, but active military involvement at this juncture was just a bridge too far.
"Senator McCain's heart is always in the right place. He was right on Egypt and Libya. But I believe that we've got to get our allies involved and get them committed," she said. "So my heart agrees with him, but my head says no."
Ros-Lehtinen said the American people, following decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that seem to finally be winding down, are war weary.
"The American people and the constituents that I represent, they are cautious about getting involved in another military operation," she said. "I understand the humanitarian issues involved... But I hear people saying, ‘Who's going to enforce the no-fly zone? Who's going to do all of this? Is it always the U.S.?'"
Attacks on Syria now could also create a "domino effect" that could lead to a hot war with Iran, which considers Syria a client state, Ros-Lehtinen warned.
"Senator McCain has been right, but I worry the Syria operation may be harder because of its tie-ins to Iran and what will Iran do militarily," she said.
She said her committee will mark up a new Syria sanctions bill she co-sponsored with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) March 8. The bill imposes mandatory sanctions against persons that transfer or retransfer goods or technology that can aid Syria's efforts to obtain WMDs and their delivery systems. Further, the legislation mandates extensive sanctions, including asset freezes and a travel ban, on senior officials of the Syrian regime.
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One day before the AIPAC conference kicks off in Washington, an anti-Obama pro-Israel group is widening its criticism of President Barack Obama's record on Israel -- while the White House defends its treatment of the relationship.
The trailer for a new 30-minute video, entitled "Daylight: The Story of Obama and Israel," cuts together clips of Obama quotes and outside commentary to put forth the narrative that Obama has made statements and taken actions as president that have put him out of step with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters.
(UPDATE: Now you can watch the entire 30 minute video here.)
"We believe that that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines," Obama is shown saying, a reference to his May, 2011 speech, where he for the first time explicitly defined U.S. policy as supporting the 1967 borders with agreed swaps as the basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
"He didn't quite have a full grasp of what the full region looks like," conservative journalist Lee Smith is shown saying in the video. "This is not how you treat an ally."
The ad goes beyond the Israeli issue to suggest that the president is too solicitous of Muslim concerns. The end of the trailer shows Obama saying, "I want to make sure we end before the call to prayer," a clip from his town hall meeting with Turkish students in Istanbul in April 2009.
The video was produced by the group the Emergency Committee for Israel, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on its pre-AIPAC publicity campaign, including posters and billboards all over Washington that question Obama's commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"He says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Do you believe him?" the posters read. Then, next to a picture of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, it says, "Do they?"
ECI is run by executive director Noah Pollak and Michael Goldfarb, a former McCain-Palin staffer now working at the consulting firm Orion Strategies and as chairman of the board of the Washington Free Beacon, an new conservative website.
"Obama says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable," Pollak told The Cable today. "We hope he means what he says, but the recent statements from his administration, his contentious relationship with the Israeli government, and his consistent efforts to weaken congressional sanctions don't inspire confidence."
The ECI board is comprised of Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, Gary Bauer, who has endorsed Rick Santorum, and Rachel Abrams, the wife of former NSC official Elliott Abrams, and the author of the controversial Israel-focused blog "Bad Rachel." The group is also the only Israel-focused advocacy organization to have formed a SuperPAC in the run up to the 2012 election.
As part of its pre-AIPAC activity, ECI took out a full page ad in the New York Times yesterday calling out donors for supporting two liberal advocacy organizations in Washington, the Center for American Progress and Media Matters, and accusing those donors of "funding bigotry and anti-Israel extremism."
Pollak also said that the video, billboards, and ads happen to refute a pre-AIPAC interview Obama gave to The Atlantic, in which Obama expressed frustration with the attacks coming from conservative lawmakers and groups like ECI that claim he is not pro-Israel.
"Every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept," Obama said. "Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they've had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?"
"Obama said today he doesn't understand why there are questions about his record of support for Israel," Pollak said. "We think this movie will set the record straight, and remind pro-Israel Americans of the facts of this administration's failure to stand with Israel at some critical moments."
Here is the full video:
If the international community gave the Syrian rebels arms, communications equipment, and intelligence, that would help speed President Bashar al-Assad's removal from power, the top U.S. military official in Europe said Thursday.
Navy Admiral James Stavridis, Commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, told the Senate Armed Services that NATO is not doing any "detailed planning" for ways to aid the Syrian opposition or protect Syrian civilians. But under intense questioning from the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Stavridis admitted he believed that giving material aid to the rebels would help them get better organized and push forward the process of getting the Assad to step down.
"Yesterday the secretary-general of NATO, Mr. Rasmussen, told The Cable, quote, ‘We haven't had any discussions about a NATO role in Syria and I don't envision such a role for the alliance,'" McCain said, referring directly to our Feb. 29 exclusive interview with Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"Is it true that NATO is doing no contingency planning of any kind with respect to Syria, including for the provision of humanitarian and medical assistance?" McCain asked Stavridis.
"We're not doing any detailed contingency planning at this point, senator, and there's a reason for that. Within the NATO command structure, there has to be an authorization from the North Atlantic Council before we can conduct detailed planning," Stavridis said. The North Atlantic Council is the body charged with making NATO policy decisions.
After getting Stavridis to confirm he believes the Syrian crisis is now an armed conflict between government and opposition forces, McCain then asked Stavridis if the provision of arms, communication equipment, and tactical intelligence would help the Syrian opposition to better organize itself and push Assad from power.
"I would think it would. Yes, sir," Stavridis replied.
McCain contrasted NATO's reluctance to intervene in Syria with previous NATO missions to halt massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) seconded that comparison at the hearing.
"This does remind me of experiences we had in Bosnia and Kosovo in the '90s," Lieberman said. "It actually took quite a while for us to build the political will, both here and in Europe, to get involved there. And while we were doing that, a lot of people got killed, and the same is happening in Syria now. I hope it doesn't take us so long."
Just down the hall from the SASC hearing, two top State Department officials were giving an entirely different take on the efficacy of arming the rebels. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration just doesn't think that arming the Syria rebels is a good idea.
"We've been very hesitant about pouring fuel onto a conflagration that Assad himself has set," Feltman testified Thursday. "So we're very cautious about this whole area of questioning and that's why we have worked with this international consensus on political tracks, on economic tracks, on diplomatic tracks, in order to get to the tipping point we were talking about earlier."
As Ben Smith in Politico reported Thursday, the Syria issue has divided Congress on traditional party and ideological lines -- lines that were muddled during the debate over intervention in Libya because of internal Republican disagreement. Most GOP senators and leading congressmen, along with all the GOP presidential candidates, are urging the Obama administration to begin directly aiding the Syrian rebels now.
Leading congressional Democrats, to the extent they have commented on the issue, have been more reluctant to get more involved in the Syria crisis. House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told reporters Thursday, "If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try. Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
"It is critical that we all proceed with extreme caution and with our eyes wide open," SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said at the Thursday hearing. "There are serious questions to be answered about the Free Syrian Army, but it is not too soon to think about how the international community could shape its thinking or encourage restraint."
The debate in Congress over aiding the Syrian rebels will ramp up next week, with a March 6 SASC hearing with Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis and a March 7 SASC hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
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Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) asked all 435 members of Congress to join her at a meeting at the Syrian Embassy in Washington Tuesday, but in the end, she was the only one who attended.
"I invite you to join me, as Members of Congress, at the Syrian Embassy on Tuesday, February 28, 2012, to ask for an immediate cease-fire, a resumption of international mediation, and a peaceful end to this conflict," Jackson Lee wrote to all lawmakers Feb. 27. "We will show our support for the Syrian people and our rejection of the senseless killing of unarmed innocent civilians. This will be a strong diplomatic and symbolic gesture from the U.S. Congress to Syria."
"We will meet with the Syrian chargé d'affaires Zouheir Jabbour at 10:30 a.m. Together, we will express our disapproval of actions taken by President Bashar al Asad's troops against the people of Syria," read the letter, which identified Jackson Lee as the co-chair of Congressional Children's Caucus.
Jackson Lee attended the meeting, but no other lawmakers joined her, her spokesperson told The Cable.
Regardless, Jackson Lee considered the meeting a success because she was able to deliver a letter to Jabbour, this time as a "senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee," that questioned "whether the regime of President Bashar al Assad, whose actions unfortunately have veered into a realm ranging from undesirable to brutal, can handle a growing problem."
She made seven specific demands of Assad in the letter, namely that he: cease fire and cease the violence of the Syrian government, establish a safe camp for all woman and children, allow immediate access for the Syrian Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross, allow immediate access for Poland to remove Western journalists stuck in Homs as well as the bodies of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, allow the removal of all other wounded, make immediate provisions for the safe arrival of medical care and food, and "for President Assad to step down as President IMMEDIATEDLY." (Emphasis in original.)
Jackson Lee also handed Jabbour an identical letter to give to Assad himself, and another copy to give to Syria's Ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha. That copy might be tough to deliver because Moustapha suddenly moved to Beijing amid an FBI investigation into the embassy's alleged spying on Syrian Americans for the purpose of harassing them and their families.
So why didn't any other members of Congress join Lee? Despite the tough tone of her letter, some offices thought that Lee was simply grandstanding and that meeting with the Syrian embassy officials sent the wrong message at the wrong time.
"Essentially she's allowing herself to be used as a propaganda tool by the Assad regime," one senior congressional aide told The Cable. "It's hard to see how show your support for the people of Syria by legitimizing a regime that continues to brutalize them."
Fifty-six leading conservative foreign-policy experts wrote an open letter Friday to U.S. President Barack Obama calling on him to directly aid the Syrian opposition and protect the lives of Syrian civilians.
"For eleven months now, the Syrian people have been dying on a daily basis at the hands of their government as they seek to topple the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. As the recent events in the city of Homs-in which hundreds of Syrians have been killed in a matter of days-have shown, Assad will stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power," wrote the experts.
"Unless the United States takes the lead and acts, either individually or in concert with like-minded nations, thousands of additional Syrian civilians will likely die, and the emerging civil war in Syria will likely ignite wider instability in the Middle East."
The letter was organized jointly by the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, both conservative policy organizations in Washington, D.C. Signees included Max Boot, Paul Bremer, Elizabeth Cheney, Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, John Hannah, William Inboden, William Kristol, Michael Ledeen, Clifford May, Robert McFarlane, Martin Peretz, Danielle Pletka, John Podhoretz, Stephen Rademaker, Karl Rove, Randy Scheunemann, Dan Senor, James Woolsey, Dov Zakheim, and Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council.
The letter calls on Obama to immediately establish safe zones within Syrian territory, establish contacts with and provide assistance to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), give communications and logistical assistance to the Syrian opposition, and enact further sanctions on the Syrian regime and its leaders.
The letter comes one day before the first "Friends of Syria" contact-group meeting in Tunisia and on the same day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton in Washington.
On Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the government sponsored violence in Syria, but the letter argues that multilateral efforts to protect civilians in Syria have thus far failed.
"The Syrian people are asking for international assistance," it reads. "It is apparent that American leadership is required to ensure the quickest end to the Assad regime's brutal reign, and to clearly show the Syrian people that, as you said on February 4, 2012, the people of the free world stand with them as they seek to realize their aspirations."
Read the full letter after the jump:
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.