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.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
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.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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:
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford took to the U.S. Embassy Damascus Facebook page Thursday to explain the reasons for the closing of the embassy Feb. 6 and to offer new evidence that the Syrian regime is attacking civilians.
"First, like people around the world, my colleagues and friends are watching the video coming out of Homs and some of the other Syrian cities in the last days with horror and revulsion," Ford wrote. "I hear the devastating stories about newborns in Homs dying in hospitals where electricity has been cut and when we see disturbing photos offering proof that the regime is using mortars and artillery against residential neighborhoods, all of us become even more concerned about the tragic outcome for Syrian civilians." [emphasis in the original]
"It is odd to me that anyone would try to equate the actions of the Syrian army and armed opposition groups since the Syrian government consistently initiates the attacks on civilian areas, and it is using its heaviest weapons," he continued, in a not-so-veiled reference to Russian and Chinese diplomats, who made that very argument before vetoing the Arab League backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 4.
Ford also went into the reason behind the embassy closing, which he said was the most taxing day in his multi-decade diplomatic career.
"I left Damascus with immense sadness and regret-I wish our departure had not been necessary, but our Embassy, along with several other diplomatic missions in the area, was not sufficiently protected, given the new security concerns in the capital," he wrote. "We and those other embassies requested extra protection measures from the Syrian government, given the danger to both our citizens and the Syrian citizens that worked with and near us. Our concerns were not addressed."
Ford said he remains the ambassador and will work in Washington "to support a peaceful transition for the Syrian people." [italics original]
"We and our international partners hope to see a transition that reaches out and includes all of Syria's communities and that gives all Syrians hope for a better future," Ford wrote. "My year in Syria tells me such a transition is possible, but not when one side constantly initiates attacks against people taking shelter in their homes."
UPDATE: The State Department released a set of declassified satellite photos Friday as evidence the Syrian military is attacking civilians. Those photos can be found here.
U.S. Department of State
Tuesday marked Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's first official visit to Washington in 18 months and he made extensive rounds, meeting with State Department officials and a host of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
In the morning, Lieberman met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the first time since 2010. There were no official statements made after the meeting, but Lieberman told Haaretz it was a "very good" meeting that included a lot of substance. "We are waiting for Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions and we express our appreciation for the support of Israel," he said. "We appreciate the very crucial decision [by the Obama administration] of sanctions against Iran, and we continue to monitor it closely."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that the meeting spanned the gamut of issues, including U.S.-Israeli relations, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Middle East peace, Turkey, and Iraq... all in about 30 minutes.
"With regard to Iran, they talked extensively about the impact that the new sanctions are having and our efforts to work with countries around the world to wean them from Iranian oil and, obviously, our mutual commitment to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and to increase the pressure through these sanctions," Nuland said.
After Iran, the most oft discussed topic in Lieberman's Washington meetings was the new agreement between Fatah and Hamas, but Nuland said the State Department has not made a judgment on that agreement or what it will mean for the U.S. involvement in the region.
"They did discuss the fact that it's not particularly clear what this agreement will change. In particular, we still have President [Mahmoud] Abbas at the head of the government; we still have Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad responsible. And so frankly, any impact this may or may not have is unclear," she said.
That issue came up often in Lieberman's meetings on Capitol Hill Tuesday. After meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), Lieberman sat down with the triumvirate of Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
In a brief interview Tuesday with The Cable, Senator Lieberman said the Palestinian agreement was a major issue for him personally.
"Surprisingly, we didn't talk that much about Iran. The conversation was about the Hamas-Fatah agreement, Syria, and Egypt," Senator Lieberman said. "It's very troubling. Hamas is still on our terrorist list and still committed to the destruction of Israel... If this agreement means that Hamas and Fatah are together running the government, then it puts in real jeopardy American assistance to the Palestinian Authority."
Senator Lieberman also weighed in on reports that Fayyad will lose his position. "Fayyad has enormous credibility in the U.S. Congress, he has more credibility than any other of the Palestinian leaders," he said. "If he's gone, it's a real step backward."
He also said the portrayal of Foreign Minister Lieberman in the press, which sometimes includes accusations of anti-Arab racism, are not accurate. "The reality of the Avigdor Lieberman is better than his portrayal in the media. He's a thoughtful man, he has a big world view," Senator Lieberman said.
The Israeli foreign minister then sat down for lunch with several members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee before meeting one on one with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
In attendance at the HFAC lunch were Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA), Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Elliot Engel (D-NY), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Ted Deutsch (D-FL, whose chief of staff is named Josh Rogin), Dan Burton (R-IN), Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), David Rivera (R-FL), David Cicilline (D-RI), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), and Eni Faleomavaega (D-Samoa).
"We share your deep concerns about Iran, and I would appreciate your thoughts on how much time you believe there is before Iran enters into a zone of immunity," Ros-Lehtinen said at the top of the lunch meeting, before reporters were ushered out of the room. "On Iran, do you think the U.S. and Israel are on the same page, with regards to how much time we have left?"
We were told by multiple staffers that Iran dominated the discussion at the lunch but Lieberman said nothing new about Israel's intentions regarding striking Iran. (The lawmakers also served Lieberman a lunch of couscous and chick peas, traditional Middle Eastern fare, which struck some as odd considering he can probably get better versions of both foods at home.)
"Foreign Minister Lieberman made very clear the serious and present danger Iran presents to Israel, the region, and the world," Berman said in a statement. "It was clear that the Israeli government has not taken any option off the table vis-à-vis Iran."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Your humble Cable guy discussed the violence in Syria and the United Nations Security Council's failed effort last weekend to build international consensus on how to deal with the crisis on Monday evening's edition of the Rachel Maddow show with guest host Chris Hayes.
Take a look:
The Syrian people have the right to fight back against their government and the international community has several options to help them in that regard, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Saturday.
As the tempo and intensity of Bashar al-Assad regime's violence against civilian accelerates and the U.N. Security Council remains paralyzed, the United States and its partners are planning their next steps. As a press conference Saturday night at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, several members of the U.S. congressional delegation laid out several ideas under consideration for protecting the Syrian people.
"There are many different options as to how we can do that," said Kerry. "There are the early beginnings of a civil war taking place in Syria. And if the government is going to kill randomly, people deserve the right to defend and fight for themselves."
Kerry declined to specify what steps Washington might take to directly support the internal Syrian opposition or the Free Syria Army, the ragtag defectors who have taken up arms against Assad, but he warned the Syrian government and its supporters Russia and China that the United States would not stand idly by.
"Syria is not Libya," Kerry said. "But nobody should interpret that statement to suggest that it means that Syrian leaders can rely on the notion that they can act with impunity and not expect the international community to assist the Syrian people in some way."
He also insisted that there will be another round of negotiations on a Security Council resolution regarding Syria, despite the vetoes by Russia and China that followed last week's efforts to build world consensus on the way forward.
"I'm confident this will be revisited," Kerry said. "Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and Ambassador [to the U.N. Susan] Rice are prepared in a competent way to embrace Russian and Chinese concerns, but not in ways that would undermine the ability of the people in Syria to have their voices heard or to be oppressed or create a longer stalemate."
He continued: "I think that balance can be found, I'm confident it will be found. There will be another shot at the effort but it is really important for Russia and China, critical leaders in the world today [to join us]. They have an opportunity in the next days to step up and were inviting them to do so. I hope they will join us on such a critical statement with respect to rights of innocent people."
Speaking at the press conference in Munich Sunday night, congressional delegation leaders John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) laid out more specific ideas on how the international community can help the people of Syria.
"There's a lot we can do to provide moral support and to provide material support, along with Turkey and other nations, in assisting these people with medical care and other assistance," McCain said. "I do not know how Russia and China can represent themselves as members of the world community and still oppose a resolution that would help bring this bloodletting to an end."
Lieberman said he hopes some sense could be talked to the Russians and the Chinese and that the Security Council would work on another resolution.
"But if that doesn't work I don't think we can just stand by. I hope the international community and the U.S. will provide assistance to the Syrian Free Army in the various ways we can. I hope we will work with Turkey and Jordan to create safe havens on the borders of those two countries with Syria," Lieberman said. "What's happening in Syria today is exactly what we got involve in Libya to stop from happening.... I understand Syria is more complicated, but one choice we don't have is just to stand back and let the government kill people who are fighting for their own freedom."
Speaking on Monday in Bulgaria, Clinton laid out the most specific ideas to date about how the Obama administration plans to move forward on the issue.
"So what do we do? Well, faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future. We have to increase diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime and work to convince those people around President Assad that he must go, and that there has to be a recognition of that and a new start to try to form a government that will represent all of the people of Syria," she said.
The Obama administration will seek new regional and international sanctions against Syria and will try to expose those who are still funding and arming the regime, Clinton said. She also promised to increase contacts with the Syrian opposition and provide humanitarian relief to the Syrian people.
Clinton didn't, however, promise another run at the Security Council, indicating only that more diplomatic efforts were on the way.
"Over the coming days, I will be consulting closely with our allies and partners in Europe, in the Arab League, and around the world," she said. "So we will be consulting with the foreign minister here and others about what we can do to rescue this deteriorating situation before it's too late."
Now that Russia and China have vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria, what does the international community intend to do next and how will the situation play out? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said just now there's no way to know.
"We don't know what the endgame will be until we start the game," Clinton said at a press conference at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, just minutes before Russia and China killed the resolution put forth by Morocco and supported by the United States and several other security council members. "Asking what the end game is can't be answered until we actually start to bring about the changes that we think will be beneficial."
Clinton warned that more violence would be in the offing if the security council was not able to act immediately.
"The endgame, in the absence of us acting together as the international community, is civil war," she said. "The potential endgames, if we are serious about putting this kind of international pressure on the Assad regime, making it clear to the opposition that they should pursue their changes in a peaceful manner, is the possibility of the beginning of a transition."
Clinton said in the best case scenario, the situation in Syrian could be "similar to what we see now in Yemen."
"They (in Yemen) are going to have an election. They are going to have a chance to at least try to move forward," Clinton said.
She added that "military intervention has been absolutely ruled out and we have made that clear from the very beginning."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained about the lack of a clear post-resolution strategy for Syria in his remarks in Munich Saturday morning. He said clearly that without further changes to the resolution, Russia would use its veto power.
"We asked the Americans and the Europeans, ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well, in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said. "It's not a serious policy."
Despite those comments, Clinton expressed hope the resolution would pass - just before it failed.
"The draft on the table being considered as I speak gives full backing to a Syrian led process that will benefit the region and the world, and give the Syrian people the chance they deserve. We should act now," Clinton said at the Saturday press conference just before the vote.
Clinton said that during her long meeting with Lavrov Saturday, she told him she was willing to try to find ways to bridge the gaps between the draft resolution and Russian concerns. But following the meeting, it became increasingly clear there was no way to find consensus, so the U.S. and its allies decided to move ahead.
"I thought that there might be some ways, even at this last moment, to address a few of the concerns that the Russians had. I offered to work in a constructive manner to do so. That has not been possible and we are going forward, as we said we would," she said.
Russia and China are now complicit in the atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime, Clinton argued.
"It is difficult to imagine that after the bloodiest day yet in Syria, there are those who would prevent the world community from condemning this violence. And I would ask them, what more do we need to know to act decisively in the security council?" she said. "To block this resolution is to bear the responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria."
U.S. Ambassador to the U.S. Susan Rice said she was "outraged" at Russia and China's stance and Rice called the opposition to the resolution a "cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people."
MUNICH - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave opposing public speeches Saturday on what should be done in Syria, and then took their dispute behind closed doors in a heated bilateral meeting, in advance of Saturday's U.N. Security Council action in New York.
"As a tyrant in Damascus brutalizes his own people, the U.S. and Europe stand shoulder to shoulder," Clinton said in her speech at the 2012 Munich Security Conference. "We are united, alongside the Arab League, in demanding an end to the bloodshed and a democratic future for Syria. And we are hopeful that at 10 AM eastern standard time in New York, the security council will express the will of the international community."
Well, the 10 AM deadline has come and gone, but State Department officials insist the U.S. is committed to holding a vote on the latest draft resolution on the situation on Syria today, despite persistent Russian concerns over the text, which were outlined by Lavrov in his speech only minutes after Clinton left the stage.
Lavrov said that Russia stands by the Syrian people but not the "armed groups" in Syria that he alleged were contributing to the violence. He said Russia would not agree to any resolution that amounts to outside interference or presupposes the political outcome in Syria other than supporting a dialogue between the two sides.
"The problem is, the peaceful protesters have our full support, but they are being used by the armed groups, who create trouble. And this is reaching quite dangerous proportions," Lavrov said.
Lavrov said Russia had two main problems with the current draft of the resolution. He said the current draft resolution "left the door open to military intervention to the outside," because it does not include a Russian drafted statement that would explicitly say a military intervention is not authorized.
He also said the draft resolution seeks to prejudge the results of a national Syrian dialogue because it refers to the Arab League Initiative's report and says the process should follow the Arab's League's schedule for resolution of the transition of power in Syria.
"If this resolution is adopted and Assad doesn't go, we asked the Americans and the Europeans ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said.
"It's not a serious policy," he insisted.
Lavrov heavily criticized the Arab League monitoring mission and defended Russian arms sales to the Syrian regime, which continue to this day. Lavrov said the U.N. charter does not allow interference in internal domestic affairs and that without Russian support, any plan devised in the security council would not be viable.
The Cable asked Lavrov whether Russia was concerned about ending up on the wrong side of history in Russia by supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"We are not friends or allies of Assad," Lavrov responded, "We try to stick to our responsibilities as permanent members of the security council and the security council doesn't by definition engage in the internal affairs of states, it's about maintaining international peace and security."
The Cable followed Lavrov out of the conference hall and into his bilateral meeting with Clinton. Clinton was joined in the meeting by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher, NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder, and Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
A senior State Department official said the meeting went longer than planned, 45 minutes, and two thirds of that time was spent discussing the U.N. Security Council situation regarding Syria.
"The secretary and the foreign minister had a very vigorous discussion," the official said. "The secretary made clear that the U.S. feels strongly that the U.N. Security Council should vote today."
The official would not going into the details of the bilateral discussion on Syria but said it's safe to assume that Clinton and Lavrov did not resolve their differences over the way ahead.
"Foreign Minister Lavrov did not dispute the urgency of the situation and the action now moves to New York," the official said.
All three of the lobbying firms representing the Egyptian government in Washington, D.C., dropped Egypt as a client late Friday amid widespread criticism of the ruling military council's raid of U.S. NGOs in Cairo and its refusal to let American NGO workers leave the country.
The Livingston Group, run by former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA), the Moffett Group, run by former Rep. Toby Moffett (D-CT), and the Podesta Group, run by Tony Podesta, unanimously severed their combined $90,000 per month contract with the Egyptian government, Politico reported late Friday, quoting Livingston directly. The three firms had formed what is known as the PLM Group, a lobbying entity created to advocate on behalf of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in February 2011 after 18 days of massive street protests. According to the disclosure filings, Egypt has paid PLM more than $4 million since 2007.
The trio came under fire last week for circulating talking points defending Egypt's Dec. 29 raid of several NGOs working to train political parties in Egypt, including three organizations partially funded by the U.S. government. The groups had been working in Egypt for years without being technically registered with the government, but now stand accused of fomenting unrest against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been ruling the country since Mubarak's ouster.
"It is bad enough when the actions of American lobbyists conflict with U.S. national interests. It is far worse when their influence-peddling undermines American values, as the Egyptian government's lobbyists in Washington are doing in this instance," said Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) in a Jan. 24 statement. McCain is the chairman of the board of the International Republican Institute (IRI), one of the groups that had their Cairo offices raided. The other two groups were the National Democratic Institute, whose board is chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Freedom House.
The anger in Washington against the Egyptian government reached a boiling point when it was revealed Jan. 26 that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's son Sam LaHood, the head of IRI's Cairo office, had been barred from leaving Egypt by the government along with five other U.S. citizens.
"To have an American lobbyist lobbying for a government where these activities are taking place -- is there no shame in this town?" said Rep. Frank Wolf on Thursday.
On Friday, Sam LaHood told NPR that he and the other Americans trapped in Egypt could face criminal charges, lengthy trials, and years of prison time.
"If we are referred to trial," LaHood said. "The trial could last up to a year ... and the potential penalty is six months to five years in jail."
The lobbying groups buckled under the public pressure, recognizing that they couldn't influence the SCAF's actions in this case and that their association with the military council was harming their broader image. For years, these firms have been defending the Egyptian military's $1.3 billion annual aid package on Capitol Hill and lobbying for non-military aid to go through the government, and not directly to independent organizations as many democracy advocates urged.
The Cable reported that in late 2010, Bob Livingston personally called Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) to get him to kill a Senate resolution calling for greater respect for human rights and democracy in Egypt. Wicker placed a hold on the resolution and it died in the Senate.
Egypt's lobbyists were also responsible for negotiating an endowment the Egyptian government wanted from the Obama administration. But the Mubarak regime demanded the money be given with no annual Congressional oversight, and the negotiations broke down.
Congress did place new restrictions on military aid to Egypt in the most recent appropriations bill passed in December, as a way of pressing the SCAF to move faster toward handing over its executive powers to an elected government.
According to the legislation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must certify that the Egyptian government is living up to the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and that the SCAF is supporting the transition to civilian rule. Multiple congressional aides told The Cable Friday that the aid is now in serious jeopardy.
"Needless to say, this whole crisis is going to make it a lot more difficult for the secretary of state to meet the certification requirements to continue providing assistance to Egypt," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. "People up here are completely seized with this issue. They're putting their friends in a really awful spot."
Another senior Senate aide noted that the Obama administration is doing a lot of work behind the scenes to deescalate the crisis, which is threatening to do long-term harm to the official U.S.-Egypt relationship.
President Barack Obama brought up the raids in a call last week with SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, according to the White House. Clinton, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Lahood have been working the phones hard, calling contacts in Egypt to send strong messages and implore them to change course. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights Michael Posner was in Egypt on Jan. 26 and met with high-level Egyptian officials.
"Since the NGO raids in late December, the Obama administration has repeatedly provided paths for the SCAF to deescalate this crisis. Instead they keep escalating -- doubling down on a bad bet that, in the end, will prove ruinous to them," the Senate aide said. "Three weeks ago no one in Congress thought there was a chance in hell that aid to the Egyptian military could ever come under serious threat. It is now an increasingly and shockingly real prospect."
Ironically, McCain and Lieberman had been among the U.S. leaders most supportive of the SCAF and its role in maintaining stability during Egypt's fragile transition.
Many in Washington believe that the SCAF is being heavily influenced on this issue by one civilian Egyptian official, Fayza Abul-Naga, the minister of international cooperation and a holdover from the Mubarak era. In a speech this week, she disavowed the SCAF's previous promises to return the NGOs' raided possessions and cease harassing them as she lashed out at the American NGO groups.
Lorne Craner, the president of IRI, said in an interview Friday with The Cable that there is bad blood between Abul-Naga's ministry and the NGO groups. "Some people say that the people who used to get the money, for example the minister of international cooperation, resent the fact that they are not getting all of the funding," Craner said.
Meanwhile, the Americans and several of their locally hired staffers are enduring hours-long interviews as they await a possible arrest, which would only escalate the crisis.
"Things have gone from bad to worse," Craner said. "You start to think about Americans getting arrested on the streets of Cairo and sitting in a cage in some Cairo court ... And these are our allies."
UPDATE: On Sunday the Egyptian Embassy in Washington issued a statement claiming they dumped the PLM Group, not the other way around:
The Government of Egypt had decided to terminate its contractual relationship with the PLM Group. This decision was transmitted to the Group's principals on January 27th 2012 through an official letter, as the contract stipulates, that either party has the right to terminate the relation within a 60 days prior notice.
It is surprising that a distorted version of this fact is being circulated in some media outlets. It is equally disturbing that articles and media coverage of the issue were made without an attempt to contact the Egyptian Embassy to check the factual basis of the stories reported.
This Press Release attempts to clarify the situation in line with the official documents related to the matter including the letter of termination which was recently transmitted by the Embassy to the PLM Group.
The Cable has obtained a copy of the draft resolution on Syria currently being discussed inside the U.N. Security Council. It calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy and says additional measures would be taken if he doesn't comply within 15 days.
U.N. Security Council diplomats are meeting behind closed doors on Friday to discuss what's being called the Arab-European draft resolution on Syria. The Moroccan ambassador is presenting the draft resolution, which is designed to implement the recommendations of the Arab League transition plan laid out on Jan. 22.
The draft resolution condemns "the continued widespread and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities," demands that the Syrian government immediately put an end to all human rights violations, and calls on both sides to end attacks and violence immediately.
The resolution then lays out a political roadmap that matches the Arab League initiative intended to pave the way for a transition "leading to a democratic, plural political system" through the formation of a national unity government, the handing over of all presidential authority to Assad's deputy for a transition period, and then the holding of free and fair elections with international supervision.
Importantly, the draft resolution requests that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon report on the implementation of the resolution every 15 days and also directs the Security Council "to review Syria's implementation of this resolution [in] 15 days and, in the event that Syria has not complied, to adopt further measures, in consultation with the League of Arab States."
Representatives from the State Department and the U.S. mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland spelled out the broad goals the United States has for the final version of the resolution.
"We are looking for a resolution that reflects the commitments that the Arab League was seeking from the Syrian government, that -- in its November 2nd agreement, which unfortunately has not been lived up to by the Syrian side," Nuland said.
She indicated the United States was hopeful that Russia, which has been openly supporting Assad and sending him weapons, will work with the rest of the Security Council to produce a resolution that is strong and effective. Russia and China vetoed European resolution on Syria last fall and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Friday that Russia would veto any resolution that seeks to remove Assad from power.
"We continue to want to work with the Russians so that the whole U.N. Security Council is united in sending the strongest possible message to the Assad regime that the violence has got to end, and we've got to begin a transition," Nuland said.
President Barack Obama's administration has been delaying its planned $53 million arms sale to Bahrain due to human rights concerns and congressional opposition, but this week administration officials told several congressional offices that they will move forward with a new and different package of arms sales -- without any formal notification to the public.
The congressional offices that led the charge to oppose the original Bahrain arms sales package are upset that the State Department has decided to move forward with the new package. The opposition to Bahrain arms sales is led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), and also includes Senate Foreign Relations Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee chairman Robert Casey (D-PA), Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Wyden and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) have each introduced a resolution in their respective chambers to prevent the U.S. government from going through with the original sale, which would have included 44 armored, high-mobility Humvees and over 300 advanced missiles.
The State Department has not released details of the new sale, and Congress has not been notified through the regular process, which requires posting the information on the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) website. The State Department simply briefed a few congressional offices and is going ahead with the new sale, arguing it didn't meet the threshold that would require more formal notifications and a public explanation.
At today's State Department press briefing, The Cable asked spokeswoman Victoria Nuland about the new sale. She acknowledged the new package but didn't have any details handy.
Our congressional sources said that State is using a legal loophole to avoid formally notifying Congress and the public about the new arms sale. The administration can sell anything to anyone without formal notification if the sale is under $1 million. If the total package is over $1 million, State can treat each item as an individual sale, creating multiple sales of less than $1 million and avoiding the burden of notification, which would allow Congress to object and possibly block the deal.
We're further told that State is keeping the exact items in the sale secret, but is claiming they are for Bahrain's "external defense" and therefore couldn't be used against protesters. Of course, that's the same argument that State made about the first arms package, which was undercut by videos showing the Bahraini military using Humvees to suppress civilian protesters.
Regardless, congressional opponents to Bahrain arms sales are planning to fight back. Wyden is circulating a letter now to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating that Bahrain's government continues to commit human rights violations and should not be rewarded with U.S. arms sales.
"The Bahraini government has shown little progress in improving their human rights record over the last few months and in some ways, their record has gotten worse," Wyden told The Cable on Friday. "Protesters are still being hurt and killed, midnight arrests are still happening and the government continues to deny access to human rights monitors. The kingdom of Bahrain has not shown a true good faith effort to improve human rights in their country and the U.S. should not be rewarding them as if they have."
"Supplying arms to a regime that continues to persecute its citizens is not in the best interest of the United States," Wyden said. "When the government of Bahrain shows that it respects the human rights of its citizens it will become more stable and a better ally in the region; only then should arms sales from the U.S. resume."
That point was echoed by McGovern, who pledged to oppose any arms sales to Bahrain.
"The government of Bahrain continues to perpetrate serious human rights abuses and to deny independent monitors access to the country," McGovern told The Cable. "Until Bahrain takes more substantial and lasting steps to protect the rights of its own citizens, the United States should not reward its government with any military sales."
A State Department official declined to give specifics of the new arms package to The Cable but said that Bahrain was moving in the right direction.
"We have seen some important initial steps from the Bahraini government in implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's recommendations, but more needs to be done," the official said. "We urge the government of Bahrain to take action on the full range of recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation."
Cherif Bassiouni, the chair of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry that investigated the government crackdown on protests in 2011, recently said in an interview that the administration is not doing enough to pressure the Bahrain regime. "There is merit in naming and shaming and embarrassing, in pushing, in enlisting public opinion, domestic and international. This is not the style of Secretary Clinton or President Obama, and I'm not sure they are necessarily doing the right choice," he said.
Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told The Cable on Friday that the new sale will be perceived by both the government of Bahrain and those in the opposition as a green light for the government to continue its repression.
"In the broader picture of the Arab Spring, this further erodes the credibility of U.S. rhetoric about democracy and human rights in the region," he said. "Rewarding regimes that repress peaceful dissent with arms sales simply does not square with the administration's rhetoric. The administration can no longer afford to endorse the status quo in Bahrain."
Maryam al-Khawaja, the head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told The Cable on Friday that the sale of U.S. arms to the Bahraini regime sends the wrong message to the people of Bahrain, and the region in general.
"This message of ‘business as usual' will only strengthen the regime's belief that there will continue to be lack of consequences to their human rights violations internationally," she said. "At a time when the United States is already being criticized for practicing double standards when it comes to the so-called Arab spring, to the protesters in Bahrain, the U.S. selling any arms to the government of Bahrain is exactly like Russia selling arms to Syria. Bahrain has become the United States' test on how serious they are about standing against human rights violations, and they are failing miserably."
UPDATE: Late Friday evening, the State Department sent out a lenghty statement on the arms sales:
We are maintaining a pause on most security assistance for Bahrain pending further progress on reform.
During the last two weeks, representatives from the State Department and Department of Defense briefed appropriate Congressional staff on our intention to release some previously notified equipment needed for Bahrain's external defense and support of Fifth Fleet operations. This includes spare parts and maintenance of equipment. None of these items can be used against protestors.
This isn't a new sale nor are we using a legal loophole. The items that we briefed to Congress were notified and cleared by the Hill previously or are not large enough to require Congressional notification. In fact, we've gone above and beyond what is legally or customarily required by consulting with Congressional staff on items that do not require Congressional notification.
We have and will continue to use our security assistance to reinforce reforms in Bahrain. We have seen some important initial steps from the Bahraini government in implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's (BICI) recommendations, but more needs to be done. We urge the government of Bahrain to take action on the full range of recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation.
We will continue to consult extensively with Congress on this policy.
President Barack Obama's administration is working on the details of how it will implement crippling new sanctions against Iran, and the two senators who wrote the legislation warned the White House today not to water down the measures.
"We understand that the administration is drafting rules to guide the implementation of the law and we hereby seek to convey the legislative intent underlying certain terms and phrases in the amendment and to ensure that the positive developments that have occurred as a result of the amendment are buttressed by the administrative rules," wrote Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) in a letter today to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who traveled personally to Japan and China this month to discuss the issue.
The State Department has sent teams to several countries urging them to comply with the new measures imposed by the Menendez-Kirk amendment, but the administration's recent enthusiasm for the sanctions is at odds with their attempts to water down the sanctions language while it was going through Congress. The law would punish any country or bank that does business with the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), or with Iran's state-controlled oil sector.
That's why Kirk and Menendez, along with their allies, are now worried that the Obama administration will try to implement the rules in such a way that will allow some countries that refuse to stop doing business with Iran to wiggle off the hook, by delaying implementation for months or claiming that other countries' adherence is more robust than it really is.
Obama, for his part, has hailed his administration's success in establishing a broad-based coalition aimed at isolating Iran.
"When I came into office, what we had was a situation in which the world was divided, Iran was unified, it was on the move in the region. And because of effective diplomacy, unprecedented pressure with respect to sanctions, our ability to get countries like Russia and China -- that had previously balked at any serious pressure on Iran -- to work with us, Iran now faces a unified world community, Iran is isolated, its standing in the region is diminished. It is feeling enormous economic pressure," the president told Time in an interview released today.
The Menendez-Kirk letter list several concerns about the forthcoming rules, which could be unveiled as early as next week. Their two main worries are that the administration will allow countries to avoid being penalized by saying they have achieved "significant reductions" in their dealing with Iran, and that Obama will postpone implementation of the sanctions on national security grounds.
The implementation rules will define exactly what the term "significant reductions" means. Menendez and Kirk want the administration to use the same definition as was used for the last round of Iran sanctions, as dictated by the Comprehensive Iran Sanction, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), to avoid any confusion.
"To ascribe more variable terminology to the definition of ‘significantly reduced' would diminish the ability of countries to understand and comply with the amendment," the senators wrote. "An unevenly applied interpretation would also call into question the seriousness of the sanctions policy and send mixed signals to both Iran and our allies."
The senators' other main concern is that Obama will avail himself of the "national security waiver" found in the law to postpone implementing the new sanctions altogether for another 120 days. If he doesn't invoke this waiver, sanctions against countries that do business with the CBI could take hold Feb. 29. If Obama uses the waiver, he won't have to sanction any countries until late June, which tracks with the timeline the law specifies for the imposition of the oil-related sanctions.
The senators also don't think Obama should be able to waive all the sanctions with one stroke of the pen. They want him to have to waive sanctions for each country on a case-by-case basis. That's one of the things the forthcoming rules will address.
"We would welcome an opportunity to discuss these points with you prior to the publication of the final rule for the Menendez-Kirk amendment," the senators wrote -- a nice way to complain to the administration that they are not being properly consulted.
A senior Senate aide who works on the issue was more direct with The Cable.
"There's been little to no consultation or communication on this rule," the aide said. "There is growing concern that the administration may be moving toward a broad and non-specific definition for ‘significant reduction,' and the intention of the authors is that every bank that is in violation of the law would need its own national security waiver in order for the president to exempt them."
The actual rule writing is done at Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), run by Adam Szubin.
"The administration is hard at work drafting the regulations implementing the legislation. We are already using this law, in concert with our other efforts, to reduce Iran's access to oil revenue, both by working with our partners to significantly reduce their imports of Iranian crude and by impeding the CBI's ability to receive payment for whatever oil Iran is able to sell," a Treasury Department spokesman told The Cable. "We will continue our intensive engagement to ensure that the maximum amount of pressure is exerted by the international community against Iran's illicit nuclear program."
There will be at least one president speaking at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): Israeli President Shimon Peres. But President Barack Obama has yet to RSVP, although he has been invited to the March event.
"Israeli President Shimon Peres is among a growing list of prestigious speakers already confirmed to address this year's conference," reads a notice being sent out by AIPAC in the near future, obtained in advance by The Cable. "President Peres will be honored for his unparalleled service to his country during a special presentation. The Israeli president's presence at this year's conference will offer each of us an historic opportunity to see and hear from one of the Jewish state's founding fathers in what promises to be a uniquely memorable highlight of the conference."
Other famous speakers AIPAC is getting ready to announce include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), President of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former member of Congress Jane Harman, CNN Contributor Paul Begala, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Fox News contributor Liz Cheney, and editor of The Weekly Standard William Kristol.
Our sources report that although AIPAC invited Obama to speak, the White House has yet to say who it's sending. NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to break that news to The Cable today. Insiders think the administration might send Vice President Joe Biden, although it depends on whether the White House feels it need a boost with the Jewish community as the conference nears.
Last year, Obama gave a speech that many saw as an effort to smooth over tensions in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
One can safely assume no administration officials will be speaking at the Occupy AIPAC rally, being organized by Code Pink, which is set to bring together lots of anti-AIPAC activists to Washington in a protest right across the street from the AIPAC conference.
According to their website, one of the speakers at that event will be Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council. Contacted by The Cable, Parsi said, "I'm not speaking there."
Code Pink spokesperson Rae Abileah told The Cable that Parsi committed to speak at the event weeks ago but then cancelled last week, shortly after Code Pink announced his participation.
"Trita called us and said he forgot he had to attend his wife's family reunion on the West Coast that day, but he was really sorry and would do his best to help us find a replacement speaker," said Abileah.
We asked Parsi to confirm that but he didn't respond.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama is prepared to give the order to strike Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon if sanctions and international pressure prove ineffective, said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who just returned from a whirlwind trip around the region.
"[Obama] is definitely capable of ordering a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities," Lieberman told The Cable in a Friday interview. "Do I know that he will? No. But the Iranians and others will be foolishly mistaken if they assume that he will not in any circumstance order a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if the sanctions don't work."
"I don't know that the president will order a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities even if the sanctions don't work, but I know that he's capable of doing that and I believe he's prepared to do that," he said, adding that he doesn't think Obama would ever send ground troops to Iran.
Over the New Year's break, Lieberman visited Israel, Iraq, Tunisia, and Libya, and he said Iran was the number one concern of leaders in the region. In previous meetings, Israeli officials had focused almost entirely on U.S. red lines and their concern over whether Obama would really attack Iran if push came to shove, emphasizing that Israel would attack if the United States doesn't. But now the Israeli government seems more willing to let the sanctions strategy run its course, Lieberman said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview this week that Iran is beginning to show signs of cracking under the international sanctions regime.
"Not only do the Israelis believe the U.S. and the international community has to go through every economic effort to change the mind of the Iranian leadership, but now they believe it might actually work. They believe that the economic sanctions are having an effect on the Iranian economy and beginning to have an effect on the regime," he said.
Lieberman himself doesn't believe that the Iranian regime will ever transform into a constructive member of the world community, but he holds out hope that the sanctions, due to their effect on the Iranian people, could force the regime to rethink its strategy.
"The only thing the Iranian government cares more about than the development of their nuclear weapons is the survival of the regime," he said.
The Obama administration has been adamant that regime change per se is not the goal of U.S. sanctions. On Wednesday, a Washington Post article initially quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying "regime change" was the goal, but then was quickly corrected to say "public ire" was the sanctions' goal, not regime change. Today, a U.S. official told AFP that the goal of the sanctions was to "close down" the Central Bank of Iran (CBI).
When the Menendez-Kirk amendment -- which imposed sanctions on the CBI and eventually became U.S. law -- came up the Senate, the administration resisted the measure, warning it could harm the U.S. economy and aid Iran's economy. These days, the administration has changed its stance and is now embracing the sanctions.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner traveled to Japan and China this week to encourage them to cut off their dealings with the CBI, and the State Department instructed all of its ambassadors to meet with their host governments to explain the new law and express the administration's intention to enforce it.
Back in Washington, pro-sanctions senators aren't taking any chances that the administration might back off its newer, tougher stance vis-à-vis Iran. Congress is encouraging the EU to implement a full oil embargo, and the Senate plans to bring up a new round of Iran sanctions legislation for consideration as early as next month.
Lieberman and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also plan to introduce a new Senate resolution to express the sense of Congress that a containment strategy for Iran that falls short of doing everything possible to stop the Islamic Republic from obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.
"Now the Iranians are clearly hurting. We have to make clear to them that if they don't respond to the economic and diplomatic pressures, that containment is not an option. We're not going to just sit there and let them become a nuclear power," Lieberman said about his forthcoming resolution. "I think is a way for Congress of saying with all the options on the table, containment cannot be one [of the options]."
But isn't the Senate's action also directed at the Obama administration, to make it clear to the White House that Congress does not accept a containment strategy for a nuclear Iran?
"Yes, exactly," Lieberman said. "But the first target of the resolution is Iran."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
As the violence in Syria spirals out of control, top officials in President Barack Obama's administration are quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition, including gaming out the unlikely option of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and preparing for another major diplomatic initiative.
Critics on Capitol Hill accuse the Obama administration of being slow to react to the quickening deterioration of the security situation in Syria, where more than 5,000 people have died, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many lawmakers say the White House is once again "leading from behind," while the Turks, the French, and the Arab League -- which sent an observer mission to Syria this week -- pursue more aggressive strategies for pressuring the Assad regime. But U.S. officials insist that they are moving cautiously to avoid destabilizing Syria further, and to make sure they know as much as possible about the country's complex dynamics before getting more involved.
The administration does see the status quo in Syria as unsustainable. Bashar al-Assad's regime is a "dead man walking," State Department official Fred Hof said this month. Now, the administration is ramping up its policymaking machinery on the issue after several weeks of having no top-level administration meetings to discuss the Syria crisis. The National Security Council (NSC) has begun an informal, quiet interagency process to create and collect options for aiding the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.
The process, led by NSC Senior Director Steve Simon, involves only a few select officials from State, Defense, Treasury, and other relevant agencies. The group is unusually small, presumably to prevent media leaks, and the administration is not using the normal process of Interagency Policy Committee, Deputies Committee, or Principals Committee meetings, the officials said. (Another key official inside the discussions is Hof, who is leading the interactions with Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. allies.)
The options under consideration include establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya), according to the two officials, both of whom are familiar with the discussions but not in attendance at the meetings.
"The interagency is now looking at options for Syria, but it's still at the preliminary stage," one official said. "There are many people in the administration that realize the status quo is unsustainable and there is an internal recognition that existing financial sanctions are not going to bring down the Syrian regime in the near future."
After imposing several rounds of financial sanctions on Syrian regime leaders, the focus is now shifting to assisting the opposition directly. The interagency process is still ongoing and the NSC has tasked State and DOD to present options in the near future, but nothing has been decided, said the officials -- one of whom told The Cable that the administration was being intentionally careful out of concern about what comes next in Syria.
"Due to the incredible and far-reaching ramifications of the Syrian problem set, people are being very cautious," the official said. "The criticism could be we're not doing enough to change the status quo because we're leading from behind. But the reason we are being so cautious is because when you look at the possible ramifications, it's mindboggling."
A power vacuum in the country, loose weapons of mass destruction, a refugee crisis, and unrest across the region are just a few of the problems that could attend the collapse of the Assad regime, the official said.
"This isn't Libya. What happens in Libya stays in Libya, but that is not going to happen in Syria. The stakes are higher," the official said. "Right now, we see the risks of moving too fast as higher than the risks of moving too slow."
The option of establishing a humanitarian corridor is seen as extremely unlikely because it would require establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, which would likely involve large-scale attacks on Syrian air defense and military command-and-control systems.
"That's theoretically one of the options, but it's so far out of the realm that no one is thinking about that seriously at the moment," another administration official said.
Although the opposition is decidedly split on the issue, Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), earlier this month called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.
"Our main objective is finding mechanisms to protect civilians and stop the killing machine," said Ghalioun. "We say it is imperative to use forceful measures to force the regime to respect human rights."
Is the U.S. bark worse than its bite?
Rhetorically, the administration has been active in calling for Assad to step aside and emphasizing the rights of Syrian protesters, despite the lack of clear policy to achieve either result. "The United States continues to believe that the only way to bring about the change that the Syrian people deserve is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Dec. 21.
On Tuesday, Dec. 27, the administration hinted at stronger action if the Syrian government doesn't let the Arab League monitors do their work. "If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
The SNC, the primary organization representing the opposition, has been very clear that it is seeking more than rhetorical support from the United States and the international community. An extensive policy paper titled, "Safe Area for Syria," edited by SNC member Ausama Monajed, laid out the argument for armed intervention by the international community to aid Syrian civilians.
"The Syrian National Council (SNC) is entering a critical phase in the Syrian revolution whereby the hope of a continued campaign of passive resistance to an exceptionally brutal and unrestrained regime is becoming more and more akin to a suicide pact," the paper stated.
But Washington is uncomfortable acting in concert with the SNC: Officials say there is a lack of confidence that the SNC, which is strongly influenced by expatriate Syrians, has the full support of the internal opposition. U.S. officials are also wary of supporting the Syria Free Army, made up of Syrian military defectors and armed locals, as they do not want to be seen as becoming militarily engaged against the regime -- a story line they fear that Assad could use for his own propaganda, officials said.
There is also some internal bureaucratic wrangling at play. This summer, when the issue of sending emergency medical equipment into Syria came up in a formal interagency meeting, disputes over jurisdiction stalled progress on the discussion, officials told The Cable. No medical aid was sent.
For now, the administration is content to let the Arab League monitoring mission play out and await its Jan. 20 report. The officials said that the administration hopes to use the report to begin a new diplomatic initiative in late January at the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad and authorize direct assistance to the opposition.
The officials acknowledged that this new initiative could fail due to Russian support for the Assad regime. If that occurs, the administration would work with its allies such as France and Turkey to establish their own justification for non-military humanitarian intervention in Syria, based on evidence from the Arab League report and other independent reporting on Assad's human rights abuses. This process could take weeks, however, meaning that material assistance from the United States to the Syrian opposition probably wouldn't flow at least until late February or early March. Between now and then, hundreds or even thousands more could be killed.
There is also disagreement within the administration about whether the Arab League observer mission is credible and objective.
"This is an Arab issue right now, and the Arab League is really showing initiative for the first time in a long time," said one administration official.
"[The Arab League monitoring mission] is all Kabuki theatre," said another administration official who does not work directly on Syria. "We're intentionally setting the bar too high [for intervention] as means of maintaining the status quo, which is to do nothing."
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the administration was caught offguard by how the opposition became militarized so quickly. The administration's message had been to urge the opposition to remain peaceful, but that ship has now sailed, he said.
"We have a pretty strong policy of not engaging the Syria Free Army directly, because earlier it was agreed that peaceful protesters had the moral high ground over the regime and were more able to encourage defections," he said. "But there was no clear light at the end of that peaceful protest strategy. We assumed, incorrectly, that the civil resistance strategies used in Egypt and Tunisia were being adopted by the Syrian opposition, but that didn't happen."
Most experts in Washington have a deep skepticism toward the Arab League monitoring mission. For one thing, it is led by a Sudanese general who has been accused of founding the Arab militias that wreaked havoc in Darfur. Also, many doubt that 150 monitors that will eventually be in Syria can cover the vast number of protests and monitor such a large country.
The Assad regime has also been accused of subverting the monitoring mission by moving political prisoners to military sites that are off-limits to monitors, repositioning tanks away from cities only when monitors are present, and having soldiers pose as police to downplay the military's role in cracking down on the protesters.
"It seems awfully risky for the U.S. to be putting its chips all in on that mission," said Tony Badran, a research fellow with the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "There never was a serious mechanism for it to be a strong initiative."
Badran said that the Arab League monitoring mission just gives the Assad regime time and space to maneuver, and provides Russia with another excuse to delay international action on Syria.
"Now you understand why the Russians pushed the Syrians to accept the monitors," he said. "It allows the Syrians to delay the emergence of consensus."
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the administration is trying to balance the value of protecting civilians with the interests of trying to ensure a measure of stability in Syria.
"The biggest thing is extensive consultation with as many international allies as possible. That's another feature of this administration," said Katulis. "And when change does come to Syria, the Syrians have to own it."
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration first urged Senate leaders to compromise on new legislation that would sanction the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) -- but then came out today against that very compromise, angering and alienating a key Democratic Senate ally.
Two senior administration officials testified Thursday morning that the current bipartisan amendment to impose new sanctions on the CBI and any other bank that does business with them is a bad idea that could alienate foreign countries, make it more difficult to pressure Iran, and raise oil prices, which could actually help the Iranian economy.
The administration's strategy of working behind the scenes to change what's become the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions amendment, only to publicly oppose it today, angered several senators, including Robert Menendez himself. The New Jersey Democrat took seven minutes at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to chastise Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen at Thursday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting for asking him to negotiate on their behalf, and then criticizing the compromise he struck with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).
"At your request we engaged in an effort to come to a bipartisan agreement that I believe is fair and balanced. And now you come here and vitiate that agreement.... You should have said we want no amendment," Menendez said. "Everything that you have said in your testimony undermines your opposition to this amendment. The clock is ticking."
Menendez said he regretted working with the administration on the issue, and said that perhaps he should have just agreed to Kirk's original Iran sanctions amendment, which was more severe and provided the administration with less room to maneuver than the compromise amendment that is set to be voted on and passed in the Senate as early as tomorrow.
"This certainly undermines your relationship with me for the future," Menendez told the administration officials. He also urged for more drastic measures, such as a gasoline embargo on Iran. "If the Europeans are considering an embargo, we shouldn't be leading from behind, we should be leading forward."
The break between this Democratic senator, who is up for reelection next year, and the Obama administration comes two days after the administration sent three very senior officials to meet with senators to try to get them to scuttle the amendment. On the morning of Nov. 29, Treasury Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough called an emergency meeting on Capitol Hill, multiple Hill sources told The Cable.
They sat down with Sens. Kirk, Menendez, and SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA). The officials argued that the Kirk-Menendez would get in the way of their efforts to build a multilateral coalition designed to increase pressure on Iran, and they warned the amendment might cause severe disruptions to the world oil markets and therefore have negative effects on the U.S. economy. Kirk and Menendez flatly refused to back down, our sources said, while Kerry reportedly said exactly nothing in the meeting.
The officials' sentiments were echoed in a letter sent today to Senate leaders by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who we're told is personally invested in the administration effort to thwart the Kirk-Menendez amendment.
"I am writing to express the administration's strong opposition to this amendment because, in its current form, it threatens to undermine the effective, carefully phased, and sustainable approach we have taken to build strong international pressure against Iran," wrote Geithner. "In addition, the amendment would potentially yield a net economic benefit to the Iranian regime."
Geithner argued that because the Kirk-Menendez amendment would force foreign banks to choose between doing business with the U.S. or Iran, some might choose Iran and resist going along with American unilateral efforts, thereby helping the Iranian economy and hurting our own.
Menendez addressed that point by saying that the amendment allows the implementation of the sanctions to be waived if the president determines there's not enough supply in the world oil market, or if he determines a country is making progress in divesting itself from Iranian business relationships.
"So we basically say to financial institutions, do you want to deal with a $300 billion economy, or do you want to deal with a $14 trillion economy? I think that choice is pretty easy for them," Menendez said at the hearing. "So I find it pretty outrageous that when the clock is ticking, and when you ask us to engage in a more reasoned effort, and we produce such an effort in a bipartisan basis, that in fact you come here and say what you say."
One GOP Senate aide told The Cable today that while the amendment was crafted to avoid disrupting the world economy as much as possible, administration officials' warnings of economic consequences could have an effect of their own.
"The administration is going to spook the oil markets themselves in opposition to an amendment that would not," the aide said. "They could create their own self-fulfilling prophecy of driving up oil prices, so their strategy seems to be self defeating."
UPDATE: The Kirk-Menendez amendment passed the senate late Thursday by a unanimous vote of 100-0.
Vice President Joe Biden is in Baghdad right now on a surprise visit before he travels this weekend to Turkey and Greece.
Biden landed on Tuesday afternoon in Baghdad and is expected to hold meetings with top Iraqi officials about the future of the U.S.-Iraqi partnership. He will stay for two days, multiple news outlets reported.
"Vice President Biden has arrived in Baghdad, Iraq," his office said in a release. "While there, the Vice President will co-chair a meeting of the U.S.-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee. He will also meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, and other political leaders. The Vice President will also participate in, and give remarks at, an event to commemorate the sacrifices and accomplishments of U.S. and Iraqi troops."
On Friday, Dec. 2, Biden will arrive in Ankara, where he'll have meetings with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and lay a wreath at the Ataturk Mausoleum before continuing on to Istanbul. In Istanbul, Biden will attend a global entrepreneurship summit hosted by Erdogan.
National Security Advisor to the Vice President Tony Blinken told reporters on Monday that he expects Biden to discuss U.S. assistance in fighting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been attacking Turkish forces recently.
"The PKK is a common enemy of Turkey, the United States, and Iraq, and we expect to focus on that," Blinken said.
Blinken also said Biden hopes to discuss the situation in Syria, the upcoming meeting of Cypriot leaders in January, the war in Afghanistan, "and the prospects for progress in normalizing relations between Turkey and Armenia." He'll also meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Orthodox Christian Church.
Regarding Turkey's deteriorating relationship with Israel, Blinken said, "I suspect that that will come up."
"It pains us to see the two of them at odds because they're both such close partners of the United States," Blinken said. "And the bottom line is that improved relations between Turkey and Israel would be good for Turkey, good for Israel, and good for the United States and indeed good for the region and the world so that's something we will continue to encourage."
Biden will then travel to Athens on Monday, Dec. 5, where he will hold the administration's first meeting with new Prime Minister Lucas Papademos. He'll also meet with President Karolos Papoulias, as well as former Prime Minister George Papandreou, who heads the largest party in Parliament, and Antonio Samaras, who heads the second largest party.
But the Greeks shouldn't expect any direct financial assistance as they struggle with their fiscal crisis.
"I think the U.S. very much recognizes the sacrifices being made by the Greek people as they pursue this reform process and view the fiscal and structural reforms that have been agreed on with the European partners and with the IMF as critical," said Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs Michael Froman. "On the economic situation, the Vice President will be supportive of the overall reform effort and the package of measures that have been put in place by the European partners and by the IMF."
The State Department is still trying to convince Congress to restore funding for UNESCO, which was cut off after the U.N. cultural agency's members granted full membership to the Palestinians -- but there is little chance lawmakers will change the provision preventing U.S. funding.
State sent an unofficial memo to key congressional offices today titled, "How the Loss of U.S. Funding Will Impact Important Programs at UNESCO." The memo, which was passed to The Cable by a congressional source, argues that UNESCO programs will have to be cut back severely due to the loss of U.S. funding.
State Department spokespeople have said they are working with Congress in the hopes of amending the laws that cut off U.S. funds to any U.N. organization that admits Palestine as a full member, but there is broad bipartisan support for the funding cut-offs and no real congressional effort to change the law.
"The cut-off in U.S. funding may not directly affect extra-budgetary programs funded by other donors, but it will weaken UNESCO's presence in the field and undermine its ability to take on and manage such projects and programs," the memo stated (emphasis theirs).
UNESCO will lose $240 million of funding for fiscal years 2011, 2012, and 2013 -- roughly 22 percent of its budget -- and will have to scale down programs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, and South Sudan, the memo states.
The memo also lists several ways that UNESCO supports U.S. national security interests. These include "sustain[ing] the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring" and democratic values around the world, promoting nation-building in South Sudan, and encouraging Holocaust education in the Middle East and Africa.
Read the full memo after the jump:
White House advisor Dennis Ross, one of President Barack Obama's lead officials in handling the Middle East peace process and U.S. policy toward Iran, is leaving the administration and returning to the private sector.
"After nearly three years of serving in the administration, I am going to be leaving to return to private life," Ross said in a statement e-mailed to reporters on Thursday. "I do so with mixed feelings. It has been an honor to work in the Obama Administration and to serve this President, particularly during a period of unprecedented change in the broader Middle East."
He will leave the administration is early December. No replacement has yet been announced.
Ross' official title was National Security Council (NSC) senior director for the "central region," which gave him authority over not just the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but also placed him in charge of NSC officials who worked on Iran, India, and other issues. He said in his statement that he promised his wife he would be in government for only two years.
"We both agreed it is time to act on my promise," Ross said.
Ross actually worked for the Obama administration for almost three years, and resigned two days after Obama was caught on a hot microphone discussing with French President Nicolas Sarkozy their mutual frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"I cannot stand him. He's a liar," Sarkozy told Obama in what the two leaders thought was a private conversation at the G-20 summit in Cannes.
"You're fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day," Obama responded.
Ross worked on Middle East issues for every administration since Jimmy Carter, except for that of former President George W. Bush, and was often seen as the Obama administration's main interlocutor with the Netanyahu team. He reportedly clashed with members of the administration who focused on other aspects of the administration's Middle East policy, such as former Special Envoy George Mitchell.
He had originally been appointed in February 2009 as special envoy to the Gulf and Southwest Asia, a job located at the State Department and focused on Iran, but was moved to his NSC position in June 2009. While there, he had been working primarily on the Middle East peace process and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney praised Ross in a statement e-mailed to reporters on Thursday.
"Dennis Ross has an extraordinary record of public service and has been a critical member of the President's team for nearly three years," Carney said. "In light of the developments in the broader Middle East, the President appreciates his extending that by nearly a year and looks forward to being able to draw on his council periodically going forward."
A group of House lawmakers is making the case for continuing U.S. support to the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite the Palestinian bid to seek full membership in the United Nations.
"Maintaining U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority is in the essential strategic interest of Israel and the United States," wrote 44 lawmakers, all Democrats, in a letter today to House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee heads Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY). The letter was spearheaded by Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Peter Welch (D-VT).
Ever since the Palestinians began their statehood drive this summer, Congress has been attacking the $550 million of annual aid given to the PA by U.S. taxpayers. For fiscal 2011, Congress had already provided the Palestinians with about $150 million in direct budget support -- also known as cash -- but $200 million in security funding and about $200 million in humanitarian funding has been held up.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL ) released her hold on the security funding last week, but she and Granger are still holding up the non-security funding. Also, Congress is set to consider whether to allocate a whole new tranche of aid to the PA as part of the upcoming negotiations over the fiscal 2012 State and foreign ops spending bill. That bill could come up in the Senate this week or next, leading to a House-Senate conference behind closed doors to iron out a final compromise bill.
"We understand the developments that have led some to call for a suspension or termination of aid to the PA," the 44 lawmakers wrote. "However, these legitimate concerns must be weighed against the essential role that U.S. assistance to the PA plays in providing security and stability for Palestinians and Israelis as well as critical humanitarian relief to the Palestinian people - and the potential consequences if this assistance is terminated."
Currently, the House version of next year's foreign aid bill would terminate all aid to the PA unless the Palestinian government drops its statehood bid at the United Nations and enters into direct negotiations with Israel. The Senate version is less strict; it would only withdraw the funding if the Palestinians actually succeed in joining the United Nations, which isn't likely due to the U.S. veto power at the Security Council. The Senate bill would also give the president a waiver over cutting aid to the PA.
"The prospect of continued assistance depends on the actions of Palestinian leadership, which can choose to pursue a path of direct negotiations rather than a counterproductive and destabilizing push for statehood through the UN and affiliated agencies," Matthew Dennis, spokesperson for Lowey, told The Cable.
"The chairwoman takes the views of all members into consideration," said Matt Leffingwell, spokesman for Granger.
President Barack Obama's administration has been clear that it wants U.S. aid to the PA to continue, because the assistance impacts Israeli security. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, told The Cable last week that he agrees that aid to the PA is important but will fight to end it anyway because of the politics surrounding the issue.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
The Democratic lawmakers who are making the case for the aid, along with some non-governmental organizations such as J Street, want to make sure top appropriators know that there is some support for aid to the Palestinians in Congress.
"The Price-Welch letter puts down a marker that there is a difference of opinion on whether aid to the PA should continue in Congress," Dylan Williams, J Street's director of government affairs, told The Cable today.
Williams said that many of the letter's signers supported House Resolution 268, passed in June, which threatened to cut off aid to the PA if it continued to seek U.N. membership. But seeing as how the Palestinians were able to join UNESCO with overwhelming international support, forcing the United States to stop contributing to that organization, he said those threats no longer makes sense.
"The situation has changed since HRes 268 and the bid to keep the Palestinians away from the United Nations has failed," Williams said.
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