Iraq's national security advisor, Faleh al-Fayyad, said Monday that Qatar and other Arab countries, along with nongovernmental groups, are financing Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian jihadi group, with the acquiescence of Turkey.
"These are the same sources that finance al Qaeda," Fayyad said through a translator. "In times of crisis, some countries use al Qaeda; some countries make peace with al Qaeda," he said.
Fayyad and a delegation of Iraqi officials and members of Parliament are in Washington this week for meetings with top U.S. officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and other senior State Department and Pentagon officials.
Fayyad said his meeting with Biden was "very beneficial and useful." Iraq is hoping to bolster its relations with the United States, including via increased weapons sales and training, and attract greater investment from U.S. companies. The delegation is using this week's meetings to get acquainted with the Obama administration's second-term team.
Fayyad said that Turkey, Qatar, and other Arab countries had pushed the uprising in Syria, soon to enter its third year, toward armed conflict.
But the Iraqis were keen to stress that they bear no goodwill toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Fayyad said had caused a lot of suffering over the years in Iraq, and that they sympathized with the suffering of the Syrian people.
"Bashar al-Assad has hurt Iraq the same as Saddam Hussein," said Yassin Maijd, an Iraqi MP traveling with the delgation, noting the similarities of the two countries' Baath parties.
The Iraqis are especially concerned about the rising power of Jebhat al-Nusra, which the United States has designated a terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda in Iraq.
"Very frankly, elements of al Qaeda are very active in certain parts of Syria," Fayyad said, comparing Turkey's role of hosting and facilitating armed groups to that of Syria at the height of the insurgency in Iraq.
Fayyad noted that Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki had personally warned U.S. President Barack Obama that the conflict could drag on for two years or longer.
Iraq and the United States had previously had sharp differences over Syria, Fayyad acknowledged, but said that Obama's position on Syria -- which he described as pressure aimed at bringing the warring parties to the table -- is now "really good."
Fayyad said that Iraq is willing to cooperate with the international community to find a negotiated end to the conflict in Syria, but warned that Iraq would be less willing to do so if it is not included in the discussions and that it would not tolerate a government that included jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.
"We will not accept to have the noose around our necks and allow Syria to be divided along sectarian lines," Fayyad said.
Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said Wednesday that the al-Nusra Front that is rallying rebels in Syria is simply a rebranding of al Qaeda in Iraq and should be treated as such.
"The Assad regime's brutality has created an environment inside Syria that al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) is working hard to exploit. In an effort to establish a long-term presence in Syria, AQI is trying to rebrand itself under the guise of a group called al-Nusrah Front," Ford wrote in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat Wednesday. "By fighting alongside armed Syrian opposition groups, al-Nusrah Front members are seeking to hijack the Syrian struggle for their own extremist ends."
Ford's article comes one day after the State and Treasury departments officially designated the al-Nusra Front as an alias for AQI and thereby applied a range of U.S. sanctions on al-Nusra and its members.
"The al-Nusrah Front was formed by AQI and has pledged allegiance to its leader, Abu Du'a. Over the last year, AQI leaders have dispatched personnel, money, and materiel from Iraq to Syria to attack Syrian regime forces. Al-Nusrah Front has claimed responsibility for nearly 600 attacks -- in most major city centers. These acts, which have killed and wounded hundreds of Syrian civilians, do not carefully target the regime. Nusrah doesn't care if it kills civilians," Ford wrote.
The move also comes one day after President Barack Obama, in an interview with ABC, announced that the United States is formally recognizing the Syrian opposition council (formally called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. That announcement was expected to be made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today in Morocco at the Friends of Syria meeting, but she took ill and sent Deputy Secretary Bill Burns in her place.
The recognition is a political designation and is meant to both bolster the new council's legitimacy versus groups like al-Nusra and facilitate international aid to the Syrian opposition groups the United States does not consider terrorists. But experts note that the new council has a long way to go before it can show enough credibility to stand as the government in waiting to follow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"Experts and many Syrians, including rebels, say the move may well be too little, too late," the New York Times noted Tuesday. "They note that it is not at all clear if this group will be able to coalesce into a viable leadership, if it has any influence over the fighters waging war with the government or if it can roll back widespread anger at the United States."
Ford said that Syrians fighting Assad should reject help from al-Nusra, which isn't likely considering that it is supplying a host of weapons and fighters to the rebel cause, as the regime ups the stakes by employing Scud missiles, incendiary bombs, and even naval mines dropped from planes.
"Al-Nusrah Front has declared publicly its hope to impose an Islamic state. It rejects the very principles of freedom for which Syrians now are struggling. Al-Qa'ida's devastating violence in Iraq should give pause to any opposition member weighing the costs of affiliating with al-Nusrah Front. As the Syrian opposition works towards greater cohesion and continues pursuing their legitimate aspirations, the Syrian opposition must consider carefully from whom they accept assistance," he wrote.
The United States will increase its humanitarian assistance to the Syrian opposition, along with allied countries, but has no plans to directly arm the rebels or employ Western military assets to protect them from the Assad regime's assault from the air.
"We are looking at a quantitative, not a qualitative, difference in the aid we are providing," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told The Cable in a short interview in Manama, Bahrain, Dec. 8.
Despite that, Ford wants the Syrian rebels to identify with the West and not the al-Nusra Front and its allied groups inside Syria.
"The American people and our international partners stand with you during this struggle," he wrote. "This is your revolution, your country, and your future -- not al-Qa'ida's."
Syrian opposition leaders of all stripes will convene in Qatar next week to form a new leadership body to subsume the opposition Syrian National Council, which is widely viewed as ineffective, consumed by infighting, and little respected on the ground, The Cable has learned.
The State Department has been heavily involved in crafting the new council as part of its effort oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and build a more viable and unified opposition. In September, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a group of Syrian activists who were flown in to New York for a high-level meeting that has not been reported until now.
During the third and final presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama's Syria policy as a failure to show "leadership" in laying the groundwork for the post-Assad era and called for "a form of council that can take the lead in Syria."
In fact, over the last several months, according to U.S. officials and Syrian opposition figures, the State Department has worked to broaden its contacts inside the country, meeting with military commanders and representatives of local governance councils in a bid to bypass the fractious SNC.
Many in the SNC are accordingly frustrated with the level of support they've gotten in Washington. "The Obama administration is trying to systematically undermine the SNC. It's very unfortunate," one SNC leader said told The Cable.
But U.S. officials are equally frustrated with an SNC they say has failed to attract broad support, particularly from the Alawite and Kurdish minorities. The new council is an attempt to change that dynamic. Dozens of Syrian leaders will meet in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Nov. 3 and hope to announce the new council as the legitimate representative of all the major Syrian opposition factions on Nov. 7, one day after the U.S. presidential election.
The Obama administration sees the new council as a potential interim government that could negotiate with both the international community and - down the line - perhaps also the Syrian regime. The SNC will have a minority stake in the new body, but some opposition leaders are still skeptical that the effort will succeed.
The Qatar meeting will include dozens of opposition leaders from inside Syria, including from the provincial revolutionary councils, the local "coordination committees" of activists, and select people from the newly established local administrative councils.
"We call it a proto-parliament. One could also think of it as a continental congress," a senior administration official told The Cable.
U.S. officials and opposition leaders are calling the initiative the "Riad Seif plan," named after the former Syrian parliamentarian and dissident who was imprisoned after he signed the Damascus Declaration on respect for Syrians' human rights in 2005. He was released in 2011, beaten up by a Shabiha gang in Noember 2011, and finally allowed to leave Syria in June 2012.
Seif is central to the formation of the new council and is seen as a figure with broad credibility with both the internal and external Syrian opposition.
"We have to get [the internal opposition] to bless the new political leadership structure they're setting up and not only do we have to get them to bless the structure, but they have to get the names on it," the official said, noting that the exact structure of the council will be determined in Qatar, not before.
"We need to be clear: This is what the Americans support, and if you want to work with us you are going to work with this plan and you're going to do this now," the official said. "We aren't going to waste anymore time. The situation is worsening. We need to do this now."
Secretary Clinton's personal involvement came when she met with select members of the 80-member "Friends of Syria" group in New York, which included internal opposition figures and several foreign ministers from the Friends of Syria "core group" of 22 countries.
"The New York meeting was designed to tee up the idea that there has to be a new political structure, not just the SNC," the official said.
Two SNC leaders attended the meeting along with four representatives of the internal opposition, although only one such leader actually came from inside Syria. Of the other three, one traveled from Sweden, one from Jordan, and one from Kuwait. They all spoke briefly and then left the room while the foreign ministers discussed the road ahead.
"We wanted more [from inside Syria] but we couldn't get them out. The other people were chosen by people from the inside," the official said.
Even bringing that individual from within Syria proved to be a major undertaking, however, because he didn't have a passport. It took high-level intervention between the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The Syrian caught his flight to New York for the meeting -- but only at the last minute.
The U.S. government will be represented at the Nov. 7 Qatar meeting by Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who has been dealing with various opposition groups and weighing in on the composition of the new council, a senior administration official said. For example, Ford pressed for the council to have 50 members in order to include 20 representatives of the internal opposition alongside 15 members of the SNC and 15 other representatives of various Syrian opposition organizations.
The idea is also to create an eight- to 10-member executive body -- made up of technocrats who are not on the new council -- that would be able to work directly with foreign governments on a day-to-day basis on practical items such as the delivery and direction of humanitarian assistance.
"We could finally have an interface to say ‘The needs of this place are greater than the needs of people in that place, so please direct assistance here or there,'" the official said.
The U.S. government is coordinating with governments in Europe and the region to forge consensus on the way ahead with the political opposition inside Syria and outside, the official added.
The Turkish government has been wary of the new effort because it has been heavily invested in the SNC, and the new council intentionally puts the SNC in a minority position.
But Washington's relationship with the SNC has been deteriorating for several months, officials said, and the administration believes the Turks will ultimately come around to embrace the new body.
The mutual recriminations between the Obama administration and the SNC reached a tipping point over the late spring and summer, when two official visits by the SNC to Washington were canceled, one in May and one in July. The May meeting was canceled by the U.S. side because the administration wanted the SNC to visit Moscow first -- a visit that didn't go well, the official said. The July meeting was scuttled by the SNC itself.
But the SNC isn't going away. The group's leaders will hold their own meeting in Qatar on Nov. 3 to establish a new 15-member executive council and potentially a new president.
Other Syrian activists warn that the new council is far from a sure thing.
One external opposition activist with ties to military leaders inside Syria told The Cable there's a risk the Doha meeting could be only the latest example of the opposition's failure to coalesce around a common vision and plan for a post-Assad Syria.
"Right now, the opposition groups are very vague and there's no agreement on who's representing who and what and where," this opposition activist said. "Right now there is a lot of risk that this will be another failed approach that will not achieve anything."
But the Obama administration's efforts go beyond the attempt to stand up the new council.
Although members of Ford's staff have been in communication with representatives of the opposition Free Syrian Army for some time, in July, Ford made his first in-person contact with the FSA during a visit to Cairo. A special conference call was arranged earlier this month between Ford and several FSA commanders, the official confirmed.
The Obama administration is well aware of the growing influence of opposition military commanders and the effort by Islamist extremists, including groups linked to al Qaeda, to gain influence over the direction of Syria's burgeoning civil war.
"There's a rising presence of Islamist extremists. So we need to help these [military council leaders], the majority of them are secular, relatively moderate, and not pursuing an overly vicious agenda," the official said.
But the Obama administration remains reluctant to directly provide weapons to the FSA and has all but ruled out committing U.S. military assets to the fight, despite the hopes of many Syrian opposition figures that the Nov. 6 election will mark an inflection point.
"We are providing to the political opposition all kinds of assistance and we're going to ramp that up, as the secretary has said," the official said. "I don't think there's going to be a big change after the election."
TAMPA — Mitt Romney's topforeign-policy advisors said Thursday that the presumptive Republican nominee is not ready to support growing international calls for establishing a no-fly zone inside Syria.
"The governor has not called for a no-fly zone. Close friends of his such as Sens. McCain, Lieberman, and Graham have called for a no-fly zone for weeks. That is not a step that Governor Romney has made," senior campaign advisor Rich Williamson told The Cable on the sidelines of a foreign-policy event here at the Republican National Convention.
The Washington representatives of the internal Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army publicly called on the Obama administration to support a no-fly zone inside Syria this week. French President François Hollande said Monday that France would recognize a rebel government if the Syrian opposition declared one, and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian signaled support for a no-fly zone last week.
Williamson and other panelists at the event, hosted by the International Republican Institute, including former Sen. Jim Talent, former Sen. NormColeman, and former Rep. Vin Weberall heavily criticized President Barack Obama's handling of the Syria crisis over the last 18 months.
But the Romney team struggled to draw clear distinctions between its policy and what the Obama administration is already doing. For now, the Romney camp is sticking to its calls for arming the rebels directly but not using U.S. military assets inside Syria.
"If we had taken Romney's advice on working with the opposition to help organize them and help the moderates and help arm the opposition, we wouldn't be in the crisis we are in now," Williams told The Cable.
Romney would have not wasted time placating Russia at the U.N. Security Council and would have assembled a "coalition of the relevant" tosupport the Syrian rebels diplomatically, politically, and with weapons to fight the regime, Williamson said.
"When the U.S. has vital interests at stake, it's now going to play Mother-May-I with the Security Council ... as we've seen with the Security Council on Syria and the intransigence of Moscow," he said.
Coleman said that the Obama administration is "leading from behind" on Syria and that strategy hurts U.S. effectiveness across the spectrum of international issues.
"The challenge we're facing is that some of those folks in the coalition of the relevant are questioning U.S. resolve ... so the lack ofleadership has consequences that in the end make it more difficult to form the kind of coalitions we need to solve problems," he said.
"President Hollande has pointed in the direction that wehave wanted to go for a long time," Weber said. "You have to give him credit for providing leadership in a situation where the U.S. has not provided leadership."
Talent compared the situation to the international intervention in Bosnia and pointed to Bill Clinton's reluctance to intervene until the situation had dramatically worsened.
"When you're leading from behind -- and let's face it, that's what the administration has been doing -- you don't have control over events," he said.
Williamson acknowledged that the Obama administration is working with the opposition to vet rebel groups and help them organize, but said that a President Romney would have been doing so a long time ago.
"We appreciate the fact that only 13 months after Governor Romney suggested [working with the opposition], President Obama took his advice, but 17,000 people have died," Williamson said. "Allowing things to drift, holding your breath, crossing your fingers, and hoping things are getting better doesn't solve the problem. Where has the U.S. been? The answer unfortunately is missing in action."
The main group representing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Washington is calling for the United States and the international community to forcibly establish a partial no-fly zone in Syria for the first time since the 18-month revolution began.
The Syrian regime's increased use of air power to attack Syrian cities, combined with the increased control over land by the Syrian rebels, makes the idea viable, said Louay Sakka, co-founder of the Syrian Support Group (SSG), in an interview with The Cable.
The SSG is the main link between the U.S. government and the FSA and has emerged in recent months as the key organization in Washington dealing directly with the internal Syrian political and military leadership.
"This is right now the time for a no-fly zone to take place. We need to stop the fixed-wing and helicopters from attacking," Sakka said. "The regime cannot hold ground without air power or heavy artillery. Things have changed in many ways. The fighter jets cannot attack only the FSA; they have random targeting and that means a lot casualties: children, women, older people, people who have nothing to do with the fight, and they are dying in huge numbers."
The SSG's call for a no fly zone comes just as reports are surfacing that the Syrian military closed off the Damascus suburb of Daraya last week and began a brutal assault resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths. Some 30,000 Syrians fled to neighboring countries last week alone, pushing the external refugee total over the 200,000 mark, according to U.N. figures.
But an administration official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Cable that the White House is still resisting any move that would see U.S. military assets used inside Syria, such as through a no-fly zone, but opponents of intervention are slowly losing ground.
"It's a Donilon call at the end of the day," the official said, referring to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who is leading a complicated interagency policy process on the Syria crisis. "There's not enthusiasm but there are differences of opinion about a no-fly zone," the official said. "There is no rush to do it."
The Assad regime's lack of use of fixed-wing aircraft was cited internally as a reason not to declare at no-fly zone and that reason no longer applies, the official argued. Opponents of a no-fly zone have also argued that the Syrian internal opposition had not formally requested it. That reason is also no longer operative.
"There's a question of whether or not our government is willing to reject the request. Or they could take it into consideration for a long time," the official said. "There's a recognition that some decision has to be made. We are quickly reaching a turning point due to the escalation."
The official confirmed that rebels are taking a serious toll on the regime's armor in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, pushing the regime to rely more heavily on its air superiority and massive artillery bombardments.
"These local rebel groups are gaining in organization and territory but they are there's still a significant gap in their capacity to fight back against the 500-pound bombs being dropped by regime aircraft," the official said, but warned, "No other countries are going to go all in until they see what the Americans are going to do."
The French government is pushing the Obama administration toward a decision, as in Libya a year ago. French President François Hollande said Monday that France would recognize a rebel government if the Syrian opposition declared one, and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian signaled support for a no-fly zone last week.
Sakka said that based on his interactions with Obama administration officials, he believes that U.S. involvement in a no-fly zone is being seriously considered now.
"If we brought it up a few weeks ago [to the administration], their reaction was ‘Don't even think about it.' And now the reaction is ‘We're thinking about it,'" he said. "That's a good step forward. Now we're looking for them to move it from a plan to implementation."
Sakka acknowledges that a no-fly zone would include using foreign military assets to attack Syrian air defenses and perhaps even engage Syrian aircraft directly. Turkey and other countries are ready to move toward that if the United States would agree to the idea, and safe zones already established in Turkey could be expanded to include a 10-kilometer buffer zone along the border inside Syria, he said.
"We need an area inside Syrian soil that we know cannot be attacked by the regime. And that's what we think is doable... This is the minimum required at this stage," Sakka said. "It will be a big mistake down the road not to do this now before the amount of casualties is so big and the amount of destabilization happens that it spreads further outside Syria."
The SSG is working closely with the State Department, especially the office of Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, to increase the U.S. understanding of the internal Syrian opposition. The SSG is also helping various local rebel councils organize into a more coherent chain of command that can communicate effectively both among themselves as well as with outsiders, potentially tackling another key obstacle the United States says stands in the way of more robust and direct American support to the FSA.
The SSG's effort to become the conduit between the U.S. government and the FSA seems to be working. Earlier this summer, the State Department and Treasury Department changed policy to allow the SSG to send cash from the United States to the FSA -- cash the FSA can use for weapons despite the administration's refusal to directly arm the rebels.
One American politician urging intervention is Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who was in Paris last week and met with Le Drian, as well as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, National Security Adviser Paul Jean-Ortiz, Foreign Ministry Political Director Jacques Audibert, Hollande's military advisor, Gen. Benoit Puga, Eric Chevallier, the French ambassador to Syria, and members of the Syrian opposition based in Paris.
"I'm very encouraged by the discussions I had with the French leadership about Syria," Lieberman told The Cable from Paris. "As Assad has sharply escalated his use of attack helicopters and fighter aircraft against the Syrian people in recent weeks, there is an increasingly clear and compelling case for a limited no-fly zone. While this would require no U.S. combat forces on the ground, it could have a strategically significant impact by reinforcing the emerging rebel safe zones in northern Syria and allowing the opposition the space they need to organize politically and establish a transitional government on Syrian soil."
The administration team, which left Washington today, is being led by Acting Assistant Secretary Beth Jones and will include representatives from the Defense Department and the intelligence community. The trip is part of what the Obama administration has styled as its efforts to promote a change in the Syrian government outside of the U.N. Security Council, through interactions with like-minded countries and increased interactions with the internal Syrian opposition.
The meetings Wednesday represent the first implementation of the new arrangement with the Turkish government, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced following her Aug. 11 visit to Turkey. Reports from the trip said that Clinton had agreed to consider a no-fly zone and increase operational planning with the Turks, but this week the State Department sought to manage expectations about the "new" approach.
"[R]emember what the secretary committed to when she was in Istanbul, which was an interagency conversation, U.S. and Turkey sitting down together to share operational picture, to talk about the effectiveness of what we're doing now, and about what more we can do," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. "So this was not a bricks-and-mortar center. I don't want you to get the wrong idea. This is a bilateral conversation across the interagency."
Clinton made a point on her trip to Turkey of meeting with Syrian activists who operate inside Syria but she snubbed the Syrian National Council, which has set itself up as the main civilian body representing the opposition. Clinton did not meet with leaders of the Free Syrian Army, however.
"Our position on this one hasn't changed. We are providing nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition... but also, increasingly, training for those future leaders of the NGO sector, some of the types of groups that the secretary met with when she was in Istanbul," Nuland said.
Some of those activists have been complaining that they aren't getting the non-lethal assistance. A Washington Post report Monday said that activists were turning to the black market for gear because they hadn't received any satellite phones or other components of the $25 million the administration has authorized in non-lethal aid.
The Office of Syrian Opposition Support, which is in charge of the aid program, began working in June and has faced delays in getting the aid to the people on the ground, the Post reported. It is "fair to say that it's very much a work in progress. We are moving as aggressively as possible now that we have cleared many of the cobwebs in our own system and with our allies," Assistant Secretary of State Rick Barton told the paper.
Nuland defended the State Department's activity at Tuesday's briefing and suggested that the activists who spoke with the Post just happened not to be the ones getting the assistance.
"We are doing training on free media, countering the government's circumvention technology, legal and justice and accountability issues, and how to deal with the crimes that have been committed during this conflict, programs for student activists who are encouraging peaceful protest on the university campuses, programs for women," she said. "So we are extremely active, and if there are a few guys who are hanging out in Turkey who haven't actually gotten this stuff, it's because we're focused on the groups inside Syria."
The Treasury and State Departments announced Friday that the U.S. government is sanctioning Hezbollah for supporting the Syrian regime, even though the Lebanese militia is already sanctioned for being a terrorist group and the new announcement doesn't actually change those sanctions at all.
"This action highlights Hezbollah's activities within Syria as well as its integral role in the continued violence being carried out by the Assad regime against the Syrian population," Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen said on a Friday afternoon conference call.
He noted that Hezbollah is already sanctioned as a terrorist group, since 1995, for numerous terrorist acts including the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 Marines. Hezbollah has perpetrated attacks in South America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and various countries in the Middle East, and tried to carry out attacks in Azerbaijan, Egypt, Thailand, and Cyprus, Cohen said.
The Assad regime has given the group weapons, money, and safe haven for training camps, and now Hezbollah is repaying the favor by providing training, advice, and logistical support to the Syrian government, he said, especially in how to wage a counterinsurgency.
"Since the start of the unrest in Syria in early 2011, Hezbollah has directly trained Syrian government personnel inside Syria and has facilitated the training of Syrian forces by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qods Force," said Cohen. "Hezbollah has also played a substantial role in efforts to expel Syrian opposition forces from areas within Syria."
State Department's counterterrorism czar Amb. Daniel Benjamin said that Hezbollah is coordinating directly in Syria with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. He pointed to press reports that Hezbollah was behind recent terrorist attacks on Israelis in Thailand and Belgium, and accused the group of narcotics trafficking and international money laundering.
"Hezbollah believes that there have been sustained Israeli and Western campaigns against the group and its primary backers, Iran and Syria, over the past several years. And this perception is unlikely to change," he said. "Both [Hezbollah and Iran] remain determined to exact revenge against Israel and to respond forcefully to the Western-led pressure against Iran and Syria."
The Cable asked both officials if designating Hezbollah for sanctions, which freezes the group's U.S.-based assets and bars Americans from doing business with Hezbollah, has any added concrete effect if done twice. They said the added effect is in the court of public opinion.
"It will put the group in a more difficult situation, and, I think, will make them think long and hard before they continue this campaign in which the Syrian people are being brutalized. So we do see very concrete benefits coming from this designation," said Benjamin. "Whether they will be in the area of financial sanctions or not remains to be seen, but in terms of casting a bright light on what the group is doing, I think that's vitally important."
So the Treasury Department doesn't have to actually do anything to enforce the new designation it wasn't doing already, and Hezbollah doesn't feel any additional direct pain. Cohen said the Hezbollah's assets should already be frozen but there is additional impact in adding the new designation.
"The purpose of our designations, whether it's the Hezbollah action today or any of our other designations under our authorities, is not solely focused on the immediate financial impact, but as Ambassador Benjamin just expressed, to expose the activity of the party that is being designated for the conduct that has led to the designation," he said.
Benjamin said that the Obama administration hopes other countries will follow suit, not mentioning the European Union specifically, but he wouldn't say there is any indication other countries are planning any such announcement any time soon.
Cohen wouldn't comment on whether or not Hezbollah even has any assets in the United States in the first place.
"As noted before, to the extent that they are here, they should have already been frozen, and anyone who has Hezbollah assets in their possession is required to report those to OFAC. But beyond that, I can't comment," he said.
For those on Capitol Hill who are skeptical of the administration's sanctions and diplomacy-based approach toward pressuring the Assad regime to stop killing its own people, today's action seemed less than consequential.
"Today's announcement appears more about politics than policy, style more than substance," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. "This hollow designation may be pleasing to Obama strategists in Chicago, but it won't do a thing to help the people dying in the streets of Syria."
In a separate action today, the administration also sanctioned the Syrian state-run oil company Sytrol under the Iran Sanctions Act as amended by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act.
"These sanctions are because of transactions that Sytrol engaged in with Iran's energy sector, and I think the action we're taking today highlights the really serious concerns that the United States has about the close ties shared by the Iranian and Syrian regimes and the fact that we, the United States, are committed to using every tool available to prevent regional destabilization," a senior administration official said on a different Friday afternoon conference call.
How do you say "chutzpah" in Farsi?
The Iranian government wants the United States to ensure the safety of its nationals abducted by the Syrian rebels, but the Obama administration said Tuesday it's not responsible for their fate.
The State Department can't confirm the identity of the 48 Iranian hostages being held by Syrian opposition fighters in Damascus, who appeared in a YouTube video released over the weekend by the Free Syrian Army.
Three of the hostages have already been killed by Syrian military shelling, according to the rebels, who claim the group are members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. They are threatening to kill the rest if the Syrian government's assault on civilians in Damascus and Aleppo continues.
The Iranian government said that the men were pilgrims and that it had sent an official letter to President Barack Obama through the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Tehran, calling on the U.S. government to ensure their safety.
"Because of the United States' manifest support of terrorist groups and the dispatch of weapons to Syria, the United States is responsible for the lives of the 48 Iranian pilgrims abducted in Damascus," Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian quoted the letter as saying.
The Iranian government routinely refers to the Syrian rebels as "terrorists."
At Tuesday's State Department briefing, Acting Deputy Spokesman Patrick Ventrell turned the tables back on the Iranians.
"We cannot confirm the identity of those reported to be kidnapped, and ... the wider issue of us having deep concerns about Tehran's destructive behavior in Syria continues," he said.
The U.S. government wants everyone in Syria to know American is calling on both sides in the conflict to treat any and all prisoners humanely and in accordance with international law, said Ventrell, but he rejected the idea that the U.S. government is directly responsible for the Iranian hostages' fate.
"Well, that doesn't seem to make sense," he said. "And to us, it's just unconscionable that the Iranian government is ignoring the massacres of civilians in Aleppo and throughout Syria and instead finding new ways to try and prop up a regime who is killing many of thousands of its own citizens."
The U.S. government didn't even receive any letter, he went on, although the administration was aware that the charge d'affairs of the Swiss mission in Tehran had been called in by the Iranian government.
State's bottom line? Not America's problem.
"These are presumably Iranian citizens inside of Syria," Ventrell said. "We in the U.S. government are calling for them to be treated humanely, and we think that's the appropriate, principled stand to take, but beyond that I don't have anything for you."
Following three prominent defections this weekend, the State Department declared today that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is "crumbling," but can't say how, when, or what comes next.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Monday that the State Department is confident that reports are accurate that Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, a Sunni, has resigned his post only two months after being appointed and has fled to Jordan on his way to Qatar.
Combined with the defection of top Syrian intelligence official Colonel Yaraab Shara and the first Syrian cosmonaut, Major General Mohammed Ahmed Faris, who announced his defection from the Syrian army on YouTube on Sunday evening, all signs point to a regime collapse, Ventrell said.
"These defections ... indicate that the Syria regime is crumbling and losing its grip on power," Ventrell said. "We encourage others to join them in rejecting the horrific actions of the Assad regime and helping the Syrian people chart a new path for Syria, one that is inclusive, peaceful, democratic, and just."
Ventrell, who is filling in for regular spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who is traveling in Africa with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, didn't have any information on whether U.S. officials have been in contact with Hijab or any of the other defectors.
But a State Department official speaking on background said that it was the State Department's understanding that Hijab was not fired by Assad, as the Syrian government claimed, but rather that the Assad regime had "retroactively" fired him "to save face" after he escaped Damascus with his family.
"We don't have a crystal ball. We don't whether it's going to be days or week or how soon," the Assad regime will fall, Ventrell said, but he emphasized that the State Department was working hard to contribute to Syrian opposition-led planning for "the day after" the regime falls.
Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has completed his meetings in Cairo over the weekend with 250 opposition representatives to discuss that planning. And Clinton has added an Aug. 11 stop in Istanbul, where she will meet with Turkish leaders to coordinate next steps on Syria. Meetings with Syrian opposition leaders and civil society representatives in Turkey are possible but not yet finalized, a State Department official said.
Reporters at the briefing pressed Ventrell to say whether the administration still plans to adhere to the plan agreed upon by world leaders last month in Geneva, which calls for a transitional government established by "mutual consent" between the Assad regime and the opposition.
A new transitional authority to govern Syria after the Assad regime falls could include Assad regime members, both political and technocratic officials, but "those hardcore group of people, Assad and his cronies with blood on their hands, would not be part of that transition," Ventrell said. Beyond that, the transitional government should be formed by Syrians, he said.
The administration is not yet supporting the idea of "safe zones" inside Syria, as many in Congress are calling for, but Ventrell referred to Clinton's July 24 comments, when she said that safe havens are coming but declined to say whether the U.S. or the international community should have a role in establishing or defending them.
"We have to work closely with the opposition because more and more territory is being taken, and it will eventually result in a safe haven inside Syria, which will then provide a base for further actions by the opposition," Clinton said.
"And so the opposition has to be prepared. They have to start working on interim governing entities. They have to commit to protecting the rights of all Syrians -- every group of Syrians. They have to set up humanitarian response efforts that we can also support. They've got to safeguard the chemical and biological weapons that we know the Syrian regime has," she said.
"And there's a lot to be done, so we're working across many of these important pillars of a transition that is inevitable. It would be better if it happened sooner," she continued, "but we know we have some hard times ahead of us."
The Obama administration very publicly signaled a shift in its approach to dealing with the Syria crisis after negotiations broke down at the United Nations in mid-July.
But the actual details of that shift are still being debated internally and the administration's rhetoric has gotten out ahead of its policy, according to officials, experts, and lawmakers.
Those details are being discussed among a select group of top officials in a closed process managed by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, multiple sources told The Cable. Within that group, some officials are arguing for more direct aid to the internal Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army, that would help them better fight the Syrian military.
Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is pushing for such stepped-up measures and his team at the State Department is maintaining close contact with internal opposition groups, multiple administration sources said, including in meetings with opposition leaders this week in Cairo.
Other top officials at State, including Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Senior Advisor Fred Hof, are focusing more on developing diplomatic strategies with the external opposition and regional players such as Turkey.
At the Pentagon, the Syria and Israel teams have been working overtime to plan against contingencies and tackle the challenge of tracking Assad's chemical weapons and potentially responding to an instance of their use. The Washington Examiner reported July 21 that the Pentagon has set up a "Crisis Asset Team" to prepare for the regime's collapse and officials told The Cable that the Joint Chiefs of Staff is preparing worst-case scenario planning.
All this activity is taking place within guidelines handed down from the White House regarding the limits of what U.S. agencies can do inside Syria.
Two administration sources confirmed that the president has issued a finding allowing non-lethal assistance to non-violent groups inside Syria, which opens the door to more communications and intelligence help for the local councils, but closes the door on the idea of providing the Free Syrian Army with direct arms, military training, or other deadly assistance. It also closes the door on the idea of providing safe havens inside Syria using U.S. assets.
The White House wants to try to limit U.S. involvement in the crisis before the election, these administration sources said, in what one official said amounts to a "political lid," and the agencies are trying to come up with strategies to increase pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad within those boundaries.
The CIA, for instance, is reportedly aiding in the flow of arms from Gulf countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia by helping to vet arms recipients, as allowed by the non-lethal finding. The Washington Post's David Ignatius also reported that the finding allows the CIA to help the rebels with "command and control."
But some inside the administration are pushing for more.
"We're helping the rebels just enough to survive and maintain a level of momentum but not enough for them to combat the regime writ large," one U.S. official told The Cable.
The end of diplomacy
On July 19, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice declared that the Security Council "utterly failed" and that the United States would begin to work "with a diverse range of partners outside the Security Council" to pressure the Assad regime and increase aid to the Syria people. A front-page story July 22 in the New York Times subsequently reported that the administration had decided to abandon its quest for a new Security Council resolution instead boosting its direct aid to the internal Syrian opposition and focusing on strategies to "forcibly bring down" the Assad regime.
The Times reported that the White House was holding daily, high-level meetings focused on how to "manage a Syrian government collapse," but administration officials have been reticent to describe exactly how they intend to bring about Assad's downfall.
When pressed on the issue on July 24, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would not say if the United States would start providing the Syrian rebels increased assistance such as battlefield intelligence or logistical support.
"We are certainly providing communications that we know is going to people within Syria so that they can be better organized to protect themselves against the continuing assault of their own government," she said.
On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell also declined to specify any new initiatives to aid the internal Syria opposition when pressed repeatedly to identify the elements of the administration's new approach.
"We said from the day of that U.N. vote onward, we would accelerate every other part of our strategy and continue to work to get [Assad] to step aside so that this violence can stop. So all elements of that -- as I mentioned, these four tracks that include the accountability track, the support to the opposition, the humanitarian track, all of these have continued apace," he said.
"The next big leap"
The administration's shift in approach is more of a quantitative increase in the types of aid the U.S. was already providing, rather than a qualitative change that would see new categories of U.S. assistance inside Syria, analysts said.
"Thus far it's a creeping policy. It's now getting closer to giving lethal assistance to the internal opposition but still short of that. That would be the next big leap," said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Tabler warned that the administration's caution risks alienating the rebels.
"A non-lethal finding means that you can find out what's going on with these groups and help them but you can't do anything to actively help them overthrow the regime," he said. "But it's the guys with the guns who are going to control things on the ground, so you need to affect those groups, and that's hard to do that if you're not helping them and if they are angry that we didn't help them in their hour of need."
There are some signs that the administration is taking steps to aid the rebels indirectly. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control has issued a license for the Syrian Support Group, a Washington-based opposition group, to send money to the internal Syrian opposition
Rob Malley, Middle East director at the International Crisis Group, cautioned that there is still no appetite at the top levels of the administration for crossing the line into lethal assistance, even though the administration is happy to let others arms the rebels.
"It would be a greater sense of responsibility if U.S. weapons were in the wrong hands," he said. "It may be a distinction without a difference, but one that they are holding on to."
What the Syrian rebels really want are anti-aircraft weapons like Stinger missiles, but those are exactly the weapons the administration doesn't want to provide, said Malley. NBC's Richard Engel reported Tuesday that rebels in Aleppo had acquired a small shipment of MANPADS from Turkey.
The lack of direct U.S. support is creating a perception among the armed rebels that the United States is not on their side, Malley said.
“It’s certainly a perception among the Syrian people and the opposition that the U.S. and the West are content too see a weakened Syria without the regime being overthrown. The perception is almost iraguably false, yet the feeling is growing inside Syria that that’s an outcome that the west can live with,” he said. “For some in the Arab world Syria will be another argument in the case that American hasn’t done enough.”
That issue is at the heart of the argument made by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who said in a statement July 27 that the U.S. should be providing weapons, intelligence, and training to the Free Syria Army.
"Years from now, the Syrian people will remember that -- in their hour of desperation, when they looked to the world for help -- the United States stood idly by as brave Syrians struggled and died for their freedom in a grossly unfair fight," the senators wrote.
"If we continue on this path of inaction, a mass atrocity will surely unfold in Aleppo, or elsewhere in Syria. We have the power to prevent this needless death and advance our strategic interests in the Middle East at the same time. If we do not, it will be a shameful failure of leadership that will haunt us for a long time to come."
U.S. President Barack Obama has made his administration's successes against terrorist groups -- above all last year's killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden -- a central plank of his re-election campaign.
But according to the State Department's latest annual counterterrorism report, al Qaeda affiliates are gaining operational strength in the Middle East and South Asia, even though terrorist attacks worldwide are at their lowest level since 2005.
The report cited 2011 as a "landmark year" due to the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and other key al Qaeda operatives, and noted that the terrorist group's "core," largely based in Pakistan, had been weakened.
"I would not say that we are less safe now than we were several years ago, because the al Qaeda core was the most capable part of the organization by quite a lot, and was capable obviously of carrying out catastrophic attacks on a scale that none of the affiliates have been able to match," Coordinator for Counterterrorism Dan Benjamin said Tuesday at a briefing introducing the report.
Democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa also testified to the terrorist organization's decline, he said, though he offered a few cautionary notes.
"We saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful, public demands for change without any reference to al Qaeda's incendiary world view," Benjamin said.
"This upended the group's longstanding claim that change in this region would only come through violence. These men and women have underscored in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al Qaeda exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim majority nations."
Though AQAP benefited from the long and tumultuous political transition in Yemen, Benjamin said he expects the trend lines to go "in the right direction" under new president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Syria, on the other hand, remains a major cause for concern with no solution in sight. The New York Times reported Sunday that Muslim jihadists are "taking a more prominent role" in the resistance.
"We believe that the number of al Qaeda fighters who are in Syria is relatively small, but there's a larger group of foreign fighters, many of whom are not directly affiliated with al Qaeda, who are either in or headed to Syria," Benjamin said.
Iran remains the preeminent state sponsor of terrorism, according to the report, as its Lebanese client, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, is engaging in the most active and aggressive campaign since the 1990s.
Of the more than 10,000 attacks carried out in 70 countries, 64 percent occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but both Afghanistan and Iraq saw a decrease in the number of attacks from 2010.
In Africa, there was an 11.5 percent uptick in attacks, a result of Nigerian militant group Boko Haram's more aggressive strategies and tactics. Despite criticism from Congress, the Obama administration has refused to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization on the grounds that its attacks are not representative of its general ideology, though the State Department did designate three of its leaders terrorists in June.
The report also mentions the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated group attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan. On Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to pass a resolution urging the State Department to add the network to the list of terrorist groups, which would become effective with President Barack Obama's signature.
Republican nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney supports directly arming the Syrian rebels, but his surrogate and possible running mate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), says not so fast.
Rubio, a rising star on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, could add some foreign-policy chops to a ticket that is constantly being accused of being light on experience and competence in that department.
But on the major international issue of the day -- Syria -- Rubio and Romney just don't see eye to eye, because Rubio doesn't think it's a good idea to give the Syrian rebels U.S. weapons.
"The most important thing we can do in the short term is help them help themselves become a more effective fighting force and a more accountable one. And I think once that happens [arming the rebels]would be an option," Rubio said in a short Tuesday interview with The Cable.
"Where we could be most helpful to them is that we could be providing them with logistical support, medical support, and humanitarian support, which will allow them to become more cohesive in their fighting capabilities," Rubio said.
As it happens, that's the current policy of the Obama administration, although the administration has also decided to look the other way while Gulf nations send arms to the Syrian rebels, and some reports say that the CIA is even helping to vet rebel groups that might be recipients of those weapons.
Rubio even echoed administration's chief concern about the risks of sending U.S. weapons to the internal Syrian opposition, namely that there's no telling where the weapons might go and who might get their hands on them.
"Once they become more responsible and establish a chain of command so that the weapons aren't going to be used for ill-intended purposes and we know they have control over the supply chain, then I think we can explore arming the rebels," Rubio said.
In contrast, the Romney campaign has been clear that Romney supports the U.S. immediately and directly arming the Syrian rebels with U.S. weapons.
"[Romney has] said we should be willing to arm the moderate opposition. He's said repeatedly he'd be willing and support arming the moderate factions within the opposition," Romney campaign senior advisor for defense and foreign policy Rich Williamson said at the Brookings Institution last week.
Neither Romney nor Rubio supports the idea of U.S. established safe zones inside Syria to protect civilians there, as Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) advocate.
The Cable reported last week that most senators can't explain Romney's Syria policy because they are not familiar with it, and views among GOP caucus members are all over the map.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told The Cable that he supports safe zones but not arming the rebels, and that he just doesn't know how that jives with Romney's views. When asked about Romney's Syria policy, Cornyn said, "I don't know what it is."
Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images
As the crisis in Syria deepens, top senators in both parties are unable to explain presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney's policy on dealing with the country's deepening civil war.
Romney, who leaves Tuesday evening on a three-nation foreign trip, barely mentioned Syria in his foreign-policy speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Reno, and then only as a criticism of President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Russia.
"I don't know what it is," said Senate Armed Services Committee member John Cornyn (R-TX) when asked to comment on Romney's Syria policy. After The Cable explained it to him, Cornyn said he needed more time to study the issue. Other top senators were similarly befuddled.
On his campaign website, Romney criticizes Obama for reaching out to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the past but stops short of calling for any direct action to force Assad from power such as directly arming the opposition, as his surrogates like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) are demanding, or establishing "safe zones" for the Syrian opposition, as many of his campaign's foreign policy advisors are calling for.
"Mitt Romney believes the United States should pursue a strategy of isolating and pressuring the Assad regime to increase the likelihood of a peaceful transition to a legitimate government. We should redouble our push for the U.N. Security Council to live up to its responsibilities and impose sanctions that cut off funding sources that serve to maintain the regime's grip on power," the campaign website reads.
But the Obama administration is already pursuing a more aggressive strategy than that, announcing this week that it is abandoning the diplomacy track at the U.N. and ramping up various levels of support to the Syrian opposition. CIA teams are also reportedly vetting rebels fighters and aiding in their efforts to get weapons from countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Administration officials say that increased communications and intelligence assistance is also on the way.
Romney has said repeatedly that the United States should "work with partners" to arm the Syrian opposition but has stopped short of calling for Washington to give the rebels direct, lethal aid. On July 19, after the U.N. Security Council again failed to impose punitive measures on the Assad regime following Russian and Chinese vetoes, Romney again criticized the administration's policy without saying what he would do differently.
"Russia's veto again shows the hollowness of President Obama's failed ‘reset' policy with Russia and his lack of leadership on Syria," Romney said. "While Russia and Iran have rushed to support Bashar al-Assad and thousands have been slaughtered, President Obama has abdicated leadership and subcontracted U.S. policy to Kofi Annan and the United Nations. Under this President, American influence and respect for our position around the world is at a low ebb."
On Monday, Romney told CNBC, "I think from the very beginning we misread the setting in Syria... America should've come out very aggressively from the very beginning and said Assad must go. ... The world looks for American leadership and American strength."
On Capitol Hill, senior Republicans and Democrats alike were at pains to describe Romney's policy on Syria, much less say whether they supported it or not.
"I think we need to have a robust discussion about that," Cornyn said. "There's also the concern that Syria is much more difficult than Libya was, for example. So I think the discussions need to continue about what the appropriate response is. I'm interested in learning from others what their response is."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who admitted last week that he didn't know what Romney's Afghanistan policy was, couldn't name any specifics of Romney's Syria policy Tuesday and instead launched into a monologue about America's role in the world.
"Syria is a really complicated problem in a really complicated part of the world and anybody who says you can have a Syria policy separate and apart from the rest of your foreign policy doesn't know what foreign policy is made of," Kyl told The Cable. "I know that Governor Romney sees the complexities of the world and appreciates the need to have a strong America that has the flexibility to act in complicated and difficult and very troublesome situations like Syria."
Kyl declined to say whether he supported arming the Syrian opposition or establishing safe zones inside Syria, or whether he believed that Romney was supporting either option.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said he supported the administration's efforts to facilitate the movement of arms to the Syrian opposition and he believes the United States should work with Turkey and NATO to establish safe zones for Syrian civilians.
But Levin could not say what Romney's Syria policy was or whether it was substantively different from what the administration is doing now.
"I don't know what his position is and his positions change so frequently, it's hard to keep track," Levin said. "That doesn't mean that he doesn't have one, or that he doesn't have two or three for that matter."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable he has very specific criticisms of the Obama administration's Syria policy and very specific requests, namely that the administration use American military power to protect Syrian civilians and directly arm the opposition to help topple Assad.
"I'm pained every day that goes by and more and more Syrians get killed. We may be doing something through the CIA, but not a lot. Now the Syrians are using fighter plans and threatening to use gas," said Lieberman. "What I'd like to see is the Obama administration lead the coalition of the willing to go after the Assad regime directly, and I think that would end this pretty quickly."
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Now that the Syrian opposition has established control over territory on the ground, it's time for the United States to help establish "safe zones" inside Syria, a group of mostly conservative experts and former officials said Tuesday.
"We believe it is clear that multilateral diplomacy and non-military pressure, by themselves, will neither compel Assad to step down nor ensure that America's national security interests in Syria and the wider region are protected," read a new letter compiled by the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and sent to U.S. President Barack Obama Tuesday, obtained in advance by The Cable.
"America's national security interests are intertwined with the fate of the Syrian people and the wider region," the letter reads. "The longer we wait to act, the more others with interests contrary to ours will fill the void, limiting America's ability to ensure a multi-sectarian pluralistic Syria. We therefore believe it is long past due for the United States to adopt a strategy that will help the Syrian people to quickly end the Assad regime and actively promote order and stability after the regime's fall."
The letter was signed by 62 foreign-policy hands, most of them conservative. The list of signees includes several former Bush administration officials, such as Elliott Abrams, Karl Rove, Paul Bremer, Robert Joseph, and Douglas Feith, and several advisors to the Mitt Romney campaign, including Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, Robert Kagan, and Stephen Rademaker. Radwah Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council, also signed.
The signatories call on Obama to use military power to establish safe zones in already liberated areas of Syria to protect civilians there and to counter the threat of the Syrian regime using chemical or biological weapons.
"Such ‘safe zones' would serve as a destination for civilians fleeing violence. They would also provide the country's opposition groups-which have actively stood up to the Assad regime's relentless aggression, and bravely defended their cities, towns, and villages in the absence of decisive international action - a place to train, be equipped, and organize," the letter says.
The letter warns that America's inaction in Syria amounts to "complicity in oppression."
The safe zones would also help the United States and the international community coordinate and deliver nonlethal aid to the rebels and plan for the transition to a post-Assad government, the authors argue. A version of this idea was first proposed publicly by former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter in February, and then picked up by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in March; critics say the zones would be difficult to defend from a concerted ground and aerial assault.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the administration's approach in a speech Tuesday morning at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
"As the Assad regime continues its bloody assault on its own people despite crippling sanctions, condemnation, increasing political pressure, they have found support, primarily from Iran, Russia, and China," she said. "More than 100 other nations and organizations have made clear that Assad must step aside in order for a transition to begin."
The Obama administration is supporting the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, which is compiling evidence of serious abuses and violations of human rights, and the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, which is gathering evidence about the crisis, Clinton said. She also said the United States is increasing its aid to the opposition.
"This is a very complicated and difficult set of circumstances on the ground. And yet we know that the sooner it ends, the less violence there will be and the less chance for extremism to take hold," Clinton said. "But it will be unfortunate if indeed the Assad regime and those around him decide that it's an existential struggle for them and they will maintain and even increase the level of violent response."
Romney has not come out in favor of arming the opposition or establishing safe zones in Syria, but he has been highly critical of Obama's diplomacy at the United Nations and his administration's outreach to Russia on the issue.
"While Russia and Iran have rushed to support Bashar al-Assad and thousands have been slaughtered, President Obama has abdicated leadership and subcontracted U.S. policy to Kofi Annan and the United Nations," Romney said on July 19. "Under this president, American influence and respect for our position around the world is at a low ebb."
Read the full FPI/FDD letter after the jump:
For the last six months, 40 senior representatives of various Syrian opposition groups have been meeting quietly in Germany under the tutelage of the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) to plan for how to set up a post-Assad Syrian government.
The project, which has not directly involved U.S. government officials but was partially funded by the State Department, is gaining increased relevance this month as the violence in Syria spirals out of control and hopes for a peaceful transition of power fade away. The leader of the project, USIP's Steven Heydemann, an academic expert on Syria, has briefed administration officials on the plan, as well as foreign officials, including on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul last month.
The project is called "The day after: Supporting a democratic transition in Syria." Heydemann spoke about the project in depth for the first time in an interview with The Cable. He described USIP's efforts as "working in a support role with a large group of opposition groups to define a transition process for a post-Assad Syria."
The opposition leaders involved in the USIP project have been meeting since January and providing updates on their work to the Arab League, the Friends of Syria group, the team of U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, and the opposition Syrian National Council.
The focus of the group's effort is to develop concrete plans for the immediate aftermath of a regime collapse, to mitigate the risks of bureaucratic, security, and economic chaos. The project has also identified a few things can be done in advance to prepare for a post-Assad Syria.
"We organized this project along systematic lines, including security-sector reform," Heydemann said. "We have provided technical support for Syrian opposition participants in our project, and the Syrians have identified priorities for things that need to be implemented now."
He emphasized that USIP's involvement is primarily in a facilitation and coordination role. "The Syrians are very much in the lead on this," he said.
USIP intends to release a report on the project in the coming weeks that will serve as a transition strategy document to be used by the next government. The next phase is to stand up a transition support network "to begin to implement these recommendations about stuff that needs to happen now," Heydemann said.
In addition to security-sector reform, the group has come up with plans to reform the justice sector and a framework for the role of the armed opposition in a post-Assad Syria. The idea is to preserve those parts of the Syrian state that can be carried over while preparing to reform the parts that can't. For example, large parts of the Syrian legal system could be preserved.
The group has come up with a few innovative proposals to make the post-Assad transition less chaotic. One example Heydemann cited was the idea of mobile judicial review squads, which could be deployed to do rapid review and release of detainees held by the regime after it falls.
The project has also tried to identify regime personnel who might be able to play an effective role in the immediate phase after Assad falls.
"There's a very clear understanding of the Syrians in this project that a transition is not sweeping away of the entire political and judicial framework of Syria," Heydemann said. "We have learned an enormous amount about the participants so that we can actually begin a very crude vetting process."
The USIP-led project has been careful to avoid working to push the Assad regime from power.
"We have very purposely stayed away from contributing to the direct overthrow of the Assad regime," Heydemann said. "Our project is called ‘the day after.' There are other groups working on the day before."
The project has been funded by the State Department, but also has received funding from the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as Dutch and Norwegian NGOs. USIP partnered with the German Institute of International and Security Affairs, which is why all of the meetings have been held in Berlin.
The absence of Obama administration officials at these meetings, even as observers, was deliberate.
"This is a situation where too visible a U.S. role would have been deeply counterproductive. It would have given the Assad regime and elements of the opposition an excuse to delegitimize the process," Heydemann said.
He also said that none of the groups that fall beyond the mainstream of the opposition have any connection to the project, although the participants assume that Islamist politics will be a significant part of any future Syrian political order.
The idea is not to predict if, how, or when the Assad regime might fall, but rather to do as much as possible, as quietly as possible, to get ready for any contingency.
"Regime collapse offers one set of challenges; a negotiated transition offers another. Even if we are not certain a transition will occur, it would be profoundly irresponsible not to prepare for a transition," Heydemann said. "We are providing the opposition with an opportunity for the opposition itself to demonstrate its ability to undertake this work, which is actually quite significant."
The House of Representatives voted 407-5 Thursday to bar the Pentagon from spending any money on deals with Rosoboronexport, the main Russian arms broker that is also providing weapons to the Syrian regime.
The vote came in the context of the debate over the fiscal 2013 defense appropriations bill. Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) offered an amendment to the bill that says the Defense Department may not "enter into a contract, memorandum of understanding, or cooperative agreement with, make a grant to, or provide a loan or loan guarantee to Rosoboronexport."
"It is beyond unacceptable for the United States government to work with a firm that is arming the oppressive Syrian regime," Moran told The Cable. "The United States does not condone the massacre of innocent men, women and children. Furthering contracts with Rosoboronexport contradicts our nation's commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy."
Congressional outrage over the Pentagon's dealings with Rosoboronexport have been building since March, when 17 senators wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to demand an end to U.S. arms deals with the Russian firm.
Russia has supplied more than $1 billion of arms to the Syrian government since the unrest is Syria began, the senators wrote -- including four cargo ships full of weapons that have arrived in Syria since December. Rosoboronexport is Russia's official broker, serving as a middle man for all Russian foreign defense sales. It reportedly signed a new contract with the Syrian regime for 36 combat jets in January.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is in the middle of buying 21 Mi-17 dual-use helicopters from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan security forces. That $375 million deal was granted to the Russian arms broker through a sole-source contract that was never competitively bid, according to Wired. The administration has said Rosoboronexport was the only broker for the helipcopters, which the Afghan military needs.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who has been leading the congressional fight against Rosoboronexport, tried to add two related amendments to the Russian trade bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee July 18. One would have expanded the Magnitsky Act, a related piece of human rights legislation, to include those involved in transferring weapons to the Syrian government. Cornyn withdrew that amendment at the request of the committee leadership.
A second Cornyn amendment would have delayed the implementation of the U.S. granting Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status until the administration could certify that Russia had ceased providing the Syrian regime with lethal weapons. That amendment failed by an 8-16 vote.
On Friday, Syrian-American groups in Washington praised the House for moving to end the Pentagon's business with Rosoboronexport.
"The American-Syrian Council has been working hard to emphasize in Congress how important it is that the United States government send a signal to Russia that continued military support for the Assad regime is a red line" said Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a member of the council. "We will work to secure the necessary votes in the Senate and move quickly to have this DoD contract with Rosoboronexport terminated as quickly as possible."
Syrian refugees are pouring into neighboring countries at an alarming and increasing rate, outpacing the international community's ability to assist them, according to State Department and USAID officials.
"The violence is increasing ... and this increase in violence is, of course, leading to more people, and a larger number of people, that are inside Syria and that are along Syria's borders needing more humanitarian assistance," said Maria Otero, the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy, and human rights.
Otero just returned from Turkey and Jordan, where she met with government officials, nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, human rights activists, and youth groups. She traveled there with Kelly Clements, the deputy assistant secretary of State for the bureau of population, refugees, and migration;
Clements said that as of Thursday, between 117,000 and 125,000 refugees had fled Syria to seek refuge in neighboring countries and thousands more were pouring over the borders each day. 8,500 Syrians crossed the border into Lebanon in the last 24 hours, she said.
As of Thursday, there were about 42,600 refugees in the camps along the Turkish border, she said. In Jordan, there are 37,000 refugees, of which about 35,000 have been registered with UNHCR. In Lebanon, there are 32,500; in Iraq about 8,000.
"There are obviously many more Syrians that have crossed that border but have not availed themselves of the need for international assistance," said Clements, adding that in Lebanon, "those numbers are rising very, very rapidly."
There are also 1.5 million Syrians inside Syria need of urgent assistance, including 300,000 to 500,000 internally displaced persons, but aid workers are struggling to reach them.
"Inside Syria, lack of access due to violence by all parties remains the number one limiting factor for humanitarian assistance. International humanitarian agencies simply are unable to reach those most in need," Clements said.
Aid workers are also being harassed and captured, even killed.
"We know it's been widespread, and we know from organizations that we're working with that medical clinics, health professionals have been targeted. We also know people simply trying to get aid in to help people have been targeted, said Mark Bartolini, director of the office of U.S. foreign disaster assistance.
At the Syria Humanitarian Forum last week in Geneva, the U.S. announced another $6 million in assistance to international organizations dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, bringing the total U.S. commitment in 2012 to $64 million, Clements said.
The lobbying firm that brought you a Vogue story featuring the Syrian first lady was still trying to help the Syrian regime improve its image abroad two months after the notoriously ill-timed article was published and then scrubbed, as the country descended into violence, according to a document revealed by Wikileaks.
The international firm Brown Lloyd James (BLJ) was officially employed by the Office of the First Lady of the Syrian Arab Republic Asma al-Assad in Nov. 2010 for $5,000 per month to help arrange and execute the article, which appeared in the March 2011 edition of Vogue. The fawning piece, entitled, "Rose of the Desert," was actually scrubbed from the Vogue website out of embarrassment when Assad began a brutal crackdown on non-violent protests that month. But you can still read it here.
BLJ's contract with the Assad regime, signed by BLJ partner Mike Holtzman and Syrian government official Fares Kallas, expired in March of last year, according to documents posted on the Foreign Agents Registration Act website. The firm had claimed its work on behalf of the Assads ended in Dec. 2010.
But in May 2011, BLJ sent another memo to Kallas and the Syrian government, giving them advice on how to improve their image and institute a more effective public relations strategy amid the exploding violence in Syria. The memo was published by the Wikileaks website in their dump of 2.4 million Syrian documents this week.
"It is clear from US government pronouncements since the beginning of the public demonstrations in Syria that the Obama Administration wants the leadership in Syria to survive," begins the May 19, 2011, memo. "Unlike its response to demonstrations in some other countries in the region, there have been no US demands for regime change in Syria nor any calls for military intervention, criticism has been relatively muted and punitive sanctions -- by not being aimed directly at President Assad -- have been intended more as a caution than as an instrument to hurt the leadership."
The memo was sent only days after Syrian military forces stormed the town of Baniyas and moved into the cities of Hama and Homs, where civilian massacres soon followed. Three days before the memo was sent, 20 bodies of murdered civilians were discovered in a shallow grave in the city of Daraa. President Barack Obama called for Assad to step down that August.
The memo goes on to warn the Assad regime that the mood in Washington is turning against the regime, as evidenced by tougher statements coming from Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and increasingly critical stories in the U.S. media. BLJ warns the Assads that if they don't get smart about public relations quick, the U.S. system might just turn against them.
"[Increasing bad PR] not only reinforces the Administration's change of tone, it is emboldening critics -- who maintain that Syria's reform efforts are not sincere--and building up pressure on the US government to take further, more drastic steps against the country," the memo states.
BLJ then goes into an extensive set of recommendations for how the Assad regime can put a better spin on the largely government-led violence.
"[S]oft power is needed to reassure the Syrian people and outside audiences that reform is proceeding apace, legitimate grievances are being addressed and taken seriously, and that Syria's actions are ultimately aimed at creating an environment in which change and progress can take place," BLJ explains.
The Assad regime should appoint one figure to "own" the reform agenda to convince Syrians and the outside world the reform effort is "sincere," BLJ advised.
"Refocusing the perception of outsiders and Syrians on reform will provide political cover to the generally sympathetic US Government, and will delegitimize critics at home and abroad," the memo reads.
BLJ even recommends that First Lady Asma al-Assad should "get in the game," do a "listening tour" with the president, and start doing press interviews to create an "echo chamber" in the media that reinforces the idea that Assad is reform-minded.
"The absence of a public figure as popular, capable, and attuned to the hopes of the people as Her Excellency at such a critical moment is conspicuous. The key is to show strength and sympathy at once," BLJ writes.
BLJ also recommends that the Assad regime get more serious about containing negative media stories and the voices of the Syrian opposition around the world, which the memo calls "the daily torrent of criticism and lies." BJR told the Assads they should institute 24-hour media monitoring in the United States and challenge and then remove any websites that are "false."
Overall, the memo recommends that the Assad regime get smart on messaging and start trying to convince the world that the Syrian government is benevolent, that all killings by the military were not officially sanctioned, and that the crisis is not as bad as the international community believes.
"Efforts should be made to convey ‘normalcy' and a contrast to current news depicting Syria as being on the verge of chaos," the memo reads.
Contacted for comment by The Cable Friday, Holtzman said that their official work with the Syrian government came at a time when many, including the U.S. government, had high hopes for progress in opening up Syria. He also said that the May 2012 memo was a "last-ditch" effort "to encourage a peaceful outcome rather than violence."
Holtzman said that BLJ was not paid for writing the memo and that the firm hasn't done any work for the regime since. He framed the memo as an attempt to get the Assad regime to behave better.
"We noted that if the regime was serious about dramatic reform that ‘reform-oriented outreach must be dramatically improved', and recommended that Syria begin to directly ‘engage families and young people' in these reforms," Holtzman said. "Unfortunately, our advice was ignored and our professional involvement in the country ended, just prior to new U.S. sanctions being put into effect."
David Kenner contributed reporting to this article.
As a third round of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers ended conclusively Tuesday, Israeli vice prime minister and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz called on the so-called P5+1 to focus on stopping Iran's uranium enrichment during a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace.
"Such an agreement we didn't see in the last meetings," he said. "Not in Baghdad, Istanbul, and in Moscow ... [A deal] should be based on stopping all continued enrichment activity, removing all enrichment materials, and inspecting and dismantling all underground facilities, mainly Qom."
Mofaz, a former defense minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who was recently brought into Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, added that while now is the time for diplomacy and sanctions, Israel along with the United States and other Western countries should prepare all options.
"From my best view, the use of military power should be the last option, and if necessary should be led by the U.S. and Western countries," he said. "We should ask ourselves how much we would delay the Iranian program -- for how many months, for how many years -- and the second question is what will happen in our region the day after."
Diplomacy, though, is only good for so long, he stressed.
"When you say that this is the time for diplomatic activity and sanctions, it doesn't mean that you have two, three, or five years," he explained. "We have a limit of time, and the limit of time is until the Iranian leader will take the last step to having a bomb."
Mofaz also addressed the ongoing crisis in Syria, where well over 10,000 people have been killed and thousands more driven from their homes since the uprising began in March 2011.
"My expectations are that the Western countries should give humanitarian support to the Syrian people," he said. "We cannot be part of it, and it is clear why."
Mofaz was more optimistic about Israel's strained relationship with Turkey, which he believes will be resolved "in the coming months" because it is strategically necessary for both parties
On the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Mofaz says he does not support Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon's recently proposed program of coordinated unilateralism, in which Israel would not attempt to annex any territory east of the security fence and the Knesset would pass a law encouraging settlers to move to the other side of the fence.
Mofaz said that Israelis and Palestinians must "break the ice" and get back to the negotiating table. The future permanent border between Israel and a Palestinian state should be determined by the settlement blocs that house more than 250,000 settlers, he said, adding that Israel should continue to build in those blocs.
Syrian government forces continue to attack opposition forces, civilians, and aid volunteers, preventing the international community from getting emergency aid to the Syrian people, USAID has detailed in a series of internal reports obtained by The Cable.
In its latest "humanitarian update," written at the end of April, USAID reported in detail the extensive attacks perpetrated by Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) troops, despite an ongoing U.N. monitoring mission and in direct violation of the "cease-fire" there. The USAID report, marked "sensitive but unclassified," sourced its findings to U.N. representatives in Syria as well as representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), and other aid groups on the ground.
"U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan expressed concerns regarding reports of SARG reprisal attacks in areas where Syrian civilians met with U.N. observers, including in Hamah and Damascus governorates," the report stated. "The observers report that SARG forces have not withdrawn heavy weapons from urban centers -- a condition of the U.N. and Arab League supported ceasefire and peace plan that went into effect on April 12."
Although the U.N. Security Council has authorized the deployment of 300 monitors, the report could only confirm that "at least 11" U.N. monitors had arrived in Syria as of April 24. (Additional monitors have reportedly arrived since then.)
Meanwhile, USAID reported that government forces attacked an SARC vehicle April 24 that was evacuating wounded civilians in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, killing one aid volunteer and injuring three. Twenty-six aid workers were trapped in an SARC building following the attack and the SARC had to negotiate a temporary ceasefire between opposition and government forces to get them out, USAID reported.
Following a request from SARC, USAID contractors have suspended the deployment of mobile medical units that were providing health-care services in and around Damascus, the report said.
"In addition to emergency medical needs resulting from ongoing violence, a USAID/OFDA partner report increasing constraints on the availability of medications for chronic diseases, which are prohibitively expensive for Syrians without financial assistance," the report stated. "In addition, the U.N. World Health Organization representatives have expressed concern about the health of displaced Syrians in Jordan."
A USAID contractor is working to train Syrian doctors in Jordan so they can return to Syria and provide life saving medical care there, and a USAID contractor has procured 10,000 kg of medical supplies for use in Syria and is trying to get those supplies into the country, according to the report.
In an April 26 press briefing, USAD Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Christa Capozzola criticized the Syrian regime for not allowing emergency aid supplies to reach the Syrian people and called for more help.
"While some aid is reaching people in need through the Red Crescent, other U.N. agencies, and other international organizations, current humanitarian access restrictions remain a significant challenge to the aid effort," she said. "After months of working under these conditions, the aid organizations working in Syria are extremely stretched. To continue alleviating suffering and saving lives, they need more support and capacity from the international community.
The U.S. government has spent $39.4 million on assistance for Syria in fiscal 2012, the report stated. The report noted that only $33 million of this assistance has been publicly reported before now.
Overall, the USAID report concluded that there had been at least 9,000 civilian deaths in Syria as of March 27, according to U.N. figures, although the current number is likely higher. There are between 300,000 and 500,000 internally displaced Syrians, according to the report, 610,000 estimated refuges inside Syria, and approximately 66,000 Syrian refuges who have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.
The USAID report was marked sensitive but unclassified (SBU).
U.S. Agency for International Development
The United States needs to do more to protect civilians in Syria, including considering setting up safe zones inside Syria and potentially arming the opposition, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable in an interview Tuesday.
Kerry also warned that if the balance of power is not tilted in Syria in the opposition's favor, it's unlikely that President Bashar al-Assad will step down. A political transition that sees Assad removed from power remains the goal, he said, but the United States must step up its efforts to make that goal a reality.
"You have to change the current dynamic. That's to me the bottom line," Kerry said. "We have to increase the pressure, change the calculations, and succeed in creating a capacity for a movement to a negotiated reform process with a transition that takes place through elections at the right moment."
"That's could be something Russia might buy into and the international community might as well, but Assad won't unless the on the ground calculations change," said Kerry, who just returned from a conference in Jordan that included Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Kerry said his trip had helped convince him that more must be done to help the internal Syrian opposition, well beyond the low levels of humanitarian and communication aid the United States is providing now.
"The concept of a safe zone is a reality and worth the discussion. The concept of working with the Turks and the Jordanians, if everybody is on the same page, there could be some [military] training [of the opposition forces]. If we can enhance the unity of the opposition, we could consider lethal aid and those kinds of things," Kerry said.
But he cautioned that the United States should insist on greater unity within opposition ranks before it provides lethal aid, noting that international efforts to train opposition fighters could help establish that very unity. Safe zones within Syria would have to be defended by some foreign military force, but not necessary the United States or NATO, Kerry explained.
"King Abdullah [of Jordan] made some very interesting suggestions about Jordanian possibilities with respect to that and the Turks also have some options," he said. "I'm talking about Gulf states and the Arab League engaging and leading on this with NATO perhaps as a support structure behind the scenes to back it up," he said.
Asked if there were any conditions under which he would support U.S.- or NATO-led airstrikes on the Syrian military, Kerry said, "Sure."
"If Assad was killing his people in a continued massive way without any regard to his word, the truce, the inspections, and monitors, etc.," Kerry said, adding that we haven't yet gotten to that point.
"Of course the violence is continuing, but not in the kind of way that would suggest to you that airstrikes would make the difference," he continued. "There are a bunch of things that would need to start happening before you put that on the table."
Kerry confirmed that there's a debate inside the administration on when to officially declare that U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan's plan has failed, even though two administration officials said last month that the plan "is failing." The question is whether to let Annan declare it himself or to round up partners and allies and preempt Annan by calling it earlier.
"My view is it would be better for Annan to make a judgment about his own mission but his mission cannot become a vehicle of interminable delay, and we have to be prepared to take measures necessary to protect life and move the process," Kerry said. "If [Annan] can pull a rabbit out of a hat, terrific, but I think we have to be planning a lot of contingencies while he's operating because I'm not optimistic."
Kerry sees new hope that the United States and Russia can find some common ground on the way forward in Syria, and he sketched the outlines of what that might look like.
"There were distinct ways in which hopefully we can get on the same page in order to create a process that might be helpful. You don't want the place to just collapse," Kerry said. "There's a unanimity that Assad has to be part of the transition and to get him out. The question is how. [Lavrov] thinks that Assad has to transition out of there in a respectful way, through a peaceful process."
Any effort to intervene directly in Syria should be Arab-led, Kerry said, but he denied the accusation that the United States is failing to lead or even "leading from behind," as many Republicans allege.
"This ‘failing to lead' refrain is just a political refrain," he said. "The United States doesn't have to go off and do everything to be the leader. Actually, it's pretty smart to get somebody else to do some things for you. You save the American taxpayer a few dollars, you don't put American troops at risk, and you get the job done."
Kerry noted that the administration is planning for a range of contingencies, including safe zones. But the administration has been clear that it has no intention of providing lethal aid to the opposition or using U.S. or NATO assets to directly confront Assad's forces.
In remarks May 6 to the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough said that the administration recognized that Assad has no intention to halt the violence but said that the administration had not yet reached the point of abandoning the Annan plan or abandoning their current approach, which relies solely on diplomatic and economic pressure.
"And the question is whether you make the leap to the next step, which is either the United States undertakes military action or enables others to take military action," McDonough said. "Obviously we plan for every contingency, in the event we need that, but we just don't think the analysis at the moment is that-we do not believe that intervention hastens the demise of the regime."
There is no formal planning going on inside NATO to prepare for defending Turkey from the violence spilling over from Syria, even though Turkey is considering whether to formally invoke NATO's chapters on collective defense, a top Obama administration official said Monday.
"Our Supreme Allied Commander [Adm. James Stavridis] can do a certain amount of planning... but there has been no formal tasking and there has been no formal request by the Turks for consultations in an Article 4 or Article 5 scenario," said Liz Sherwood-Randall, the National Security Council's senior director for Europe, in remarks Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu briefed his foreign minister and defense minister counterparts on Syria at a high level meeting in Brussels this month, and reports said that Davotoglu discussed at length a cross border attack by Syrian forces on a refugee camp inside Turkey that killed two. Davotoglu is also reported to have said the Syrian regime has "abused a chance offered by the Annan plan."
The Obama administration also believes that the Annan plan "is failing," is currently searching for a "plan B" in Syria, and is preparing military related options in case diplomacy breaks down. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that NATO might have to get involved earlier this month, during a ministerial meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group in Paris.
"Turkey already has discussed with NATO, during our ministerial meetings over the last two days, the burden of Syrian refugees on Turkey, the outrageous shelling across the border from Syria into Turkey a week ago, and that Turkey is considering formally invoking Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty," Clinton said.
The Republican Party appears to be deeply split on whether the United States should call on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, a Senate committee vote revealed today.
The divisions were on display during a one-hour debate Thursday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), after which the Republican members of the panel remained irreconcilably divided over how aggressively the United States should work for Assad's removal.
Thursday's markup of a resolution condemning the violence in Syria, put forth by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Casey (D-PA), was the first real congressional debate over U.S. policy in Syria since protests broke out there more than a year ago. It was a heated debate, and by the time the dust settled, half of the Republicans on the committee joined with the Democrats to insist that Congress call on Assad to step down, overruling the other half of the Republicans on the panel, who argued that such language should be scuttled from the resolution.
Rubio, in a speech Wednesday at the Brookings Institution aimed at burnishing his foreign-policy credentials, explained that he was fighting against a growing isolationist trend in his own party. "I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left," he said.
Little did he know that his next battle with members of his own party on foreign policy would come only a day later.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) opened up Thursday's SFRC business meeting by warning of the dangers of Assad remaining in power.
"The stakes in Syria are very, very high. The prospects of a full-fledged civil war are very real," Kerry said, explaining that he will travel to the region during the next Senate recess, which begins tomorrow. "If Assad were to remain in power ... it would really mark a turning point in this Arab awakening and we would have a lot of difficulties dealing with that for a long time to come."
But as soon as Kerry started considering the Rubio-Casey resolution as introduced, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) objected to the paragraph that "calls upon the President to continue to provide support, including communications equipment to organizations in Syria that are representative of the people of Syria."
Corker wanted to make sure that Congress wasn't endorsing arms sales to the Syrian opposition, so the committee agreed to add the words "non-lethal" before "support." Corker also tried to make the resolution specify that no money would go to the opposition, but that was voted down by all nine committee Democrats and three of the nine committee Republicans: Rubio, Johnny Isaakson (R-GA), and John Barrasso (R-WY).
The real fireworks came when Corker tried to remove the line saying that the Senate "reaffirms that it is the policy of the United States that the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people cannot be realized so long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power and that he must step aside."
"I think it's odd to state as a national policy that we want to see Assad gone," Corker said.
Kerry pointed out that President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have all called publicly for Assad to go, so it already is national policy and the Senate would simply be endorsing that. Kerry offered to take out the phrase "he must step aside."
Ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) objected even to that. "I still feel that we should not include a reference to Assad in the paragraph," he said.
"For us to get into a situation where are making these sorts of judgments seems to be overstepping without really having a fundamental debate," said Lugar "We crept on this before during the Libya situation... and we've never really had a debate. The personalization of this resolution is not a good idea."
Rubio defended his resolution, stating he agreed with the administration. He was backed up by several Democrats, including Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
Durbin said that if the Senate passed a resolution weaker than the administration's position, the signal to the world would be that the United States is backing down. "Wouldn't this give some solace to Assad that he might be able to survive and continue?" he asked.
"Many thousands of people have been killed in Russia and China and even in Burma," Lugar responded. "The president could say [Russian President-elect Vladimir] Putin must go, or Chinese leaders, because they are committing crimes in Lhasa all the time. But we are not affirming that... This is a shift in making foreign policy that I am very uncomfortable with."
Kerry tried his best several times to find compromise language that would satisfy both sides, suggesting that the resolution call for a democratic transition decided by the Syrian people -- with the obvious implication that Syria's future would not include Assad.
"It's conceivable that diplomacy might create some transition process." Kerry said, referring to the gradual handover of power by President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. "Who knows?"
Menendez was having none of that argument.
"To somehow leave in vagueness that Assad, despite his slaughter, can somehow find a way to survive, is very difficult to accept," Menendez said. "Otherwise, it undermines the purpose and the power of these resolutions and sends the wrong message to the people struggling and dying."
Ultimately, Kerry gave up and called the vote and the committee voted 12-6 to keep the call for Assad to go in the resolution. Rubio, Isaakson, and Barrasso again joined the Democrats in the vote to scuttle Corker's amendment.
In the final vote to approve the resolution, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) voted in favor by proxy, making the final vote 13-6. Four Republicans voted for the resolution, five against. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) broke ranks with the Democrats and voted against the resolution by proxy.
"The committee is split on Syria but I think you'll find a different result when we get to the floor," Rubio told The Cable in a short interview. "I think there will be much more support for it from Republicans than the committee's vote reflected."
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
In a speech introducing U.S. President Barack Obama today, Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel called on the world to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from committing atrocities against civilians.
At a ceremony at Washington's Holocaust museum, Wiesel compared Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the villains who perpetrated the murder of millions of innocent civilians during World War II and asked why America and the international community didn't do more to stop the bloodshed. He then compared the world's inaction then to its failure to stop Assad and Ahmadinejad now.
"It could have been prevented. The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures in 1939, ‘40, ‘41, ‘42. Each time, in Berlin, Geobbels and the others always wanted to see what would be the reaction in Washington and London and Rome, and there was no reaction so they felt they could continue," Wiesel said.
"So in this place we may ask: Have we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power? How is it that the No. 1 Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad is still a president? He who threatens to use nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish state."
"Have we not learned? We must know that evil has power. It is almost too late," he said. "Preventative measures are important. We must use those measures to prevent another catastrophe. And when other communities are threatened by anyone, we must not allow them to do what they intend doing."
Wiesel's speech was reminiscent of another speech he made at the Holocaust museum in 1993, at the opening of the complex, when he called on then President Bill Clinton to take action to stop the atrocities against civilians in Bosnia.
Similarly, that speech came at a time when the Clinton administration was resisting getting entangled in a foreign civil war but was under growing pressure to intervene.
"Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something," Wiesel told Clinton then. "I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done."
In his own remarks, Obama touted the fact that his administration determined that the prevention of mass atrocities was a core national security interest of the United States and listed several bureaucratic changes the government was making to address the problem. His board to examine the problem meets today for the first time.
Obama touted his administration's efforts in South Sudan, Ivory Coast, Libya, and Uganda, pledging to extend the limited deployment of U.S. military advisors to help track down remnants of the Lord's Resistance Army. But Obama said that governments are not wholly responsible for preventing mass atrocities.
"You don't just count on officials; you don't just count on governments. You count on people mobilizing their conscience," Obama said. "'Never again' is a challenge to nations. It's a bitter truth: Too often the world has failed to halt the killing of innocents on a massive scale and we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save."
When Obama spoke about Syria, he said the United States would continue increasing diplomatic, political, and economic pressure on the Assad regime, but said the U.S. commitment to end atrocities "does not mean we intervene militarily every time there is an injustice in the world."
"The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up. So with partners and allies we will keep increasing the pressure so that those who stick with Assad know that they are making a losing bet."
Obama announced new financial sanctions against Syrian and Iranian leaders who use information technology to suppress civilian dissent, barring those guilty from entering or doing business in the United States.
"In short, we need to do everything we can to prevent these kinds of atrocities, because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your own people," Obama said. "Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing."
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
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 U.S. Treasury Department today announced sanctions on a major Iranian cargo airline, an Iranian trading company, and a Nigerian shipping agent that facilitates Iranian arms exports.
Treasury designated Yas Air, Behineh Trading, the Ali Abbas Usman Jega shipping agent, and three Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) officials for sanctions, meaning they are all immediately cut off from doing business in the United States or with the U.S. financial sector. Treasury alleges that the airline, the trading company, and the IRGC-QF officials were involved, respectively, in shipments of weapons "to the Levant and Africa, further demonstrating Iran's determination to evade international sanctions and export violence and instability throughout the Middle East and beyond."
"Today's action again exposes Iran's malign influence in the Middle East, Africa and beyond. As the Iranian regime exports its lethal aid and expertise to foment violence in Syria and Africa, Treasury will continue to expose the officials and companies involved and work to hold them accountable for the suffering they cause," said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen.
Yas Air has been directly involved in arms shipments to Syria under the cover of humanitarian assistance, the Treasury Department said, and IRGC officials oversaw several shipments of arms via Yas Air in March 2011, working with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.
"A Turkish inspection of one of the Yas Air flights bound for Syria -- which listed ‘auto spare parts' on its cargo manifest -- found weapons including Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns, nearly 8,000 rounds of ammunition, and an assortment of mortar shells," according to the Treasury Department release.
In October, 2010, the Iranian trading company and the Nigerian shipping agent worked together to smuggle Iranian arms to Gambia, but that shipment was intercepted in Nigeria, according to Treasury, and included grenades, rockets, mortars, and ammunition.
"While Iran publically downplays Iranian government involvement in the lethal aid shipment, the highest levels of the IRGC-QF were involved," the release stated.
The three IRGC officials designated for sanctions today were Esmail Ghani, the deputy commander of the IRGC-QF, Sayyid Ali Akbar Tabatabaei, the commander of the IRGC-QF Africa Corps, Hosein Aghajani, who allegedly has ties to the Gambian smuggling operation.
Initial reactions to the moves on Capitol Hill were positive, even as a fight brewed between lawmakers and the administration over a new round of Iran sanctions legislation.
"It's these kind of moments that build up a bipartisan trust in the Treasury Department and in people like David Cohen and Danny Glaser," one senior GOP Senate aide said.
As troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad stormed the opposition-held city of Idlib Tuesday, Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) became the fourth U.S. senator to openly call for U.S. military intervention in Syria ... before he partially walked back those comments in an interview with The Cable.
"Senator, do you support a military intervention in Syria?" The Cable asked Brown in the hallways of the Capitol Building Tuesday.
"Well that's the million-dollar question," he said. "At what point do we do it? Is it 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 killed? At what point do we draw a line in the sand and get involved just based on the humanitarian [considerations] or just our belief that we are a great country and should be helping people?"
"We're at about 10,000 killed so far -- so what do you say?" we pressed.
"I'm at the point right now that I think we should handle it like we did with Libya: Get that coalition and go in and give the opposition a chance to regroup," he said.
"So you're for the U.S. getting involved in another international military intervention in Syria?" we asked. Then the Massachusetts senator appeared to have second thoughts.
"I'm still gathering information," Brown said. "I'm still asking for the appropriate briefings to see what we can do and what the limitations are and how this is different from Libya. And I'll have a more defined statement I think pretty soon."
Brown is not the only GOP senator grappling with the proper way forward in Syria, but other GOP lawmakers at least seemed to have their positions ready at their fingertips. Earlier Tuesday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) confidently told us that he doesn't believe the Syrian revolution is about "democracy."
In another Tuesday interview with The Cable, Senate Armed Services Committee member Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) said she supports increased international pressure on Russia and China but doesn't support U.S. military intervention at this time.
"Right now, I'm very concerned about what's happening in Syria," she said. "There are a number of legislative actions we could take against Russia to stop them from what they are doing."
As for arming the Syrian opposition, Ayotte said, "I think that's something that we should look at doing, but I also think there are other partners that might be in a position to do that, including the Turks."
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If the Russians are going to continue to arm the brutal Syrian regime, then the U.S. military should rethink its $900 million contract with the official Russian government-controlled arms broker, 17 senators said in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today.
"We write to express our grave concern regarding the Department of Defense's ongoing business dealings with Rosoboronexport, the same Russian state-controlled arms export firm that continues to provide the Syrian government with the means to perpetrate widespread and systematic attacks on its own people," reads a bipartisan letter sent to the Pentagon today led by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Richard Durbin (D-IL), and signed by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), James Risch (R-ID), Roger Wicker (R-MS), David Vitter (R-LA), Robert Casey (D-PA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Mark Kirk (R-IL).
Russia has supplied over $1 billion of arms to the Syrian government since the unrest is Syria began, the senators wrote -- including four cargo ships full of weapons that have arrived in Syria since December. Rosoboronexport is Russia's official broker, serving as a middle man for all Russian foreign defense sales. It reportedly signed a new contract with the Syrian regime for 36 combat jets in January.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is in the middle of buying 21 Mi-17 dual-use helicopters from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan security forces. That $375 million deal was granted to the Russian arms broker through a sole-source contract that was never competitively bid. The contract has an option for another $550 million in helicopters, which could bring the whole deal to over $900 million.
"Even in the face of crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian government during the past year, enabled no doubt by the regular flow of weapons from Russia, the United States Government has unfortunately continued to procure from Rosoboronexport," the senators wrote.
Rosoboronexport is a special case not just because it is allegedly arming the Syrian regime to this day. The firm was blacklisted from doing business with the U.S. government in 2006 for violating the Iran-Syria Nonproliferation Act, and was removed from that blacklist in 2009.
"While it is certainly frustrating that U.S. taxpayer funding is used to buy Russian-made helicopters instead of world-class U.S.-made helicopters for the Afghan military, our specific concern at this time is that the Department is procuring these assets from an organization that had for years been on a U.S. sanctions list for illicit nuclear assistance to Iran and in the face of the international community's concern is continuing to enable the Assad regime with the arms it needs to slaughter innocent men, women, and children in Syria," the letter reads.
The senators argue that the Russian helicopters, which the Afghans have more experience flying than American ones, could have been bought through other firms. The Navy did exactly that in 2009, before the Rosoboronexport contract was signed, buying four of these helicopters prior to the current Army deal in a competitively bid contract.
"Other options are very likely available as demonstrated by the fact that the first four Mi-17 helicopters that the U.S. Navy purchased for Afghanistan came through a different firm. We ask that the DoD immediately review all potential options to procure helicopters legally through other means," the senators wrote.
At last week's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Army Secretary John McHugh, Cornyn pressed him directly on the Rosoboronexport contract. The Army, as the executive agent on the program, is in charge of the contract.
"I am aware of it. The newer development, of course, is the alleged activity of Russian arms manufacturers in Syria. And the clarity on that is not what I think most of us would like at this point," testified McHugh, the former ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
McHugh claimed that the order for these specific helicopters came from U.S. Central Command -- the branch of the military tasked with overseeing operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and the Army was just executing those orders. He also claimed that buying the helicopters from Rosoboronexport was the only way to get them.
"Rosoboron, under federal law in Russia, is the only one who controls the export of those platforms, so we didn't have options there, either, as I understand it," McHugh said.
Cornyn argued that this simply isn't true, because other versions of the helicopter can be purchased elsewhere and then retooled to meet the Afghans' specific needs.
"Apparently, in 2009, the Navy was able to use an alternative acquisition route through a private broker, and so, at least back in 2009, there appeared to be an alternative source for the Mi-17 variant helicopters and related tool kits for the Afghan army," Cornyn said.
"So it strikes me that it's pretty clear that Russia has Syrian blood on its hands and complicit in that effort," he continued. "And with that predicate, you can understand why I was troubled to read and learn that Rosoboronexport's customer list also included the United States Army."
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Top administration officials, leading lawmakers, and GOP presidential candidates have all weighed in on Sen. John McCain's proposal to launch U.S.-led airstrikes to halt the violence in Syria, but there is still no consensus on the costs and benefits of entangling the U.S. military in another armed conflict.
"Just as was the case with Libya, there is a broad consensus among regional leaders and organizations on the preferred outcome in Syria: Assad and his cronies must go. There is not, however, a consensus about how this goal could be achieved," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) said at Wednesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Levin didn't say whether he was for or against a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria, but he warned of the risks and talked about the possible impact on the region.
McCain was more clear, repeating his call for foreign air power to be used against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, and calling for the immediate arming of the Syrian opposition -- hopefully with international cooperation from Arab partners and European allies.
"It is understandable that the administration is reluctant to move beyond diplomacy and sanctions. Unfortunately, this policy is increasingly disconnected from the dire conditions on the ground in Syria, which has become a full state of armed conflict," McCain said.
He urged Panetta to remember his time as White House chief of staff during the NATO intervention in Bosnia and quoted President Bill Clinton as saying at the time, "There are times and places where our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war and where we can defend our fundamental values as a people and serve our most basic strategic interests. There are still times when America and America alone can and should make the difference for peace."
McCain also quoted CENTCOM chief Gen. James Mattis, who testified Tuesday that "Assad is clearly achieving what he wants to achieve" that his military campaign is "gaining physical momentum on the battlefield." Mattis also noted that Assad's downfall would be "the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years."
In his testimony, Panetta clearly ruled out any unilateral military action by the United States in Syria, but he left the door wide open to a multilateral mission inside Syria at some later date. Yesterday, President Barack Obama said that no option in Syria has been taken off the table.
"We are reviewing all possible additional steps that can be taken with our international partners to support the efforts to protect the Syrian people, to end the violence, and ensure regional stability, including potential military options, if necessary," Panetta said. "Currently, the administration is focusing on diplomatic and political approaches rather than military intervention."
"We need to have a clear legal basis for any action that we take. For us to act unilaterally would be a mistake," Panetta said. "Can it happen today? Can it happen now? No. It's gonna take some work; it's going to take some time. But when we do it, we'll do it right. We will not do it in a way that will make the situation worse. That's what we have to be careful of."
Dempsey said the Pentagon has planned for several possible military actions in Syria, including delivering humanitarian relief, imposing a no-fly zone, conducting maritime interdiction, establishing humanitarian corridors, and executing limited air strikes. He said the planning was at a "commander's estimate level of detail," and that there had been briefing to the National Security Council staff but not the president directly.
"As you know, we're extraordinarily capable and we can do just about anything we're asked to do," Dempsey said. "The ability to do a single raid-like strike would be accessible to us. The ability to do a longer-term sustained campaign would be challenging, and would have to be made in the context of other commitments around the globe."
Dempsey also confirmed elements of The Cable's Tuesday story on Syria, including the fact that Russia continues to arm the Syrian regime, including with advanced air defense systems.
Panetta said he believed that NATO should start debating the issue of a military intervention in Syria. That discussion so far has not begun in Brussels, according to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Panetta also said the Pentagon will not begin planning for a Syria intervention in detail until directed to do so by the president.
"I don't think there's any question that we're experiencing mass atrocities there," Panetta added.
Yesterday, several top Republican politicians declined to go along with McCain's call for airstrikes on Syria now, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
In a short interview Tuesday, McCain said that didn't bother him one bit.
"I couldn't care less," McCain said. "I know the difference between right and wrong. I know that people are being slaughtered as we speak."
"I refer back to Bosnia and Kosovo. Under President Clinton, we acted although there were Republicans strongly opposed to that. I think it turned out well."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who joined McCain's call for airstrikes along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), told The Cable Tuesday that he preferred a multilateral military intervention in Syria over a unilateral strike.
"The Arab League is the right vehicle," said Graham. "If they request air support I'm willing to be part of the team. But I want the Arab League and the international community to be deeply involved and I want it to be to stop the slaughter."
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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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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.