The Senate's leading critic of President Obama's war plans in Syria is now calling for a "permanent hold" on the vote to authorize military force in Congress following a surprise proposal from Russia to avert a military confrontation.
On Tuesday, as the Obama administration ramped up its lobbying on Capitol Hill, Sen. Rand Paul convened a group of some 30 lawmakers skeptical of a military intervention in Syria. The group -- which included Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN) and two dozen others -- discussed different strategies for staving off a military intervention and the desire to call off a vote to authorize military force.
"I think everybody is hopeful that putting the vote on a permanent hold would be the best route forward," Paul said in an interview with The Cable.
The push to delay a vote comes as Syria hawks, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Republican Senator John McCain, renew their push for Congressional authorization for a strike. In the meantime, the White House agreed Tuesday to talks on a Russian plan that would avert a military strike by having Syria hand over its chemical weapons stockpile to the international community.
As skepticism mounts in Congress over a proposed military strike in Syria, hawks on Capitol Hill are questioning why the Obama administration isn't using one of its most powerful advocates for intervention: General Salim Idriss, commander of the rebels' Supreme Military Council.
Long heralded as the poster child for Syria's moderate rebels, Idriss has yet to travel to Washington to make his case for U.S. intervention -- and it's not for lack of trying. Congressional sources and members of the Syrian opposition tell The Cable that the Obama administration has delayed or cancelled at least three scheduled trips for Idriss to come to Washington since March.
"The White House has stepped in at the eleventh hour to cancel planned trips in which tickets were bought and hotels were booked for Gen. Idriss to come to Washington," a frustrated Congressional aide tells The Cable. "It's beyond me why the administration is trying to prevent a very articulate person from answering the fundamental question that almost every lawmaker wants to know: Who the Hell is the opposition?"
A German-trained engineer with moderate views, Idriss has attracted the West with his nonsectarian outlook ever since he defected from the Assad regime last summer.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American military strike by giving up his chemical weapons, an unscripted and off-handed remark that triggered a mad day of diplomatic scrambling and raised the first real prospect of a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis.
Speaking in London this morning, Kerry said Assad had one way, and one way only, of preventing the Obama administration from launching a military intervention into his country.
"Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week -- turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting," Kerry said. "But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki tried to walk back Kerry's comments almost immediately after he uttered them, describing the remarks as a "rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used."
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It was meant to be a softball question. Would the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked, sign off on legislation barring ground troops from being sent to Syria? The White House had been making that exact guarantee for days, and Kerry had been sent to Capitol Hill to reiterate the promise to a panel of skeptical lawmakers. He somehow messed up the answer all the same.
"It would be preferable not to" insert that kind of language into a formal congressional authorization for military strikes into Syria, Kerry said. He cited a range of hypotheticals, from Syria imploding to chemical weapons falling into the hands of the country's Islamist rebels, where the U.S. might need to take strong steps to prevent catastrophe. "I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country," Kerry said.
Kerry realized his mistake almost immediately and quickly assured the lawmakers that the administration was fine with a ban on ground troops. "Let's shut that door now as tight as we can," he said. He wasn't able to put the genie back in the bottle, though. Over the course of the four-hour hearing, Republican after Republican asked Kerry to promise that the administration wouldn't do something it had already promised not to do.
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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused Russia of supplying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with chemical weapons, the most eyebrow-raising moment in a long and sometimes strange hearing that included the Obama administration's first estimate of the financial cost of a potential U.S. strike on Syria, a detailed description of the U.S. target list, and a Republican congressman's meandering attempt to link Syria to the consolate attack in Benghazi and the Justice Department's "Fast and Furious" scandal.
First, Russia. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) -- best known for screaming "you lie" at President Obama during a State of the Union address -- made the most news at today's hearing when he asked Hagel where Assad had gotten his chemical weapons.
"Well, the Russians supply them," Hagel responded. "Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves."
Reports that Russia has been selling chemical weapons to Assad -- or at least providing the ingredients and equipment his scientists needed to make them -- have been floating around for years, but Hagel's comments marked one of the first times a high-ranking American official made the charge publicly.
The comments were later walked back by Pentagon Press Secretary George Little, who in a statement to reporters said: "In a response to a member of Congress, Secretary Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia. The Syrian regime has a decades-old largely indigenous chemical weapons program. Currently, Russia provides the Syrian regime a wide variety of military equipment and support, some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program. We have publicly and privately expressed our concern over the destabilizing impact on the Syrian conflict and the wider region of continued military shipments to the Assad regime."
The allegation is likely to further exacerbate U.S.-Russian tensions over Syria, which spiked this week after Russian President Vladimir Putin came out in strong opposition to a potential American intervention into Syria.
Hagel's Russia comments were the most surprising part of the House hearing, but they weren't the only interesting moment on a day when the administration won its first major victory by getting the Senate Foreign Relations Services Committee to sign off, 10-7, on a military strike against Assad. The measure should go to the full Senate next week.
Below, four other highlights from from the House session:
Military Strikes On The Cheap: Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the limited military strikes envisioned by the administration would cost "tens of millions of dollars," the Pentagon's first public estimate of the financial price of hitting Assad.
It's a surprisingly low number given that U.S. air operations in Libya, a country with far less sophisticated air defenses than Syria, cost roughly $1 billion. A U.S. official stood by Hagel's estimate, telling The Cable that "we're taking millions and not billions for this operation." If those numbers are accurate, the potential U.S. strikes on Syria would be exceptionally modest in both scope and duration. Proponents of the strike have talked about an attack that might cost a couple hundred million. Could this plan be even smaller than previously imagined?
Military Strikes On Someone Else's Tab: Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Arab League wasn't willing to formally request a U.S. strike on Syria, but said key Arab powers were prepared to do perhaps the next best thing: pick up the tab for the entire cost of the operation.
"With respect to Arab countries offering to bear costs and to assess, the answer is profoundly yes," Kerry said. "They have. That offer is on the table."
In fact, Kerry said, Arab countries were willing to open their checkbooks wide.
"Some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we've done it previously in other places, they'll carry that cost," Kerry said. "That's how dedicated they are at this. That's not in the cards, and nobody's talking about it, but they're talking in serious ways about getting this done."
Kerry also gamely insisted that so many U.S. allies wanted to take part in a potential strike on Syria that the Pentagon couldn't find a role for all of them. That seems unlikely, since Turkey and France are to date the only major powers to publicly express a willingness to use military force against Assad. But Kerry may have an elastic definition of "participation." Albania, he said later in the hearing, was willing to provide political support for a strike. He didn't say anything about Albania being willing to do much else.
The Target List: Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided one of the most-detailed breakdowns to date of the military's target list for Syria. He said the overall mission would be to degrade Assad's chemical weapons assets by striking targets "directly linked to the control of chemical weapons but without exposing those chemical weapons to a loss of security." Translated from military-speak, that means doing everything possible to ensure that those weapons didn't fall into the hands of the Islamists flooding into Syria to battle Assad.
Dempsey said other targets would include the "means of delivery" for the weapons, like the rockets and artillery shells that allegedly carried sarin gas into rebel-held areas of Damascus last month, and the country's air defense systems, including its longer-range missile and rockets.
That description closely tracks with recent news reports about the administration considering a target list of roughly 50 sites that would be struck over the course of one to two days. The White House has harshly condemned those leaked war plans and vowed to find those responsible.
Bringing the Crazy: The strangest and most contentious moment of the five-hour hearing came during a heated exchange between Kerry and Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), who accused the administration of having a "serious credibility issue" because of what he said were lingering questions about the White House's handling of Benghazi, the alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department's ill-fated "Fast and Furious" program.
His questioning of Kerry quickly turned personal.
"Mr. Kerry, you have never been one that has advocated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. forces in past conflicts. The same is true for the president and the vice president," he said. "Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you would abandon caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?"
The secretary of state, not surprisingly, didn't take well to the charge. Normally even-keeled, a visibly angry Kerry reminded Duncan that he, Hagel, and Dempsey had all served in the military and cut the congressman off when Duncan tried to interject.
"I'm going to finish, congressman," he said, almost shouting. "I am going to finish."
Kerry said that as a senator he'd supported military action in Grenada and Panama -- conspicuously ignoring his early support for the Iraq war -- and made no attempt to hide that he thought the questions were ludicrous.
"I'm not going to sit here and be told by you that I don't have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this," he said. "We're talking about people being killed by gas and you want to go talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious!"
It remains to be seen whether Duncan will be the only one who wants to dredge up past administration scandals. With public opinion running sharply against any U.S. strike, Republicans seem likely to use any weapon in their arsenal to attack the White House's case for war.
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There are a lot of good reasons to oppose a United States military strike in Syria. It may do little to change the behavior of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It may invite retaliation on U.S. allies in the region such as Turkey and Israel. It may further entangle the U.S. in a conflict that has little to do with America.
But one rationale is making military experts do a double-take: Sequestration.
As the White House seeks Congressional authorization for a strike, it's facing stiff opposition from a set of lawmakers that typically supports U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. These hawkish lawmakers don't oppose President Obama's geopolitical priorities or chemical weapons evidence. They think the Pentagon doesn't have enough money in its half-trillion dollar budget to carry out a Syria strike given the $500 billion in across-the-board spending cuts facing the military in the next decade.
"We cannot keep asking the military to perform mission after mission with sequestration and military cuts hanging over their heads," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Monday. "We have to take care of our own people first."
Members of the Syrian opposition and their supporters reacted with a mixture of alarm and outrage at President Obama's decision to delay a military strike on Syria while he seeks authorization from Congress.
In brief remarks from the Rose Garden on Saturday afternoon, Obama said the United States should take military action against the Syrian regime in response to a chemical weapons attack in Damascus on August 21, but that he would wait for both houses of Congress to debate the action and hold a vote. The earliest that could happen is the week of September 9, when both chambers will have returned from summer recess.
The unexpected delay added to a sense of disarray and confusion among some rebel factions about U.S. policy and when, or if, the Obama administration will intervene to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for what Obama called "the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st Century." An extraordinary amount of detail about a military strike had been leaking out for days, leading forces on the ground to assume U.S. action was imminent.
"This is absolutely a blow to many in the opposition on the ground who've suffered the brunt of the chemical attacks," said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which has long favored American intervention in the conflict. "The feeling now is that this is really an orphaned revolution and that the regime will feel emboldened to continue its shelling of cities and towns around Damascus."
American intelligence agencies had indications three days beforehand that the Syrian regime was poised to launch a lethal chemical attack that killed more than a thousand people and has set the stage for a possible U.S. military strike on Syria.
The disclosure -- part of a larger U.S. intelligence briefing on Syria's chemical attacks -- raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions for the American government. First and foremost: What, if anything, did it do to notify the Syrian opposition of the pending attack?
In a call with reporters Friday afternoon, senior administration officials did not address whether this information was shared with rebel groups in advance of the attack. A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the information had been shared.
But at least some members of the Syrian opposition are already lashing out at the U.S. government for not acting ahead of time to prevent the worst chemical attack in a quarter-century. "If you knew, why did you take no action?" asked Dlshad Othman, a Syrian activist and secure-communications expert who has recently relocated to the United States. He added that none of his contacts had any sort of prior warning about the nerve gas assault -- although such an attack was always a constant fear.
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The White House's push to win Congressional support for a military strike on Syria is running into an unexpected roadblock: lingering anger over the administration's decision to bypass Capitol Hill when it decided to intervene in Libya two years ago.
Senior administration officials briefed the leadership of the House and Senate Thursday night on intercepted phone calls between senior Syrian military officials and other intelligence purporting to show that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds of civilians. President Obama personally called House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to walk them through the report.
For a growing number of lawmakers, however, that outreach isn't enough. With the prospect of an imminent U.S. military intervention into Syria looming, 140 members of Congress, including 21 Democrats, signed onto a letter demanding that the White House seek formal Congressional approval before using force there. Failing to do so, they say, would be unconstitutional.
The British government asserted today that it has the legal authority to strike Syria because of the controversial doctrine of "humanitarian intervention." One small problem: That legal norm has never been accepted by the United States, the United Nations, and other key Western allies.
The government of British Prime Minister David Cameron argued in a short written report that the British government and other governments are legally permitted to launch a military attack against Syrian government targets in order to deter the Syrian government from using chemical weapons in the future. London is effectively arguing that such strikes could be undertaken without the approval of the United Nations Security Council, where Russia and China are almost certain to veto new proposals authorizing the use of force against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The British legal opinion comes as Barack Obama's administration prepares to brief lawmakers today on a U.S. intelligence report that blames the Syrian government for a chemical weapons attack near Damascus this month that killed hundreds of civilians. The White House will use that report to make its own argument for the justification of striking Syria without U.N. backing. The United States has shifted a fifth Navy destroyer to the Mediterranean, and administration officials and lawmakers have said that missile strikes against Syria could begin within days.
With the United States barreling toward a strike on Syria, U.S. officials say they are completely certain that Bashar al-Assad's government is responsible for last week's chemical weapons attack. They just don't know who in the Syrian government is to blame.
On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf admitted as much. "The commander-in-chief of any military is ultimately responsible for decisions made under their leadership, even if ... he's not the one that pushes the button or said, 'Go,' on this," Harf said. "I don't know what the facts are here. I'm just, broadly speaking, saying that he is responsible for the actions of his regime. I'm not intimately familiar with the command and control structure of the Syrian military. I'm just not. But again, he is responsible ultimately for the decisions that are made."
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Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they're certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime -- and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.
But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? "It's unclear where control lies," one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. "Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?"
Nor are U.S. analysts sure of the Syrian military's rationale for launching the strike -- if it had a rationale at all. Perhaps it was a lone general putting a long-standing battle plan in motion; perhaps it was a miscalculation by the Assad government. Whatever the reason, the attack has triggered worldwide outrage, and put the Obama administration on the brink of launching a strike of its own in Syria. "We don't know exactly why it happened," the intelligence official added. "We just know it was pretty fucking stupid."
The United States appears to be closer than ever to deploying a series of surgical strikes on Syrian targets. But a key architect of that strategy is seriously and publicly questioning the wisdom of carrying it out.
In the last 48 hours, U.S. officials leaked plans to several media outlets to fire cruise missiles at Syrian military installations as a warning to the Syrian government not to use its chemical weapons stockpiles again. On Sunday, Sen. Bob Corker, who was briefed by administration officials twice over the weekend, said a U.S. "response is imminent" in Syria. "I think we will respond in a surgical way," he said. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to set the groundwork for a U.S. military incursion.
Now, a former U.S. Navy planner responsible for outlining an influential and highly-detailed proposal for surgical strikes tells The Cable he has serious misgivings about the plan. He says too much faith is being put into the effectiveness of surgical strikes on Assad's forces with little discussion of what wider goals such attacks are supposed to achieve.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office said Sunday that U.N. chemical weapons experts will conduct an urgent inspection Monday in a Damascus suburb to determine whether chemical weapons were used in an attack last week that left hundreds of people -- if not more than 1,000 -- dead.
The announcement followed high-level talks between Syrian authorities and the U.N.'s high representative for disarmament affairs, Angela Kane, who traveled to Damascus this week to make the case for urgent on-site inspections in the suburb of Ghouta.
Syria has come under mounting pressure to allow the inspectors into the area, following reports that hundreds of civilians were asphyxiated in their sleep on Aug. 21 by unidentified gases. Images of large numbers of children lined up in the Syrian capital's morgues, their skin and lips blue from an apparent lack of oxygen, have generated intense international condemnation and fueled calls for international intervention in Syria.
The world's governments are demanding that Syria immediately let United Nations inspectors onto the scene of alleged chemical attacks that killed as many as 1,800. But even if Bashar al-Assad's regime gave the inspectors permission to visit the disputed battlefields right now, they still couldn't leave. The U.N. is blocking its own inspectors, at least for the moment.
Kevin Kennedy, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who heads the U.N. Department of Safety and Security, told a small group of reporters at U.N. headquarters on Friday that he hasn't given the inspection team a green light to visit the site of the supposed attacks. His office is still carrying out a security assessment to see if it is safe enough to go.
"It's an active war zone in Damascus," said Kennedy, who has gained extensive experience managing U.N. humanitarian operations in the world's deadliest trouble spots over the past 20 years. "I was there a few months ago: you hear every day impacts, shells, there might be 10 in a day, you might hear 80 in a day. You can see airstrikes, you can see artillery. You get shot at, I was only there for 3 and ½ days as a visitor and my car was shot, we were shot at twice," including once by an unidentified sniper.
For months, a group of dovish lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been fighting against U.S. military involvement in Syria. But after Wednesday's stunning allegations of a massive chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus, even some of these doves are opening the door, just a bit, to intervention in the Syria's horrific civil war.
"If it looks like this is the beginning of a long term chemical weapons campaign from Assad, even I would reevaluate whether the United States needs to step in," Democratic Senator Chris Murphy told The Cable on Thursday.
In May, Murphy was the only senator to join Kentucky libertarian Rand Paul in support of a defeated amendment to prohibit weapons shipments to the Syrian rebels. He urged caution and spoke about the risks of intervention at the time. And, for the moment, he remains opposed to U.S. military entanglement in Syria. However, when pressed in an interview, Murphy conceded that he may reconsider that position after a series of alleged nerve gas attacks that Syrian opposition forces say killed as many as 1,800 people. Eyewitnesses say many of the victims were children.
"If the Assad regime has begun a campaign of systematic chemical weapons attacks, clearly that's going to alter even my analysis," Murphy said.
And he isn't the only skeptic of intervention who's now open to the possibility -- however remote -- of greater U.S. involvement.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), one of the House's most vocal opponents of arming the Syrian rebels, told The Cable on Thursday that he's now open to U.S. forces bombing the Syrian regime's chemical weapons delivery systems.
An effort by the Obama administration to reinforce the powers of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors in Syria Wednesday evening foundered in the face of Russian and Chinese opposition in the U.N. Security Council, according to council diplomats.
Seizing on rebel claims that Syrian authorities massacred hundreds of civilians by firing chemically-laced rockets onto a Damascus suburb, the United States joined Britain and France in calling for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council to rally international support for an investigation into the incident. The three Western powers also wrote a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, signed by 32 other governments, calling for an urgent investigation. But the efforts failed to result in anything other than a tepid statement from the Security Council thanks to some final edits by the Russians and Chinese.
U.S. intelligence officials and outside experts are looking into claims of a new and massive chemical weapons attack that's left hundreds dead. From the limited evidence they've seen so far, those reports appear to be accurate. And that would make the strike on the East Ghouta region, just east of Damascus, the biggest chemical weapons attack in decades.
The early analysis is based on preliminary reports, photography and video evidence, and conclusions are prone to change if and when direct access to the victims is granted. Over the past nine months, the Syrian opposition has alleged dozens of times that the Assad regime has attacked them with nerve agents. Only a handful of those accusations have been confirmed; several have fallen away under close scrutiny. But Wednesday's strike, which local opposition groups say killed an estimated 1,300 people, may be different.
"No doubt it's a chemical release of some variety -- and a military release of some variety," said Gwyn Winfield, the editor of CRBNe World, the trade journal of the unconventional weapons community.
While the Obama administration says it has conclusive proof that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in the recent past, the White House has been reluctant to take major action in response to those relatively small-scale attacks. ("As long as they keep body count at a certain level, we won't do anything," an American intelligence official told Foreign Policy earlier this week.) But this attack appears to be anything but small-scale. If allegations about this latest attack prove to be accurate, the strike could be the moment when the Assad regime finally crossed the international community's "red line," and triggered outside invention in the civil war that has killed over a hundred thousand people.
Videos and pictures allegedly taken from the Ghouta incident show young victims who are barely able to breathe and, in some cases, twitching. Close-up photos show their pupils are severely constricted. All of these are classic signs of exposure to a nerve agent like sarin. And sarin is the Assad regime's chemical weapon of choice.
"There's no smoking gun here, but it's all consistent with nerve gas exposure," a U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. "This video is consistent with all of the other ones where we believe it [chemical weapons use] actually happened."
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
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