Airstrikes against Syria are tempting but ultimately not a good idea, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) told The Cable today, reacting to the Monday call for airstrikes from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), also first reported here.
It's not easy these days to be more hawkish than Ros-Lehtinen, but that's where McCain ended up today after he called for the United States to lead an international military intervention in Syria to halt the killing of civilians by President Bashar al-Assad.
"Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower," McCain said Monday. "To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country."
We caught up with Ros-Lehtinen, who has been vocally opposed to any outreach to the Assad regime since 2009, on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference, where she had just finished her appearance on a panel calling for more Iran sanctions.
Ros-Lehtinen told us she wants the United States to do more to stop the bloodshed there, but active military involvement at this juncture was just a bridge too far.
"Senator McCain's heart is always in the right place. He was right on Egypt and Libya. But I believe that we've got to get our allies involved and get them committed," she said. "So my heart agrees with him, but my head says no."
Ros-Lehtinen said the American people, following decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that seem to finally be winding down, are war weary.
"The American people and the constituents that I represent, they are cautious about getting involved in another military operation," she said. "I understand the humanitarian issues involved... But I hear people saying, ‘Who's going to enforce the no-fly zone? Who's going to do all of this? Is it always the U.S.?'"
Attacks on Syria now could also create a "domino effect" that could lead to a hot war with Iran, which considers Syria a client state, Ros-Lehtinen warned.
"Senator McCain has been right, but I worry the Syria operation may be harder because of its tie-ins to Iran and what will Iran do militarily," she said.
She said her committee will mark up a new Syria sanctions bill she co-sponsored with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) March 8. The bill imposes mandatory sanctions against persons that transfer or retransfer goods or technology that can aid Syria's efforts to obtain WMDs and their delivery systems. Further, the legislation mandates extensive sanctions, including asset freezes and a travel ban, on senior officials of the Syrian regime.
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Later today, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, will become the first U.S. senator to publicly call for U.S. led air strikes to halt the violence and atrocities being committed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"After a year of bloodshed, the crisis in Syria has reached a decisive moment," McCain will say Monday afternoon in a speech on the Senate floor, according to excerpts obtained in advance by The Cable.
"What opposition groups in Syria need most urgently is relief from Assad's tank and artillery sieges in many cities that are still contested. Homs is lost for now, but Idlib, and Hama, and Qusayr, and Deraa, and other cities in Syria could still be saved," McCain will say. "But time is running out. Assad's forces are on the march. Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower."
The Obama administration's stance thus far has been to clearly communicate that international military intervention is not on the table in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the United States is willing to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria immediately... but only if Assad agrees to provide access to affected areas.
McCain, referring directly to the requests for more direct assistance from the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, and Local Coordinating Committees inside Syria, will call for the United States to lead an international effort to protect civilian population centers in northern Syria through airstrikes on Assad's forces.
"To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country," McCain will say. "The ultimate goal of airstrikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad. These safe havens could serve as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance -- including weapons and ammunition, body armor and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water, and medical supplies. These safe havens could also help the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups in Syria to train and organize themselves into more cohesive and effective military forces, likely with the assistance of foreign partners."
McCain will point out that more than 7,500 lives have now been lost in Syria and that the United Nations has declared that Syrian security forces are guilty of crimes against humanity, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, the execution of defectors, and the widespread torture of prisoners.
"Increasingly, the question for U.S. policy is not whether foreign forces will intervene militarily in Syria. We can be confident that Syria's neighbors will do so eventually, if they have not already. Some kind of intervention will happen, with us or without us. So the real question for U.S. policy is whether we will participate in this next phase of the conflict in Syria, and thereby increase our ability to shape an outcome that is beneficial to the Syrian people, and to us. I believe we must."
He will also drive home the point that the situation in Syria is now as dire as the situation was in Libya before the U.S. led a NATO intervention there last year.
"The kinds of mass atrocities that NATO intervened in Libya to prevent in Benghazi are now a reality in Homs. Indeed, Syria today is the scene of some of the worst state-sponsored violence since Milosevic's war crimes in the Balkans, or Russia's annihilation of the Chechen city of Grozny," McCain will say.
McCain will then point out that President Barack Obama characterized the prevention of mass atrocities as "a core national security interest" when speaking about Libya and has committed the credibility of the United States to his repeated calls for Assad to step aide.
"If Assad manages to cling to power -- or even if he manages to sustain his slaughter for months to come, with all of the human and geopolitical costs that entails -- it would be a strategic and moral defeat for the United States. We cannot, we must not, allow this to happen," McCain will say.
"Rather than closing off the prospects for some kind of a negotiated transition that is acceptable to the Syrian opposition, foreign military intervention is now the necessary factor to preserve this option. Assad needs to see that he will not win."
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If the international community gave the Syrian rebels arms, communications equipment, and intelligence, that would help speed President Bashar al-Assad's removal from power, the top U.S. military official in Europe said Thursday.
Navy Admiral James Stavridis, Commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, told the Senate Armed Services that NATO is not doing any "detailed planning" for ways to aid the Syrian opposition or protect Syrian civilians. But under intense questioning from the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Stavridis admitted he believed that giving material aid to the rebels would help them get better organized and push forward the process of getting the Assad to step down.
"Yesterday the secretary-general of NATO, Mr. Rasmussen, told The Cable, quote, ‘We haven't had any discussions about a NATO role in Syria and I don't envision such a role for the alliance,'" McCain said, referring directly to our Feb. 29 exclusive interview with Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"Is it true that NATO is doing no contingency planning of any kind with respect to Syria, including for the provision of humanitarian and medical assistance?" McCain asked Stavridis.
"We're not doing any detailed contingency planning at this point, senator, and there's a reason for that. Within the NATO command structure, there has to be an authorization from the North Atlantic Council before we can conduct detailed planning," Stavridis said. The North Atlantic Council is the body charged with making NATO policy decisions.
After getting Stavridis to confirm he believes the Syrian crisis is now an armed conflict between government and opposition forces, McCain then asked Stavridis if the provision of arms, communication equipment, and tactical intelligence would help the Syrian opposition to better organize itself and push Assad from power.
"I would think it would. Yes, sir," Stavridis replied.
McCain contrasted NATO's reluctance to intervene in Syria with previous NATO missions to halt massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) seconded that comparison at the hearing.
"This does remind me of experiences we had in Bosnia and Kosovo in the '90s," Lieberman said. "It actually took quite a while for us to build the political will, both here and in Europe, to get involved there. And while we were doing that, a lot of people got killed, and the same is happening in Syria now. I hope it doesn't take us so long."
Just down the hall from the SASC hearing, two top State Department officials were giving an entirely different take on the efficacy of arming the rebels. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration just doesn't think that arming the Syria rebels is a good idea.
"We've been very hesitant about pouring fuel onto a conflagration that Assad himself has set," Feltman testified Thursday. "So we're very cautious about this whole area of questioning and that's why we have worked with this international consensus on political tracks, on economic tracks, on diplomatic tracks, in order to get to the tipping point we were talking about earlier."
As Ben Smith in Politico reported Thursday, the Syria issue has divided Congress on traditional party and ideological lines -- lines that were muddled during the debate over intervention in Libya because of internal Republican disagreement. Most GOP senators and leading congressmen, along with all the GOP presidential candidates, are urging the Obama administration to begin directly aiding the Syrian rebels now.
Leading congressional Democrats, to the extent they have commented on the issue, have been more reluctant to get more involved in the Syria crisis. House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told reporters Thursday, "If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try. Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
"It is critical that we all proceed with extreme caution and with our eyes wide open," SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said at the Thursday hearing. "There are serious questions to be answered about the Free Syrian Army, but it is not too soon to think about how the international community could shape its thinking or encourage restraint."
The debate in Congress over aiding the Syrian rebels will ramp up next week, with a March 6 SASC hearing with Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis and a March 7 SASC hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
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As Syrian tanks consolidated their hold on the restive city of Homs, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday that the United States should not provide any direct assistance to the Syrian people at this time.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) spoke Thursday morning in a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, mostly about the defense budget and military acquisitions programs. The Cable asked Smith whether or not the United States has any responsibility to protect civilians in Syria and whether he would support any direct assistance there, be it humanitarian, medical, communications, intelligence, or even military support to the people under attack by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Smith said no to both questions. On the issue of "responsibility to protect," the humanitarian doctrine often cited as a rational for foreign intervention, Smith said it's not a workable policy.
"There are a whole lot of people around the world suffering in a variety of different ways and it would be wrong to say that under no circumstances do we bear any responsibility for that ... But there are more people suffering and more problems in the world than we could possibly solve or even come close to attending to," he said. "Do we say if there is suffering anywhere we as the United States of America have a responsibility to try and fix it? ‘No,' is the answer to that question, because it's a challenge we can't possibly meet."
Regarding Syria specifically, Smith said there are just no good options, and definitely none that would make a difference without costing the United States too much.
"If there is something we can do that will make an immediate difference that is not overly risky in terms of our own lives and cost, we should try," Smith said. "Right now I don't see that we have that type of support for something inside of Syria."
Syria is different than Libya because the opposition is spread throughout the country, and doesn't hold any territory, according to Smith. Assisting Syrians would therefore be logistically problematic, he said.
"In Syria, it's a mess ... it would be very difficult to act in the first place in a way that would make a difference," he said.
Smith also cited the lack of an international mandate for direct assistance in Syria.
"If that broad international support came together, you know, if there was a clearer military mission that could be achievable, I think it's something that if I were the president I would be looking at every day," said Smith. "Is the situation changing or evolving in a way that puts us in a position to help? I don't think it's there right now."
Smith's comments closely track those of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who told The Cable in an interview Wednesday that NATO has no intention of intervening in Syria or providing direct aid to the opposition in any way.
"The guiding question should be: Would it bring a sustainable solution to the problem if we decided to intervene, if we had the legal basis, if we had support from the region?" Rasmussen said, arguing that any intervention mission simply wouldn't have a high likelihood of success.
The Obama administration has clearly stated several times it does not favor any military intervention in Syria or providing arms to the Syrian rebels, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the United States is interested in providing humanitarian assistance if the Assad regime consents.
The Cable also asked Smith what the U.S. reaction should be if Israel conducts a unilateral military strike on Iran's nuclear program.
"We should have a policy, we should not talk about it publicly, because that would not help the overall situation," Smith said. "To state a policy that says, ‘If Israel attacks...' will only fuel the fire and make people think ‘Well, [the U.S.] must know that they're going to attack."
Office of Rep. Adam Smith
Not only will NATO not participate in any military intervention in Syria, NATO assets won't be used to deliver any military, humanitarian, or medical assistance there, according to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, because any type of Western intervention is not likely to help solve the crisis.
"We haven't had any discussions in NATO about a NATO role in Syria and I don't envision such a role for the alliance," Rasmussen told The Cable in an exclusive interview in Washington Wednesday. "Syria is ethnically, politically, religiously much more complicated than Libya. This is the reason why the right way forward is different. And I think a regional solution would be the right way forward with strong engagement by the Arab League."
But is order of difficulty the only criterion NATO uses to decide where and when to intervene, we asked Rasmussen? Does NATO feel any responsibility to protect civilians in Syria?
"The guiding question should be: Would it bring a sustainable solution to the problem if we decided to intervene, if we had the legal basis, if we had support from the region?" Rasmussen responded. Even if there was a U.N. mandate for intervention in Syria, the mission simply wouldn't have a high likelihood of success, he argued. "Syria is different."
No NATO member state has requested NATO begin contingency planning for Syria, and no contingency planning is happening, Rasmussen said. He also said NATO will not engage in arming the Syrian opposition. As for NATO member countries, such as France, Turkey, or the United States, "I take it for granted that all our allies on an individual basis will act within international law" regarding arming the rebels, he said.
Rasmussen also took the opportunity of his interview with The Cable to "clearly denounce" recent statements by Russia's once and future President Vladimir Putin, who lashed out against NATO and the United States and accused them of supporting a "string of armed conflicts" as part of a scheme to achieve "absolute invulnerability."
"Nobody has the right to hijack the prerogatives and powers of the U.N.," Putin said. "I am referring primarily to NATO, which seeks to assume a new role that goes beyond its status of a defensive alliance."
Rasmussen defended the NATO intervention in Libya, arguing it stayed within the U.N. mandate, and said the Afghanistan mission is also within its U.N. mandate.
"The core task of NATO is still territorial defense of our populations and our countries. But we also realize that in today's world, the territorial defense of our borders often starts beyond our borders," he said. "As a politician, I'm not surprised that during an election campaign you will see some sharpened statements" from Russia.
Rasmussen had a jam-packed agenda on this two-day visit to Washington, almost all of which was related to preparations for the May NATO summit in Chicago. He began Tuesday with a seminar organized by the NATO Allied Command-Transformation, where officials worked on a "defense package" to be adopted at the summit, which will implement the Rasmussen-supported concept of "smart defense" -- i.e., doing more with less.
"The basic question is, in an environment of declining defense budgets, how can we assure that we have the necessary military capabilities in the future. To that end, we need a smarter way of spending defense money. And a smarter way of doing that is by going to the model of a multinational corporation instead of purely national solutions," Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen said the United States would increase its operational exercises with NATO countries, especially through the new NATO Response Force, to which the United States will contribute a rotational troop presence next year for the first time.
Rasmussen also had meetings with senior Obama administration officials, including a Tuesday evening dinner at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. He met with two senior senators, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Senate Armed Services member Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
One announcement that won't be made at the NATO summit is the alliance's intention to mark 2013 as the year when full, lead combat responsibility will be handed over from NATO to the Afghan security forces. That announcement was originally scheduled for the summit, but Panetta surprised his European and NATO colleagues by inelegantly announcing it on the plane to Brussels earlier this month.
That announcement was "not big news," according to Rasmussen, who pointed out that U.S. and NATO officials were quick to clarify that the 2013 milestone did not change the goal of transferring full control of all territory to the Afghan government by the end of 2014.
"The fact is that we stick to the timetable that we outlined in Lisbon in 2010, so in that there's nothing new," he said. "If we are to complete the transition by the end of 2014, then something may happen in 2013, but that's not an accelerated timetable. You might say that we tried to detail more in the last 18 months of this transition period."
One administration official told The Cable that the reason Panetta blurted out the 2013 milestone inarticulately and months ahead of the planned rollout was that he accidentally read his internal official talking points to reporters on the plane, instead of the talking points for the press. Rasmussen couldn't confirm that's what happened.
"I don't know about that," Rasmussen said. "You had many things up in the air at that time. But I think we clarified everything at the defense ministers' meeting (in Brussels)."
Rasmussen was accompanied in Washington by his new Deputy Secretary General Sandy Vershbow, the recently departed assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, who moved to Brussels and took up his new post two weeks ago without even taking a vacation in between jobs.
"It's quite historic that an American has the position as deputy secretary general," Rasmussen said. "Here you see America actually demonstrate a very clear political commitment to our alliance, which I strongly appreciate."
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) asked all 435 members of Congress to join her at a meeting at the Syrian Embassy in Washington Tuesday, but in the end, she was the only one who attended.
"I invite you to join me, as Members of Congress, at the Syrian Embassy on Tuesday, February 28, 2012, to ask for an immediate cease-fire, a resumption of international mediation, and a peaceful end to this conflict," Jackson Lee wrote to all lawmakers Feb. 27. "We will show our support for the Syrian people and our rejection of the senseless killing of unarmed innocent civilians. This will be a strong diplomatic and symbolic gesture from the U.S. Congress to Syria."
"We will meet with the Syrian chargé d'affaires Zouheir Jabbour at 10:30 a.m. Together, we will express our disapproval of actions taken by President Bashar al Asad's troops against the people of Syria," read the letter, which identified Jackson Lee as the co-chair of Congressional Children's Caucus.
Jackson Lee attended the meeting, but no other lawmakers joined her, her spokesperson told The Cable.
Regardless, Jackson Lee considered the meeting a success because she was able to deliver a letter to Jabbour, this time as a "senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee," that questioned "whether the regime of President Bashar al Assad, whose actions unfortunately have veered into a realm ranging from undesirable to brutal, can handle a growing problem."
She made seven specific demands of Assad in the letter, namely that he: cease fire and cease the violence of the Syrian government, establish a safe camp for all woman and children, allow immediate access for the Syrian Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross, allow immediate access for Poland to remove Western journalists stuck in Homs as well as the bodies of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, allow the removal of all other wounded, make immediate provisions for the safe arrival of medical care and food, and "for President Assad to step down as President IMMEDIATEDLY." (Emphasis in original.)
Jackson Lee also handed Jabbour an identical letter to give to Assad himself, and another copy to give to Syria's Ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha. That copy might be tough to deliver because Moustapha suddenly moved to Beijing amid an FBI investigation into the embassy's alleged spying on Syrian Americans for the purpose of harassing them and their families.
So why didn't any other members of Congress join Lee? Despite the tough tone of her letter, some offices thought that Lee was simply grandstanding and that meeting with the Syrian embassy officials sent the wrong message at the wrong time.
"Essentially she's allowing herself to be used as a propaganda tool by the Assad regime," one senior congressional aide told The Cable. "It's hard to see how show your support for the people of Syria by legitimizing a regime that continues to brutalize them."
The first even "Friends of Syria" meeting Friday in Tunis will focus on ensuring humanitarian access and a possible short-term ceasefire, according to State Department officials traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in London.
Clinton had several meetings with European and Arab leaders on the sidelines of the London conference on Somalia to prepare for "Friends of Syria" event, where dozens of countries will meet to determine what steps the international community can take to bring relief to the communities under siege from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"There is a lot of concern, of course, about what's happening in places like Homs, the horrific conditions in which people [find themselves], and how do we get the right type of humanitarian and medical assistance [into Syria] that people need," a State Department official told reporters traveling with Clinton in London.
"And [there is] general agreement that while all of us have been working with various humanitarian well-known organizations, U.N. organizations on the ground, that the real challenge is the access issue. And it is going to be up to the Syrian government to be -- the Syrian authorities, the Syrian regime -- to respond to the international community's real commitment to provide the type of assistance."
The Tunis meeting should result in concrete proposal for speeding humanitarian and medical assistance to the civilians inside Syria, but all would require the agreement of the Assad regime, the official said.
The second main focus of the Tunis meeting will be to coalesce around a plan to transition toward democracy in Syria. Members of the Syrian National Council, the opposition group composed mostly of people living outside Syria, has its own plan for transition that it will present at the Tunis meeting. That plan and the Arab League backed plan for transition are not mutually exclusive, the State Department official said.
"Everybody is backing the Arab League transition plan who's at the conference tomorrow, but it's incumbent upon the Syrian National Council to talk about how they would translate that transition plan into action on the ground and for them to articulate it in a compelling way that's comprehensible, understandable to Syrians inside and out," said the official.
The third focus of the Tunis meeting will be how the international community can coordinate sanctions to bring maximum pressure and isolation on the Assad regime.
How does the "Friends of Syria" group plan to incentivize Assad to go along with any of these ideas? According to a report by the Associated Press, Clinton and the other leaders are considering issuing Assad a 72-hour ultimatum whereby he would have to agree to a ceasefire and grant humanitarian access or face as yet unspecified additional penalties. The ceasefire could be granted in 2 hour per day increments, as the International Committee for the Red Cross has suggested.
"Clinton met Thursday in London with foreign ministers and senior officials from about a dozen countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates," the AP reported.
Representatives from Syria's internal opposition groups will not be at the conference. One administration official told The Cable that Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had urged in internal discussions that opposition council leaders from Damascus and Homs be included in the Tunis meeting but ultimately they were not invited.
The Obama administration has focused on interacting with the external opposition and avoiding direct contact with the Free Syrian Army, which is working closely with the local rebel councils inside Syria, the administration official said.
But the State Department official speaking with reporters in London said the administration was confident that the SNC was adequately representing the array of opposition groups inside and outside Syria.
"It's a very complicated political situation that they face that the Syrian opposition members, whether they're inside or outside, have a hard time communicating with each other given the restrictions that are put on to the -- onto the Internet, onto movement, given the horrific conditions under which people are living and operating inside Syria," the State Department official said. "The opposition has done a fairly good job of reaching out, being able to synthesize views from across Syria. And I think that all of us are favorably impressed with the direction in which they're moving. But we'll hear from them tomorrow in terms of specific needs."
Fifty-six leading conservative foreign-policy experts wrote an open letter Friday to U.S. President Barack Obama calling on him to directly aid the Syrian opposition and protect the lives of Syrian civilians.
"For eleven months now, the Syrian people have been dying on a daily basis at the hands of their government as they seek to topple the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. As the recent events in the city of Homs-in which hundreds of Syrians have been killed in a matter of days-have shown, Assad will stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power," wrote the experts.
"Unless the United States takes the lead and acts, either individually or in concert with like-minded nations, thousands of additional Syrian civilians will likely die, and the emerging civil war in Syria will likely ignite wider instability in the Middle East."
The letter was organized jointly by the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, both conservative policy organizations in Washington, D.C. Signees included Max Boot, Paul Bremer, Elizabeth Cheney, Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, John Hannah, William Inboden, William Kristol, Michael Ledeen, Clifford May, Robert McFarlane, Martin Peretz, Danielle Pletka, John Podhoretz, Stephen Rademaker, Karl Rove, Randy Scheunemann, Dan Senor, James Woolsey, Dov Zakheim, and Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council.
The letter calls on Obama to immediately establish safe zones within Syrian territory, establish contacts with and provide assistance to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), give communications and logistical assistance to the Syrian opposition, and enact further sanctions on the Syrian regime and its leaders.
The letter comes one day before the first "Friends of Syria" contact-group meeting in Tunisia and on the same day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton in Washington.
On Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the government sponsored violence in Syria, but the letter argues that multilateral efforts to protect civilians in Syria have thus far failed.
"The Syrian people are asking for international assistance," it reads. "It is apparent that American leadership is required to ensure the quickest end to the Assad regime's brutal reign, and to clearly show the Syrian people that, as you said on February 4, 2012, the people of the free world stand with them as they seek to realize their aspirations."
Read the full letter after the jump:
Russia and Iran are continuing to send arms to the Syrian regime that can be used against protesters, a top State Department official said today.
"Iran is resupplying Syria and through Syria has supplied weapons to Hezbollah," said Tom Countryman, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, at a Wednesday morning breakfast meeting of the Defense Writers Group in Washington.
Countryman's bureau plays a major role in monitoring international compliance with nonproliferation and arms control rules. He declined to go into specifics on what arms Iran and Russia are giving the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but he confirmed that both countries are still supplying arms that can be used to attack civilians and opposition groups inside Syria, who are engaged in an increasingly bloody struggle with the government.
"We do not believe that Russian shipments of weapons to Syria are in the interests of Russia or Syria," he said.
According to Countryman, the Iranian weapons being funneled through the Syrian government to Hezbollah are not being used by Hezbollah inside Syria, but are being transferred to Hezbollah groups inside Syria's neighbor Lebanon.
Countryman also said the U.S. government is working with allies to try to get a handle on the stores of conventional, biological, and chemical weapons inside Syria, to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands if and when the Assad regime collapses.
There are "tens of thousands" of MANPADS - shoulder-fired missile systems -- in Syria and nobody really knows where they all are, Countryman said. Unlike Libya, Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, so there is no official reporting on its store of those weapons, but the effort to locate them is underway.
"We have ideas as to the quantity and we have ideas as to where they are," Countryman said. "We wish some of the neighbors of Syria to be on the lookout... When you get a change of regime in Syria, it matters what are the conditions -- chaotic or orderly."
He also commented on the news that Iran has sent a letter to EU High Representative Catherine Ashton proposing a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries, a letter that Ashton has already said does not contain enough new concessions to justify a new meeting.
"This would be a good day for [Iran] to answer a letter sent four months ago," Countryman said, but what Iran really needs to do is open up fully to IAEA inspectors and directly address all of the questions about its nuclear program.
"There is a path forward where Iran can pursue peaceful use of nuclear energy," he said.
Former National Security Council Senior Director Dennis Ross argued in a New York Times op-ed today that the window for diplomacy with Iran is now open again because of the pressure wrought on Iran by international sanctions.
"The Obama administration has now created a situation in which diplomacy has a chance to succeed," wrote Ross. "It remains an open question whether it will."
The Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha has been missing in action for months. So where did he go? As it turns out, he moved to China!
Moustapha, who is the subject of an FBI investigation for his alleged role in intimidating Syrian-American protesters and their families, is still listed as the Syria's ambassador to the United States on the Syrian embassy's website. But on his personal blog Feb. 8, he suddenly announced he and his family had moved to China, in a post entitled "A Fresh Start from the Middle Kingdom."
"Now that we have moved to China, I plan to resume blogging about my life, family and friends in China, as well as writing on Chinese culture, history and art," he wrote in his first post since August 2011. "I have a feeling that this is going to be a wonderful journey of learning, exploring, and, most importantly, serendipitously discovering one of the most remarkable world civilizations. I hope you will enjoy my Chinese adventure."
Moustapha had been implicated in the Justice Department's look into Syrian spying activities in Washington, an investigation that resulted in the October arrest of Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, a Syrian-American living in Virginia. Soueid stands accused of working as an agent for the Syrian intelligence service as part of a conspiracy to harass the Syrian-based families of protesters and dissidents in the United States.
"Syrian Ambassador to the U.S. Imad Mustafa is involved in activities that vary between espionage, threatening Syrian dissidents, and lobbying and organizing rallies in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad," wrote Hussain Abdul-Hussain, the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai, in June.
In July, it was reported that the FBI and the State Department's Diplomatic Security Bureau were investigating the Syrian embassy for using its diplomatic staff to spy on Syrian-Americans in Washington for the purpose of threatening their families back in Syria.
In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the embassy's information was being used back in Syria to arrest and even attack family members of protesters. Moustapha dismissed the allegations as "slander and sheer lies." But he stopped blogging and disappeared from Washington soon thereafter.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford returned to Washington last week, not as a diplomatic punishment to the Syrian regime, but because the streets surrounding the American compound in Damascus became too dangerous. But if Washington wants to formally expel the Syrian ambassador to the United States, it will have to send that notice to him in Beijing.
Or the State Department can just leave a comment on his blog, since he seems to be using it again.
Ironically, Moustapha himself seemed to predict the currently unfolding events in Syria on his blog last March, when he wrote a post about the Egyptian revolution and the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
"What has happened in Egypt in the past month is something of great historic significance," he wrote. "The ramifications of this revolution will continue to unfold, and its impact will reverberate for years to come."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford took to the U.S. Embassy Damascus Facebook page Thursday to explain the reasons for the closing of the embassy Feb. 6 and to offer new evidence that the Syrian regime is attacking civilians.
"First, like people around the world, my colleagues and friends are watching the video coming out of Homs and some of the other Syrian cities in the last days with horror and revulsion," Ford wrote. "I hear the devastating stories about newborns in Homs dying in hospitals where electricity has been cut and when we see disturbing photos offering proof that the regime is using mortars and artillery against residential neighborhoods, all of us become even more concerned about the tragic outcome for Syrian civilians." [emphasis in the original]
"It is odd to me that anyone would try to equate the actions of the Syrian army and armed opposition groups since the Syrian government consistently initiates the attacks on civilian areas, and it is using its heaviest weapons," he continued, in a not-so-veiled reference to Russian and Chinese diplomats, who made that very argument before vetoing the Arab League backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 4.
Ford also went into the reason behind the embassy closing, which he said was the most taxing day in his multi-decade diplomatic career.
"I left Damascus with immense sadness and regret-I wish our departure had not been necessary, but our Embassy, along with several other diplomatic missions in the area, was not sufficiently protected, given the new security concerns in the capital," he wrote. "We and those other embassies requested extra protection measures from the Syrian government, given the danger to both our citizens and the Syrian citizens that worked with and near us. Our concerns were not addressed."
Ford said he remains the ambassador and will work in Washington "to support a peaceful transition for the Syrian people." [italics original]
"We and our international partners hope to see a transition that reaches out and includes all of Syria's communities and that gives all Syrians hope for a better future," Ford wrote. "My year in Syria tells me such a transition is possible, but not when one side constantly initiates attacks against people taking shelter in their homes."
UPDATE: The State Department released a set of declassified satellite photos Friday as evidence the Syrian military is attacking civilians. Those photos can be found here.
U.S. Department of State
A bipartisan group of senators will introduce a resolution Friday calling on the Obama administration to start providing direct material and technical assistance to the Syrian opposition.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs subcommittee, and committee member Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) are leading the charge on the resolution, which will be formally introduced Friday afternoon but was obtained in advance by The Cable. The resolution would set into writing that it is the sense of the Senate that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should leave power and that the United States should begin providing direct support to the opposition to make that happen.
"The Senate... urges the President to support an effective transition to democracy in Syria by identifying and providing substantial material and technical support, upon request, to Syrian organizations that are representative of the people of Syria, make demonstrable commitments to protect human rights and religious freedom, reject terrorism, cooperate with international counterterrorism and nonproliferation efforts, and abstain from destabilizing neighboring countries."
The State Department has said it could provide humanitarian assistance in Syria but has stopped short of pledging any aid that could be used in the burgeoning civil war between the opposition and the Syrian regime.
The resolution also urges Obama to add more targeted sanctions on Syrian officials, establish a "Friends of the Syrian People" group, engage the international community on the potential to provide safe havens for Syrian civilians, begin discussions about prosecuting those guilty of war crimes in Syria, and get a handle on the vulnerability and security of Syria's conventional, biological, chemical, and other weapons.
The senators also call out Russia and China for vetoing the recent United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria and condemn Russia and Iran for supplying the Syrian regime with weapons.
"Bashar al-Assad is responsible for killing at least 6,000 Syrian men, women, and children. The regime's brutal violence has torn the country apart and threatens to destabilize the entire region. The international community can and should do more to support the people of Syria during this terrible hour in their history," said Casey, in a statement to The Cable.
"The Syrian people can't expect Assad to heed calls for his departure, nor can they rely on the United Nations to act. For the sake of innocent lives in Syria and the security of the entire region, the United States must keep up the pressure on the regime and begin planning for a post-Assad Syria," Rubio said in his own statement. "We need to hasten Assad's departure from power and also lay the groundwork for the difficult path towards a true, inclusive democracy."
The other original co-sponsors of the resolution are Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Jon Kyl (R-AZ). We're told the resolution could be on the agenda for the SRFC's next business meeting on Valentine's Day. If approved, it could then go to the Senate floor via a number of different avenues.
The resolution notes that Syria is a signatory to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It then expresses the sense of the Senate that the Syrian regime has pursued a brutal crackdown that includes "gross human rights violations, use of force against civilians, torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary executions, sexual violence, and interference with access to medical treatment."
The senators also quote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Jan. 30 statement, when she said, "The status quo is unsustainable....The longer the Assad regime continues its attacks on the Syrian people and stands in the way of a peaceful transition, the greater the concern that instability will escalate and spill over throughout the region."
Your humble Cable guy discussed the violence in Syria and the United Nations Security Council's failed effort last weekend to build international consensus on how to deal with the crisis on Monday evening's edition of the Rachel Maddow show with guest host Chris Hayes.
Take a look:
The Syrian people have the right to fight back against their government and the international community has several options to help them in that regard, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Saturday.
As the tempo and intensity of Bashar al-Assad regime's violence against civilian accelerates and the U.N. Security Council remains paralyzed, the United States and its partners are planning their next steps. As a press conference Saturday night at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, several members of the U.S. congressional delegation laid out several ideas under consideration for protecting the Syrian people.
"There are many different options as to how we can do that," said Kerry. "There are the early beginnings of a civil war taking place in Syria. And if the government is going to kill randomly, people deserve the right to defend and fight for themselves."
Kerry declined to specify what steps Washington might take to directly support the internal Syrian opposition or the Free Syria Army, the ragtag defectors who have taken up arms against Assad, but he warned the Syrian government and its supporters Russia and China that the United States would not stand idly by.
"Syria is not Libya," Kerry said. "But nobody should interpret that statement to suggest that it means that Syrian leaders can rely on the notion that they can act with impunity and not expect the international community to assist the Syrian people in some way."
He also insisted that there will be another round of negotiations on a Security Council resolution regarding Syria, despite the vetoes by Russia and China that followed last week's efforts to build world consensus on the way forward.
"I'm confident this will be revisited," Kerry said. "Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and Ambassador [to the U.N. Susan] Rice are prepared in a competent way to embrace Russian and Chinese concerns, but not in ways that would undermine the ability of the people in Syria to have their voices heard or to be oppressed or create a longer stalemate."
He continued: "I think that balance can be found, I'm confident it will be found. There will be another shot at the effort but it is really important for Russia and China, critical leaders in the world today [to join us]. They have an opportunity in the next days to step up and were inviting them to do so. I hope they will join us on such a critical statement with respect to rights of innocent people."
Speaking at the press conference in Munich Sunday night, congressional delegation leaders John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) laid out more specific ideas on how the international community can help the people of Syria.
"There's a lot we can do to provide moral support and to provide material support, along with Turkey and other nations, in assisting these people with medical care and other assistance," McCain said. "I do not know how Russia and China can represent themselves as members of the world community and still oppose a resolution that would help bring this bloodletting to an end."
Lieberman said he hopes some sense could be talked to the Russians and the Chinese and that the Security Council would work on another resolution.
"But if that doesn't work I don't think we can just stand by. I hope the international community and the U.S. will provide assistance to the Syrian Free Army in the various ways we can. I hope we will work with Turkey and Jordan to create safe havens on the borders of those two countries with Syria," Lieberman said. "What's happening in Syria today is exactly what we got involve in Libya to stop from happening.... I understand Syria is more complicated, but one choice we don't have is just to stand back and let the government kill people who are fighting for their own freedom."
Speaking on Monday in Bulgaria, Clinton laid out the most specific ideas to date about how the Obama administration plans to move forward on the issue.
"So what do we do? Well, faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future. We have to increase diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime and work to convince those people around President Assad that he must go, and that there has to be a recognition of that and a new start to try to form a government that will represent all of the people of Syria," she said.
The Obama administration will seek new regional and international sanctions against Syria and will try to expose those who are still funding and arming the regime, Clinton said. She also promised to increase contacts with the Syrian opposition and provide humanitarian relief to the Syrian people.
Clinton didn't, however, promise another run at the Security Council, indicating only that more diplomatic efforts were on the way.
"Over the coming days, I will be consulting closely with our allies and partners in Europe, in the Arab League, and around the world," she said. "So we will be consulting with the foreign minister here and others about what we can do to rescue this deteriorating situation before it's too late."
Now that Russia and China have vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria, what does the international community intend to do next and how will the situation play out? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said just now there's no way to know.
"We don't know what the endgame will be until we start the game," Clinton said at a press conference at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, just minutes before Russia and China killed the resolution put forth by Morocco and supported by the United States and several other security council members. "Asking what the end game is can't be answered until we actually start to bring about the changes that we think will be beneficial."
Clinton warned that more violence would be in the offing if the security council was not able to act immediately.
"The endgame, in the absence of us acting together as the international community, is civil war," she said. "The potential endgames, if we are serious about putting this kind of international pressure on the Assad regime, making it clear to the opposition that they should pursue their changes in a peaceful manner, is the possibility of the beginning of a transition."
Clinton said in the best case scenario, the situation in Syrian could be "similar to what we see now in Yemen."
"They (in Yemen) are going to have an election. They are going to have a chance to at least try to move forward," Clinton said.
She added that "military intervention has been absolutely ruled out and we have made that clear from the very beginning."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained about the lack of a clear post-resolution strategy for Syria in his remarks in Munich Saturday morning. He said clearly that without further changes to the resolution, Russia would use its veto power.
"We asked the Americans and the Europeans, ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well, in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said. "It's not a serious policy."
Despite those comments, Clinton expressed hope the resolution would pass - just before it failed.
"The draft on the table being considered as I speak gives full backing to a Syrian led process that will benefit the region and the world, and give the Syrian people the chance they deserve. We should act now," Clinton said at the Saturday press conference just before the vote.
Clinton said that during her long meeting with Lavrov Saturday, she told him she was willing to try to find ways to bridge the gaps between the draft resolution and Russian concerns. But following the meeting, it became increasingly clear there was no way to find consensus, so the U.S. and its allies decided to move ahead.
"I thought that there might be some ways, even at this last moment, to address a few of the concerns that the Russians had. I offered to work in a constructive manner to do so. That has not been possible and we are going forward, as we said we would," she said.
Russia and China are now complicit in the atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime, Clinton argued.
"It is difficult to imagine that after the bloodiest day yet in Syria, there are those who would prevent the world community from condemning this violence. And I would ask them, what more do we need to know to act decisively in the security council?" she said. "To block this resolution is to bear the responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria."
U.S. Ambassador to the U.S. Susan Rice said she was "outraged" at Russia and China's stance and Rice called the opposition to the resolution a "cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people."
MUNICH - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave opposing public speeches Saturday on what should be done in Syria, and then took their dispute behind closed doors in a heated bilateral meeting, in advance of Saturday's U.N. Security Council action in New York.
"As a tyrant in Damascus brutalizes his own people, the U.S. and Europe stand shoulder to shoulder," Clinton said in her speech at the 2012 Munich Security Conference. "We are united, alongside the Arab League, in demanding an end to the bloodshed and a democratic future for Syria. And we are hopeful that at 10 AM eastern standard time in New York, the security council will express the will of the international community."
Well, the 10 AM deadline has come and gone, but State Department officials insist the U.S. is committed to holding a vote on the latest draft resolution on the situation on Syria today, despite persistent Russian concerns over the text, which were outlined by Lavrov in his speech only minutes after Clinton left the stage.
Lavrov said that Russia stands by the Syrian people but not the "armed groups" in Syria that he alleged were contributing to the violence. He said Russia would not agree to any resolution that amounts to outside interference or presupposes the political outcome in Syria other than supporting a dialogue between the two sides.
"The problem is, the peaceful protesters have our full support, but they are being used by the armed groups, who create trouble. And this is reaching quite dangerous proportions," Lavrov said.
Lavrov said Russia had two main problems with the current draft of the resolution. He said the current draft resolution "left the door open to military intervention to the outside," because it does not include a Russian drafted statement that would explicitly say a military intervention is not authorized.
He also said the draft resolution seeks to prejudge the results of a national Syrian dialogue because it refers to the Arab League Initiative's report and says the process should follow the Arab's League's schedule for resolution of the transition of power in Syria.
"If this resolution is adopted and Assad doesn't go, we asked the Americans and the Europeans ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said.
"It's not a serious policy," he insisted.
Lavrov heavily criticized the Arab League monitoring mission and defended Russian arms sales to the Syrian regime, which continue to this day. Lavrov said the U.N. charter does not allow interference in internal domestic affairs and that without Russian support, any plan devised in the security council would not be viable.
The Cable asked Lavrov whether Russia was concerned about ending up on the wrong side of history in Russia by supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"We are not friends or allies of Assad," Lavrov responded, "We try to stick to our responsibilities as permanent members of the security council and the security council doesn't by definition engage in the internal affairs of states, it's about maintaining international peace and security."
The Cable followed Lavrov out of the conference hall and into his bilateral meeting with Clinton. Clinton was joined in the meeting by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher, NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder, and Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
A senior State Department official said the meeting went longer than planned, 45 minutes, and two thirds of that time was spent discussing the U.N. Security Council situation regarding Syria.
"The secretary and the foreign minister had a very vigorous discussion," the official said. "The secretary made clear that the U.S. feels strongly that the U.N. Security Council should vote today."
The official would not going into the details of the bilateral discussion on Syria but said it's safe to assume that Clinton and Lavrov did not resolve their differences over the way ahead.
"Foreign Minister Lavrov did not dispute the urgency of the situation and the action now moves to New York," the official said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will go the United Nations on Tuesday to press the Security Council to take action regarding Syria, in light of what the State Department is calling a "sharp escalation of regime violence."
The Arab-European draft resolution was discussed on Jan. 27 behind closed doors at the U.N. Security Council and will see public debate on Tuesday. It calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy and says additional measures will be taken if he doesn't comply within 15 days. In anticipation of that debate, where Russia is expected to staunchly oppose any resolution calling for Assad's departure, Clinton issued a new statement on the situation inside Syria that many saw as newly aggressive rhetoric from President Barack Obama's administration.
"In the past few days we have seen intensified Syrian security operations all around the country which have killed hundreds of civilians. The government has shelled civilian areas with mortars and tank fire and brought down whole buildings on top of their occupants. The violence has escalated to the point that the Arab League has had to suspend its monitoring mission. The regime has failed to meet its commitments to the Arab League to halt its acts of violence, withdraw its military forces from residential areas, allow journalists and monitors to operate freely and release prisoners arrested because of the current unrest," Clinton said in the statement.
"The Security Council must act and make clear to the Syrian regime that the world community views its actions as a threat to peace and security. The violence must end, so that a new period of democratic transition can begin," she said. "Tomorrow, I will attend a United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria where the international community should send a clear message of support to the Syrian people: we stand with you. The Arab League is backing a resolution that calls on the international community to support its ongoing efforts, because the status quo is unsustainable. The longer the Assad regime continues its attacks on the Syrian people and stands in the way of a peaceful transition, the greater the concern that instability will escalate and spill over throughout the region."
Clinton's statement comes after weeks of careful planning inside the Obama administration on when and how to confront the escalating violence in Syria. National Security Council Senior Director Steve Simon had been leading a small interagency team to game out U.S. policy options, but now the administration's policy machinery has kicked into full gear, meeting often to discuss a range of diplomatic maneuvers that could increase pressure on the Assad regime.
There's no longer any expectation inside the administration that Moscow will support international action aimed at removing Assad from power, even by non-military means. But the U.N. confrontation is meant to isolate Russia diplomatically and make it clear that the Arab League and its Western friends have exhausted all diplomatic options before moving to directly aid the internal opposition, if that decision is ultimately made.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Monday that Clinton, Deputy Secretary Bill Burns, and Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman have all been working the phones hard to build support for the U.N. resolution. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been "unavailable" while traveling in Australia, even though Clinton has been trying to reach him all day.
"The message that we are sending, the message that the secretary will send tomorrow when she goes to New York, is that the Security Council now needs to act, because the spiral of violence is dangerous not only for Damascus, not only for Syria and all Syrians, but it's also dangerous in the region, because obviously, you know, we've now got a cycle of violence that is quite worrying," Nuland said.
"You think there is still a path out for the regime?" one reporter asked.
"Well, that's obviously still on the table," Nuland said. "It requires Assad to step aside. "
MARTIAL TREZZINI/AFP/Getty Image
Amid growing concerns about security in Damascus, the Obama administration is considering closing the U.S. Embassy in Damascus unless the Syrian government can guarantee security in the area, The Cable has learned.
An administration official confirmed to The Cable Friday that U.S. officials have been in discussions with the Syrian regime in an effort to negotiate new security agreements for the streets surrounding the embassy, which have become more and more dangerous for U.S. personnel as the violence in Damascus has drawn closer to the central city. Those streets house several other foreign embassies as well, meaning that if the Syrian government does not meet requests for better security guarantees, several countries could be forced to roll up their diplomatic presence in Damascus, despite their preference to stay.
"We've had serious concerns about the fact that the mission is exposed, as have other embassies," the administration official told The Cable. "We've been in to see the Syrians to request extra security measures. They are deciding what they can do. If they can't meet our concerns, we're going to have to consider closing [the embassy]."
Over the past few months, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has worked to keep the embassy open and functioning amid physical attacks on him and the embassy building, usually by groups of thugs who support the Syrian regime. Unlike newer embassy designs, the U.S. facility in Damascus sits right on the street, dangerously exposed.
"He's been working on this for a couple of weeks," the official said. The official declined to specify exactly what the security threats are or how long the Syrian government has to make up its mind.
The embassy staff remains the administration's best eyes and ears on what's going on inside Syria, U.S. officials argue, as they maintain links with both the government and the opposition.
Last week, the State Department announced that more U.S. diplomats would be leaving Damascus due to the deteriorating security situation there.
"Due to security concerns in Syria, in October 2011, the embassy was designated an unaccompanied post with restricted staffing. The Department has decided to further reduce the number of employees present in Damascus, and has ordered a number of employees to depart Syria as soon as possible," stated a Jan. 11 travel warning. "U.S. citizens should avoid all travel to Syria."
We'll bring you more as the situation develops...
The State Department is further scaling down the staff at the U.S. embassy in Damascus, citing increased violence and the inability of U.S. diplomats to effectively do their jobs there.
"Due to security concerns in Syria, in October 2011, the embassy was designated an unaccompanied post with restricted staffing. The Department has decided to further reduce the number of employees present in Damascus, and has ordered a number of employees to depart Syria as soon as possible," stated a Jan. 11 travel warning. "U.S. citizens should avoid all travel to Syria."
Airline services into and out of Syria are also cutting operations and U.S. citizens should leave now if they can, the travel warning stated. The consular section at the U.S. embassy in Damascus is no longer going to be open to the public, so American citizens will now have to make an appointment. Moreover, the embassy is warning Americans that if they get in trouble in Syria, they might be on their own.
"Our ability to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency is extremely limited and may be further constrained by the fluid security situation," the warning said. "Syrian efforts to attribute the current civil unrest to external influences have led to an increase in anti-foreigner sentiment. Detained U.S. citizens may find themselves subject to allegations of incitement or espionage. Contrary to the terms of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, of which Syria is a signatory, Syrian authorities generally do not notify the U.S. Embassy of the arrest of a U.S. citizen until days or weeks after the arrest. Moreover, in the past, security officials have not responded to U.S. Embassy requests for consular access, especially in cases of persons detained for ‘security' reasons. There have been numerous credible reports of torture in Syrian prisons."
One embassy official who won't be leaving, however, is Ambassador Robert Ford, who continues to engage Syrians both in person and on the U.S. embassy's Facebook page. In his Jan. 5 post, Ford acknowledged that terrorists may be attacking the Syrian regime but said that the regime was broadly responsible for the violence.
"Indeed there are terrorists attacking people in Syria. I'm the American ambassador and I just acknowledged it; in fact we've acknowledged and condemned violence all along," wrote Ford. "We strongly condemned the December 23 suicide car bomb attacks. But the question is what started all this violence and how to stop it? Can the Syrian government oppress a large part of the population that demands dignity and respect of basic human rights or is its violence making things even worse?"
French journalist Gilles Jacquier was killed in the city of Homs today on a government-sponsored trip of the city, becoming the first Western reporter killed during the Syria conflict. The perpetrators of the attack remain a mystery.
As the violence in Syria spirals out of control, top officials in President Barack Obama's administration are quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition, including gaming out the unlikely option of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and preparing for another major diplomatic initiative.
Critics on Capitol Hill accuse the Obama administration of being slow to react to the quickening deterioration of the security situation in Syria, where more than 5,000 people have died, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many lawmakers say the White House is once again "leading from behind," while the Turks, the French, and the Arab League -- which sent an observer mission to Syria this week -- pursue more aggressive strategies for pressuring the Assad regime. But U.S. officials insist that they are moving cautiously to avoid destabilizing Syria further, and to make sure they know as much as possible about the country's complex dynamics before getting more involved.
The administration does see the status quo in Syria as unsustainable. Bashar al-Assad's regime is a "dead man walking," State Department official Fred Hof said this month. Now, the administration is ramping up its policymaking machinery on the issue after several weeks of having no top-level administration meetings to discuss the Syria crisis. The National Security Council (NSC) has begun an informal, quiet interagency process to create and collect options for aiding the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.
The process, led by NSC Senior Director Steve Simon, involves only a few select officials from State, Defense, Treasury, and other relevant agencies. The group is unusually small, presumably to prevent media leaks, and the administration is not using the normal process of Interagency Policy Committee, Deputies Committee, or Principals Committee meetings, the officials said. (Another key official inside the discussions is Hof, who is leading the interactions with Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. allies.)
The options under consideration include establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya), according to the two officials, both of whom are familiar with the discussions but not in attendance at the meetings.
"The interagency is now looking at options for Syria, but it's still at the preliminary stage," one official said. "There are many people in the administration that realize the status quo is unsustainable and there is an internal recognition that existing financial sanctions are not going to bring down the Syrian regime in the near future."
After imposing several rounds of financial sanctions on Syrian regime leaders, the focus is now shifting to assisting the opposition directly. The interagency process is still ongoing and the NSC has tasked State and DOD to present options in the near future, but nothing has been decided, said the officials -- one of whom told The Cable that the administration was being intentionally careful out of concern about what comes next in Syria.
"Due to the incredible and far-reaching ramifications of the Syrian problem set, people are being very cautious," the official said. "The criticism could be we're not doing enough to change the status quo because we're leading from behind. But the reason we are being so cautious is because when you look at the possible ramifications, it's mindboggling."
A power vacuum in the country, loose weapons of mass destruction, a refugee crisis, and unrest across the region are just a few of the problems that could attend the collapse of the Assad regime, the official said.
"This isn't Libya. What happens in Libya stays in Libya, but that is not going to happen in Syria. The stakes are higher," the official said. "Right now, we see the risks of moving too fast as higher than the risks of moving too slow."
The option of establishing a humanitarian corridor is seen as extremely unlikely because it would require establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, which would likely involve large-scale attacks on Syrian air defense and military command-and-control systems.
"That's theoretically one of the options, but it's so far out of the realm that no one is thinking about that seriously at the moment," another administration official said.
Although the opposition is decidedly split on the issue, Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), earlier this month called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.
"Our main objective is finding mechanisms to protect civilians and stop the killing machine," said Ghalioun. "We say it is imperative to use forceful measures to force the regime to respect human rights."
Is the U.S. bark worse than its bite?
Rhetorically, the administration has been active in calling for Assad to step aside and emphasizing the rights of Syrian protesters, despite the lack of clear policy to achieve either result. "The United States continues to believe that the only way to bring about the change that the Syrian people deserve is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Dec. 21.
On Tuesday, Dec. 27, the administration hinted at stronger action if the Syrian government doesn't let the Arab League monitors do their work. "If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
The SNC, the primary organization representing the opposition, has been very clear that it is seeking more than rhetorical support from the United States and the international community. An extensive policy paper titled, "Safe Area for Syria," edited by SNC member Ausama Monajed, laid out the argument for armed intervention by the international community to aid Syrian civilians.
"The Syrian National Council (SNC) is entering a critical phase in the Syrian revolution whereby the hope of a continued campaign of passive resistance to an exceptionally brutal and unrestrained regime is becoming more and more akin to a suicide pact," the paper stated.
But Washington is uncomfortable acting in concert with the SNC: Officials say there is a lack of confidence that the SNC, which is strongly influenced by expatriate Syrians, has the full support of the internal opposition. U.S. officials are also wary of supporting the Syria Free Army, made up of Syrian military defectors and armed locals, as they do not want to be seen as becoming militarily engaged against the regime -- a story line they fear that Assad could use for his own propaganda, officials said.
There is also some internal bureaucratic wrangling at play. This summer, when the issue of sending emergency medical equipment into Syria came up in a formal interagency meeting, disputes over jurisdiction stalled progress on the discussion, officials told The Cable. No medical aid was sent.
For now, the administration is content to let the Arab League monitoring mission play out and await its Jan. 20 report. The officials said that the administration hopes to use the report to begin a new diplomatic initiative in late January at the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad and authorize direct assistance to the opposition.
The officials acknowledged that this new initiative could fail due to Russian support for the Assad regime. If that occurs, the administration would work with its allies such as France and Turkey to establish their own justification for non-military humanitarian intervention in Syria, based on evidence from the Arab League report and other independent reporting on Assad's human rights abuses. This process could take weeks, however, meaning that material assistance from the United States to the Syrian opposition probably wouldn't flow at least until late February or early March. Between now and then, hundreds or even thousands more could be killed.
There is also disagreement within the administration about whether the Arab League observer mission is credible and objective.
"This is an Arab issue right now, and the Arab League is really showing initiative for the first time in a long time," said one administration official.
"[The Arab League monitoring mission] is all Kabuki theatre," said another administration official who does not work directly on Syria. "We're intentionally setting the bar too high [for intervention] as means of maintaining the status quo, which is to do nothing."
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the administration was caught offguard by how the opposition became militarized so quickly. The administration's message had been to urge the opposition to remain peaceful, but that ship has now sailed, he said.
"We have a pretty strong policy of not engaging the Syria Free Army directly, because earlier it was agreed that peaceful protesters had the moral high ground over the regime and were more able to encourage defections," he said. "But there was no clear light at the end of that peaceful protest strategy. We assumed, incorrectly, that the civil resistance strategies used in Egypt and Tunisia were being adopted by the Syrian opposition, but that didn't happen."
Most experts in Washington have a deep skepticism toward the Arab League monitoring mission. For one thing, it is led by a Sudanese general who has been accused of founding the Arab militias that wreaked havoc in Darfur. Also, many doubt that 150 monitors that will eventually be in Syria can cover the vast number of protests and monitor such a large country.
The Assad regime has also been accused of subverting the monitoring mission by moving political prisoners to military sites that are off-limits to monitors, repositioning tanks away from cities only when monitors are present, and having soldiers pose as police to downplay the military's role in cracking down on the protesters.
"It seems awfully risky for the U.S. to be putting its chips all in on that mission," said Tony Badran, a research fellow with the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "There never was a serious mechanism for it to be a strong initiative."
Badran said that the Arab League monitoring mission just gives the Assad regime time and space to maneuver, and provides Russia with another excuse to delay international action on Syria.
"Now you understand why the Russians pushed the Syrians to accept the monitors," he said. "It allows the Syrians to delay the emergence of consensus."
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the administration is trying to balance the value of protecting civilians with the interests of trying to ensure a measure of stability in Syria.
"The biggest thing is extensive consultation with as many international allies as possible. That's another feature of this administration," said Katulis. "And when change does come to Syria, the Syrians have to own it."
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
The top U.S. official at NATO said Monday that there is zero planning -- or even thinking -- going on about a military intervention in Syria.
"There has been no planning, no thought, and no discussion about any intervention into Syria. It just isn't part of the envelope of thinking, among individual countries and certainly among the 28 [full NATO members]," said Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO. "If things change, things change. But as of today, that's where the reality stands."
Daalder, speaking to an audience at the Atlantic Council, is in town along with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who will meet later today with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They will be discussing the NATO summit to be held in Chicago next May and taking a victory lap following the fall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Daalder said that there were three overarching conditions that need to be met before the Obama administration would even consider any future military intervention such as occurred in Libya.
"The formula was that there needs to be a demonstrable need, regional support, and sound legal basis for action," said Daalder. "It's those three things we need to look for before we even think about the possibility of action. None of them apply in Syria."
Daalder also noted that there is not enough evidence that air strikes would be effective in Syria, that the opposition and the Arab League have not asked for intervention, and that the U.N. Security Council has refused to act.
Daalder said several times that the United States had not been "leading from behind" in Libya, and he offered his take on the Obama administration's foreign-policy philosophy, as implemented during the Libya intervention.
"The administration came to power with a particular view about how the world worked. And that was a view that in an age of globalization, security was no longer principally determined by geography, but developments anywhere in the world could have a major security impact at home, so as a result you had to find a way to work with others," he said. "The lynchpin of Obama foreign policy was rebuilding partnerships and alliances."
"As part of that analysis, there was also a belief that the era when the United States could decide, determine, and do everything by itself had also come to an end," he said.
The United States is conducting an exercise to examine the lessons learned during the Libya intervention. However, Daalder said that although the European countries ran short of key items such as precision missiles during the war, the United States was perfectly well-prepared and did everything basically right throughout the mission.
"I'm not sure there is a lesson we need to learn for the United States," Daalder said. "In terms of capabilities, we know where the shortfalls are, but they are European shortfalls.... We could have done this campaign by ourselves. But the wise decision was not to do something we could, because others could help too."
Daalder also acknowledged that NATO-Russia talks over missile defense cooperation are at an impasse over a dispute regarding Russian demands for written assurances that U.S. systems are incapable of being used against Russia. The United States has no intention of giving such assurances, according to Daalder.
"We have put on the table numerous proposals for cooperation, which in many ways take their proposals as the basis," he said.
"They want a written guarantee that is legally binding that says the system will be incapable and will never be directed against them," he said. "And we have said that a legal guarantee like that is not something we want nor something we could ratify."
The State Department has brought U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford back to Washington for an indeterminate period of time either because he was under threat of attack or for consultations, or both, depending on which State Department spokesman you listen to.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner sent out an e-mail early Monday morning announcing Ford had left Damascus on Oct. 22 due to threats of violence against him.
"Ambassador Robert Ford was brought back to Washington as a result of credible threats against his personal safety in Syria," Toner said. "At this point, we can't say when he will return to Syria. It will depend on our assessment of Syrian regime-led incitement and the security situation on the ground... This decision was based solely on the need to ensure his safety, a matter we take extremely seriously."
Ford has been assaulted at least twice while venturing out to engage the opposition in Syria over the recent months, and Syrian state media has been waging a media campaign against him. Toner's statement seemed to indicate a new, specific threat, but no details were provided and requests for more information were not answered.
By Monday afternoon, when lead spokesperson Victoria Nuland took the podium at today's press briefing, the reasons given for Ford's return to Washington had changed. Nuland said that Ford was called back for "consultations," and to give him a rest from the stressful situation in Syria.
"Let me correct a misimpression in the media. Ambassador Ford has been asked to come home for consultations. He has not been withdrawn; he has not been recalled. He's been asked to come home for consultations," Nuland said.
"First of all, we want a chance to consult with him, talk to him about how he sees the situation in Damascus. It's also the case that, you know, the situation there is quite tense, and we want to give him a little bit of a break."
Nuland also said the State Department is "concerned about a campaign of regime-led incitement targeted personally at Ambassador Ford by the state-run media of the government of Syria, and we're concerned about the security situation that that has created."
But she would not acknowledge that there any specific new threats against Ford's safety and refused to discuss what, if any, intelligence led to the decision to bring him home for an indeterminate period of time.
"I want to say that we do expect Ambassador Ford will be returning to Damascus after his consultations are completed," Nuland said, declining to say what criteria would be used to determined when Ford could return to Damascus.
The reporters at the briefing noted that Nuland's remarks seemed to be walking back Toner's Monday morning statement, which only mentioned the "credible threats" against Ford.
Nuland, however, stuck to her guns. "Are we finished with Syria? Have we exhausted Syria? I'm exhausted; I don't know about you guys," she said at one point in the questioning on the topic.
Nuland also rejected the comments of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who said in Jordan that the United States may consider military options inside Syria.
"The vast majority of the Syrian opposition continues to speak in favor of peaceful, nonviolent protests and against foreign intervention of any kind, and particularly foreign military intervention, into the situation in Syria, and we respect that," she said.
The death of Muammar al-Qaddafi today shows what's in store for the leadership of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which will probably be the next group of tyrants to be thrown out of office and potentially killed, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), told The Cable.
"If you're the leaders of Syria, you're looking at today's events as a preview of what your future may hold," Rubio said in a Thursday interview.
"I believe that dictators in that region are unsustainable," he said. "The Syrian regime is doomed and it's just a matter of time, whether it's weeks, months, or even a year, their position is unsustainable. The people there want a better life. They're tired of living under this ineffective, incompetent, and repressive regime. And so, I think their days are numbered."
He called on the Obama administration to ratchet up the pressure on the Syrian government and redouble its efforts to convince other countries to do the same.
Rubio wasn't ready to endorse the idea of an internationally imposed no-fly zone over Syria, as his colleague, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), did earlier this month in an interview with The Cable.
"There are major differences between Syria and Libya," Rubio said, claiming that the Syrian regime isn't using planes to attack its people and the Syrian opposition hasn't asked for an international military intervention.
"I think it's important that if you're assisting someone that you know who they are and that they are asking for your help," he said.
Earlier on Thursday, Rubio told Fox News that the bulk of the credit for the success of the military effort in Libya belongs to the British and the French, and that if President Barack Obama had acted faster, Qaddafi's death would have come months ago.
"It's the French and the British that led on this fight and probably even led in the strike that led to Qaddafi's capture and death," Rubio said."[President Obama did] the right things but he just took too long to do it and didn't do enough of it."
What a difference a year makes. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was confirmed by the Senate on Monday evening after serving under a recess appointment because the Senate would not confirm him the first time around.
It didn't take much to win the Senate's approval. All Ford had to do was get attacked by pro-regime thugs while attending a meeting of Syrian lawyers, attend a funeral of a Syrian activist right before it was attacked by Syrian government forces, and get his car pelted with eggs, tomatoes, concrete blocks, and iron bars as he was chased by a violent mob after visiting a Syrian politician.
In short, the Senate finally saw that Ford was more of an irritant to the Syrian regime than a concession to them, and so the GOP foreign policy brain trust reversed itself and supported his confirmation.
After Ford's latest run in with violent pro-regime Syrians, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the incident to make a push for his confirmation.
"Ambassador Ford has shown admirable courage putting himself on the line to bear witness to the situation on the ground in Syria. He is a vital advocate for the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people now under siege by the Asad regime," Clinton said Sept. 29. "I encourage the United States Senate to show our support for Ambassador Ford by confirming him as soon as possible, so he can continue, fully confirmed, his critical and courageous work."
White House spokesman Jay Carney piled on the same day.
"Day after day, Ambassador Ford puts himself at great personal risk to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," he said at the Sept. 29 briefing. "And I'd like to make this point: that we urge the Senate to show Ambassador Ford its support by confirming him and allowing his courageous work to continue."
Ford described the latest attack in his most recent Facebook post.
"Protesters threw concrete blocks at the windows and hit the cars with iron bars. One person jumped on the hood of the car, tried to kick in the windshield and then jumped on the roof. Another person held the roof railing and tried to break the car's side window. When the embassy car moved through the crowd, the man fell off the car," he wrote.
"Americans understand that we are seeing the ugly side of the Syrian regime which uses brutal force, repression and intimidation to stay in power."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford's once unlikely bid for Senate confirmation gained traction this week, as multiple GOP senators and a host of conservative foreign policy leaders changed their tune toward his nomination.
Placed in his post via a recess appointment last year, Ford would have to return to Washington at the end of December if the Senate does not vote to confirm him. Over the summer, Ford has actively engaged with Syrian opposition groups and has put himself at personal risk by attending meetings of opposition leaders and funerals of Syrian activists. These efforts have convinced a large portion of the GOP, which stymied his confirmation last year, that his presence in Damascus is a useful way of confronting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and not a concession to the brutal dictator.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) was the first critic of Ford's presence in Syria to reverse himself and come out in support of Ford's confirmation. Now, several GOP senators who have criticized Obama's Syria policy are following suit.
"Robert Ford has shown personal bravery and increasing effectiveness for advancing human rights in Syria and I am in support of his nomination," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told The Cable.
Congressional Quarterly reported on Thursday that Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who voted no on Ford during committee consideration in July, is now a supporter. "He's demonstrated very clearly that he can handle the tough job he's doing in Syria," Inhofe said.
Also, a group of conservative pundits, under the banner of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), released a statement supporting Ford's confirmation. FPI is led by Bill Kristol, Bob Kagan, and Jamie Fly.
"Whatever reason people had for wanting to withdraw our ambassador from Damascus before -- and they were legitimate -- circumstances have changed," Kagan told The Cable. "Ford is, very bravely, acting as a kind of U.S. representative to the opposition in Syria and is making clear to the Syrian people that the US stands with them and against Assad."
"It's pretty clear the Republican tide is now turning in Ford's favor," a senior Senate aide close to the issue told The Cable. "The reason, ironically, isn't because Republicans have been persuaded by the administration to support a policy of engagement. It's because the administration has been persuaded, by the facts on the ground, to abandon engagement... Everyone realizes Ford is now in Syria not as a bridge to Assad, but as a bridge to what comes after Assad."
The State Department senses that the tide is turning on the Ford nomination as well, and is pushing Ford out to the media this week. He conducted on-the-record interviews with The Daily Caller¸ the Huffington Post¸ and with your humble Cable guy.
In a phone call with The Cable, Ford laid out the reasons he believes that he should be allowed to stay in Damascus.
"When an ambassador makes a statement in a country that's critical of that country's government, when that government visits an opposition or a site where a protest is taking place, the statement is much more powerful -- and the impact and the attention it gets is much more powerful if it's an ambassador rather than a low-level diplomat," Ford said.
Ford said he still meets with Syrian Foreign Ministry officials, as has as recently as last week, but only about routine diplomatic business and not about the regime or overall U.S. policy. "There really is not a lot that we need to say to the Syrian government," Ford said. "We don't need to discuss their reform initiative because we don't take it seriously."
Ford said he is definitely not trying to get himself kicked out of Damascus, as some in Washington believe. He is also meeting frequently with Syrians who are "on the fence," and could be turned against the Assad regime, such as business leaders, government employees, Christians, and the Allawite community, which has until recently been loyal to Assad.
Amid discord between various opposition groups inside and outside Syria, Ford's message to the Syrian opposition is that it should unite and put together a plan for transitioning to a new government. "Otherwise it's just going to be very bloody and bad later," he said. He is also urging them to keep the protests peaceful in order to maintain international sympathy.
There has been some discussion in Washington about why Ford doesn't announce his activities in Syria or post about them on his Facebook page, which he has used to criticize the Assad regime. Ford said his activities are well-covered in Syria and around the region by the Arab language press.
"I'm thinking much more about my audience here in Syria; I'm not so worried about the Washington repercussions," he said.
What's clear is that Ford has had some close calls. In addition to being assaulted by a pro-regime thug, the funeral he attended of slain activist Giyath Matar was attacked by regime forces just after he left. In fact, he said, he was only a block away in his car when the attack occurred.
At first, the crowd at the funeral was chanting, "God, Syria, freedom, and that's all," Ford remembered. He and the other seven ambassadors at the funeral left, however, when the crowd started shouting, "The people want to bring the downfall of the regime."
"I don't want to be an American ambassador encouraging a crowd to bring down the regime. That would be incitement, that's the red line," Ford said.
It seems that Ford's actions are getting under the skin of the Syrian regime. Ford said that after trashing Matar's funeral, Syrian forces spray painted on the side of Matar's house, "The Matar family is an agent of the American ambassador."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford keeps putting himself in harm's way. This Sunday, he attended the funeral of a Syrian activist shortly before it was attacked by Syrian security forces.
"US amb. Robert Ford shows up at the wake of slain #syria activist Giyath Matar. An hour later the funeral tent is trashed by security forces," tweeted Washington Post foreign correspondent Liz Sly Tuesday afternoon.
We found a video that shows Ford at the funeral, which took place on Sept. 11. The State Department today confirmed to The Cable that he was in attendance. We also found a video (warning: graphic) of Matar's tortured and mutilated body, posted by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been meticulously documenting cases of alleged abuse against domestic protesters by the Syrian security forces.
"Security forces corpse [sic] submitted his corpse to his family and told them that you can make from his body a ‘Shawerma' sandwich!!!" the human rights organization reported.
Ford, who was installed as the U.S. envoy to Damascus in a recess appointment, was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. But unless he can overcome a tough confirmation fight on the Senate floor, he will be forced to return to Washington at the end of the year.
The group also posted a video of the body of Ahmad Sulaiman Ayrut, who they allege was killed in the government attack on Matar's funeral.
The State Department condemned Matar's killing at a Monday press briefing, but only later confirmed to The Cable Ford's attendance at the funeral. So far, State has not commented on the violence at the funeral.
"This was a very high-profile human rights activist in Syria, apparently arrested on September 6th and died in custody -- again, further evidence of this regime's brutality, indiscriminate force, and absolute disregard for human life and for the human rights of its citizens," said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
There was no mention of Ford's attendance on the U.S. embassy of Damascus's Facebook page. The last Facebook posting by Ford came on Sept. 8, where he references threats being made on his life by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"[Commenter] Mujtaba Xr warns me that I will face being killed if I continue my criticism of the repression in Syria. I take his post to be a perfectly good example of the kind of intolerance that has provoked such discontent in Syria," Ford wrote. "Remember that I am one of the few international observers here on the ground; if only the Syrian government would allow international media to move around the country freely like we did in Iraq!"
Ford's close call comes only two weeks after he was physically assaulted by a regime supporter while standing outside an anti-government sit-in by some lawyers at the Syrian Bar Association. The State Department didn't say anything about that incident either, until it was reported by The Cable.
Of course, it's possible that Ford is actually trying to get himself kicked out of Syria by the Assad regime. That would allow the Obama administration to spotlight Assad's intolerance and allow the State Department to avoid a fight over Ford's Senate confirmation.
The ongoing war of words between the Obama administration and the Bashar al-Assad regime is quickly descending into a nasty exchange of personal insults and invectives between officials that have borne grudges against each other for years.
Both the U.S. and the Syrian governments have recently taken cheap shots at each other's officials. For instance, the Syrian national television station has called U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford a "dog" and said he must have been "shitting his pants with diarrhea" when he heard the fireworks that were being set off in a downtown square.
This week, the State Department unloaded on Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem. On Tuesday, after the Treasury Department announced new sanctions on three Syrian officials, the State Department sent around some additional quotes to reporters about Muallem, to be attributed as coming from a "senior administration official."
"Walid Muallem has played a key role in trying to insulate the regime from the implications of its own brutality. By devoting himself to strenuously trying to hide Syrian government culpability in the murder and torture of Syrian citizens, Muallem bears some responsibility for the crimes committee. He has intervened with counterparts to try to prevent the U.N. Security Council from taking action," the senior administration official said.
Then came the kicker: "Muallem remains an unapologetic, shameless tool and mouthpiece of Bashar al-Assad," the senior administration said.
At Wednesday's State Department briefing, reporters pressed spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on whether she would repeat these insults on the record, and whether she thought it was constructive to publicly demean the Syrian foreign minister.
Nuland's answer was yes on both accounts.
"He has played a key role in trying to insulate the Assad regime from the implications of its own brutality by devoting himself strenuously to trying to hide the Assad regime's capability and the murder and torture of Syrian citizens. Muallem bears personal responsibility as well for the crimes committed. He's intervened with counterparts to try to prevent the U.N. Security Council from taking action," she said.
"You know, we saw people in the Qaddafi circle demonstrate a clear understanding of right and wrong when the tide began to turn there. They chose to defect. That has not yet happened with senior members of the Bashar Assad regime. Muallem remains unapologetic. He remains as a shameless tool and a mouthpiece of Assad and his regime."
And Nuland had more Muallem bashing quotes in her briefing book:
"Not done. Not done. More Muallem," she said. "He has also served as one of the key links between Damascus and Tehran, and he's strengthened Assad's reliance on Iranian equipment and advice in his relentless crackdown on the Syrian people."
Muallem is one of the key interlocutors between the Obama administration and the Assad regime, and the public sniping doesn't bode well for future contact. It could also be awkward when Muallem comes to New York next week for the U.N. General Assembly, but apparently the State Department no longer cares about playing nice.
Some reports have suggested that the personal nature of the insults is based on long-standing grudges between some members of the Obama administration and the Syrian officials. This Associated Press article links the new rhetoric to Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who survived an assassination attempt, presumably planned by Syria, when he was ambassador to Lebanon during the George W. Bush administration.
"The Assad regime is probably at the top of the suspect list," in terms of who tried to kill Feltman, said Andrew Tabler, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a new book about the U.S.-Syria relationship, In the Lion's Den, although Tabler doesn't think the war of words is based solely on personal grudges.
"Engagement is over, we are now essentially in a policy of confrontation. It's certainly a sign of the incredibly bad state of relations between the two countries," he said. "And it is getting nasty."
A video has emerged of U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford being assaulted by a pro-regime demonstrator on the streets of Damascus last week.
The assault took place before Ford's unapproved trip to the city of Jassem on Aug 23. Ford was present at a gathering of demonstrators who support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad outside the Cham Palace Hotel in Damascus when one demonstrator ran up to Ford and tried to wrap him in a poster that featured Assad's face.
Ford's security intervened quickly and rushed Ford to his car. The incident was then replayed in a highly produced segment on a Syrian television station owned by Mohamed Hamsho, a businessman who is the brother-in-law of the president's brother, Maher al-Assad. Hamsho was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department earlier this month for siding with the Assad regime during its brutal crackdown on protesters.
Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian activist opposed to Assad and who lives in Maryland, said the TV report accuses Ford of trying to lead a protest in Damascus and even features an out-of-context quote from Edward Peck, the former U.S. diplomat who is now a strong critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East and who took a ride on the May 2010 flotilla that tried to break the Gaza blockade and was attacked by the Israel Defense Forces.
"The reporting is of course stupid" Abdulhamid wrote. "The plain facts are: as Ambassador Ford observed a loyalist demonstration, some of the demonstrators jumped at him when they recognized him and tried to wrap a poster of Bashar Al-Assad around him, but the Ambassador's security details managed to rush him safely into his car. There was no anti-Assad demonstration at the time, security in that area is simply too tight."
A State Department official told The Cable today that the video was "a weak, banal, laughable attempt by the Syrian thugs to have the international community focus on anything but the real story, which is the government's continuing campaign of terror on its own people through torture, murder, and illegal imprisonment."
Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a new book about the U.S.-Syria relationship, In the Lion's Den, said that the Assad regime has been harassing Ford for weeks with stunts like this.
For example, the same TV station recently showed a video of fireworks in downtown Damascus, after which the anchor said Ford must have been "shitting his pants with diarrhea," Tabler recounted.
After Ford visited anti-regime protests in the city of Hama in July, the regime encouraged supporters to pelt the U.S. Embassy with rocks and eggs. The protesters smashed embassy windows and wrote graffiti on the walls calling Ford a "dog."
"It's annoying and shows you the base nature of that regime," said Tabler. "This regime hates to be in the spotlight. Robert Ford's actions there place those kinds of things in the spotlight and that's why they are harassing him."
Of course, it's possible that Ford is actually trying to get himself kicked out of Syria by the Assad regime. That would allow the Obama administration to spotlight Assad's intolerance and allow the State Department to avoid a fight over Ford's Senate confirmation.
Until that happens, Ford is going to continue to do his job and try to interact with the Syrian people, said Tabler. But, he added, "the way things are going, it's probably a matter of time" before Ford gets booted.
View the video here:
UPDATE: A State Department official writes in to say that Ford was not attending a pro-regime demonstration. He was watching an anti-government sit-in by some lawyers at the Syrian Bar Association. He was assaulted while standing outside the bar association, waiting to see whether the pro-government thugs assembled outside would assault the protesting lawyers when they came out. The thugs didn't like that he was watching.
The Iraqi government will request to extend the presence of U.S. troops past the end of this year, but not until it is good and ready, said Iraq's ambassador to Washington.
"The principle that there will be some military presence to help train Iraqi military and police has been largely agreed upon," Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie said in an exclusive interview with The Cable. "You'll see it when you see it. Americans want everything now or yesterday. We don't do it like this. We do it in our own sweet time."
We also asked Sumaida'ie for his take on the Arab Spring, especially the protests raging in Syria, Iraq's neighbor. He said the downfall of the Assad regime is both inevitable and a good thing for the region.
"The Assad regime is steadily losing its friends, its credibility and its grip. It only has Iran behind it, along with a shy neutrality from Russian and China. Other than that, it has lost," he said. "The coming change in Syria will alter the balance of power in the region and will eventually weaken Iran and reduce its capacity to project its power through Hezbollah, Hamas, and other instruments. And it will release Lebanon from the overbearing dominance of Syria."
His comments diverged from the pro-Assad comments made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said on Aug. 12, ""We call for guarantees for citizens to demand their rights, and it is the duty of governments to respond with needed reforms. But we don't support the idea of armed action or sabotage and bringing down regimes in this way."
Is Iraq worried about the instability that could come following the collapse of the Syrian regime? Sumaida'ie said no, and explained his position by telling a story of having lunch Tuesday afternoon in a downtown restaurant with a group of Iraqi diplomats when the East Coast earthquake hit and rattled the building.
"The restaurant emptied, including the waiters, except for our table. We didn't budge. We just shrugged it off," he said. "That's an illustration of the Iraqi psyche. We've been through hell and there's not much that can really scare us anymore."
Top Obama administration officials have been publicly venting their frustration with the lack of a formal request from the Iraqi government to alter the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement, negotiated by the George W. Bush administration, which mandates that all U.S. troops leave Iraq by Dec. 31.
In July, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged Iraqi leaders to, "Dammit, make a decision" about the U.S. troop extension. And last week, he told reporters that, "My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes.'" The Iraqi government quickly denied that they agreed to anything, and publicly refuted Panetta's remark.
Sumaida'ie tried to explain what's really going on here. He said that there is a consensus among all political players, with the exceptions of the followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, that Iraq needs some American military support, particularly when it comes to training, past the end of this year. "However, the form that this will take and the legal details are still being debated," he said.
He said the debate over the number of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq has ranged between 8,000 and 20,000, and that they would be non-combat forces limited to the training of Iraqi military and police forces. The Iraqis are deeply concerned about clearly defining the role of the U.S. troops, in order to dispel any notion that the remaining forces are an occupation force or would be engaged in combat operations.
The key remaining sticking point is how to satisfy the U.S. demand that American soldiers remaining in Iraq would not be subject to the Iraqi justice system. The Obama administration wants the troop extension with the legal immunity provision to be approved by Iraq's Council of Representatives (COR), which the United States believes is necessary for it to have the force of law.
That's a hugely complicated and excruciating political task for Maliki's government, which is still trying to put together a national unity government that will satisfy all of the country's primary political actors, including Sadr and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Allawi's bloc got the most votes in a very close parliamentary election in March 2010, but was unable to form a government. Maliki struck a deal with Allawi and formed a government, but that deal hasn't been fully implemented and Maliki still has yet to appoint a defense or interior minister, the Allawi bloc claims it is entitled to the defense minister slot.
If the troop deal with the United States is put before parliament, that would give Maliki's opponents an opportunity to open up a Pandora's Box of unrelated issues, said Sumaida'ie.
"Even if they need to go through the COR, the numbers are there to support it, but unfortunately this issue is used as a political football to achieve other aims and this might be held hostage to other political issues and considerations," he said.
Another option is just to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, but the U.S. government has said that wouldn't assure them any agreement on immunity for U.S. troops would be legally valid. Sumaida'ie said some are even tossing around the idea of granting every remaining U.S. solder diplomatic status through the U.S. embassy, which would grant them diplomatic immunity.
Another reason most Iraqi politicians don't want to vote on a troop extension in the COR is because they don't want to be publically and politically linked to the decision to keep American troops there, according to Marisa Cochrane Sullivan and Ramzy Mardini, two scholars at the Institute for the Study of War who traveled to Iraq in July.
"While most Iraqi politicians favor a new security agreement privately, they are hesitant to support the measure publicly or in parliament," they wrote in their trip report. "The individual Iraqi politician does not want to own the responsibility nor the consequences for ‘extending the foreign occupation,' whether it is in the eyes of insurgent groups or some of their constituents."
They also wrote that the idea of using the embassy's diplomatic immunity to protect troops is not viable because it would overwhelm the embassy, and that the debate over whether to go through the COR has no clear solution.
"The U.S. and Iraqis are holding two conflicting red-lines on the prospect for an ongoing U.S. military presence that may prove to be ultimately irreconcilable," they said.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford went on another trip outside Damascus to view the anti-government protests on Tuesday, this time in direct violation of travel restrictions placed on him by the Assad regime.
"Ambassador Ford went down to Jassem, which is about 70 kilometers south of Damascus, to see for himself what was up there," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at today's press briefing. "This has been another town that has been engaged in peaceful protest. He was there for about four hours. He had a chance there to talk to a number of Syrians, including those in the opposition, and then he drove back to Damascus."
Sounds like a nice little trip: another example of Ford's commitment to justify his continued presence in Damascus -- against the opposition of many congressmen and foreign policy pundits -- and a useful means of engaging with the Syrian opposition.
But after Ford's trip to the city of Hama last month to observe the unrest there, the Syrian government slapped travel restrictions on the U.S. envoy and his team, barring them from leaving Damascus. The State Department in turn retaliated with similar restrictions barring Syrian diplomats from leaving the Washington area.
Of course, Ford could have requested permission to leave Damascus, but instead he chose to tell the Syrian government about his trip only after he returned to the U.S. embassy.
"In this case, he informed the Syrian Foreign Ministry after the visit, and he made clear to them that the reason that he didn't inform them before the visit was because they haven't been approving any visits by anybody, anywhere," Nuland said. She explained that Ford had requested permission three times over the last six weeks to go to the city of Aleppo, but was denied in all three cases.
"So is he trying to get expelled from the country?" one member of the State Department press corps asked Nuland.
"He is trying to do his job, which is to be able to maintain broad contacts with a broad cross section of Syrians and to make sure that they know where the United States stands," she responded. She added that Ford had received the support of State Department leadership in advance of the trip.
Meanwhile, Syrian ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha, who has been neglecting his blog lately, has returned to Washington after spending some time back home. Moustapha is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly using Syrian embassy resources to spy on Syrian-Americans in Washington with the aim of intimidating them and threatening their families back in Syria.
How would the State Department feel if Moustapha just ignored the U.S. government and began hopping around the United States without permission? Nuland said that he would be granted permission if he requested to travel somewhere, and that some Syrian officials had recently been granted permission to travel to California.
After the briefing, a State Department official held a little gaggle with reporters on a background basis, as is the post-briefing custom. One reporter pressed the official to acknowledge that, if the tables had been turned and a foreign ambassador didn't follow rules laid out by the U.S. government, he would be expelled.
All the official would say is, "In this case, after he was turned down three times, we just felt he needed to do his job."
Ford's expulsion from Damascus would actually solve a tricky problem for the State Department, which is facing a tough confirmation fight for him this fall. Ford was sent to Damascus last year under a recess appointment, which expires at the end of the year. The only way for Ford to stay in Damascus longer than that is for the Senate to confirm him.
Though Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) reversed himself and now supports keeping Ford in place as ambassador, there are still multiple GOP senators who have no intention of letting Ford's nomination get through the Senate.
Given these dynamics, Ford's unauthorized visit to Jassem represents a win-win scenario for the State Department. On the one hand, it bolsters the State Department's case that Ford is a crucial link to the Syrian revolution. And if he gets thrown out of Syria, State can avoid a messy confirmation fight they are almost sure to lose.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.