Following three prominent defections this weekend, the State Department declared today that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is "crumbling," but can't say how, when, or what comes next.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Monday that the State Department is confident that reports are accurate that Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, a Sunni, has resigned his post only two months after being appointed and has fled to Jordan on his way to Qatar.
Combined with the defection of top Syrian intelligence official Colonel Yaraab Shara and the first Syrian cosmonaut, Major General Mohammed Ahmed Faris, who announced his defection from the Syrian army on YouTube on Sunday evening, all signs point to a regime collapse, Ventrell said.
"These defections ... indicate that the Syria regime is crumbling and losing its grip on power," Ventrell said. "We encourage others to join them in rejecting the horrific actions of the Assad regime and helping the Syrian people chart a new path for Syria, one that is inclusive, peaceful, democratic, and just."
Ventrell, who is filling in for regular spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who is traveling in Africa with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, didn't have any information on whether U.S. officials have been in contact with Hijab or any of the other defectors.
But a State Department official speaking on background said that it was the State Department's understanding that Hijab was not fired by Assad, as the Syrian government claimed, but rather that the Assad regime had "retroactively" fired him "to save face" after he escaped Damascus with his family.
"We don't have a crystal ball. We don't whether it's going to be days or week or how soon," the Assad regime will fall, Ventrell said, but he emphasized that the State Department was working hard to contribute to Syrian opposition-led planning for "the day after" the regime falls.
Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has completed his meetings in Cairo over the weekend with 250 opposition representatives to discuss that planning. And Clinton has added an Aug. 11 stop in Istanbul, where she will meet with Turkish leaders to coordinate next steps on Syria. Meetings with Syrian opposition leaders and civil society representatives in Turkey are possible but not yet finalized, a State Department official said.
Reporters at the briefing pressed Ventrell to say whether the administration still plans to adhere to the plan agreed upon by world leaders last month in Geneva, which calls for a transitional government established by "mutual consent" between the Assad regime and the opposition.
A new transitional authority to govern Syria after the Assad regime falls could include Assad regime members, both political and technocratic officials, but "those hardcore group of people, Assad and his cronies with blood on their hands, would not be part of that transition," Ventrell said. Beyond that, the transitional government should be formed by Syrians, he said.
The administration is not yet supporting the idea of "safe zones" inside Syria, as many in Congress are calling for, but Ventrell referred to Clinton's July 24 comments, when she said that safe havens are coming but declined to say whether the U.S. or the international community should have a role in establishing or defending them.
"We have to work closely with the opposition because more and more territory is being taken, and it will eventually result in a safe haven inside Syria, which will then provide a base for further actions by the opposition," Clinton said.
"And so the opposition has to be prepared. They have to start working on interim governing entities. They have to commit to protecting the rights of all Syrians -- every group of Syrians. They have to set up humanitarian response efforts that we can also support. They've got to safeguard the chemical and biological weapons that we know the Syrian regime has," she said.
"And there's a lot to be done, so we're working across many of these important pillars of a transition that is inevitable. It would be better if it happened sooner," she continued, "but we know we have some hard times ahead of us."
As a third round of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers ended conclusively Tuesday, Israeli vice prime minister and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz called on the so-called P5+1 to focus on stopping Iran's uranium enrichment during a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace.
"Such an agreement we didn't see in the last meetings," he said. "Not in Baghdad, Istanbul, and in Moscow ... [A deal] should be based on stopping all continued enrichment activity, removing all enrichment materials, and inspecting and dismantling all underground facilities, mainly Qom."
Mofaz, a former defense minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who was recently brought into Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, added that while now is the time for diplomacy and sanctions, Israel along with the United States and other Western countries should prepare all options.
"From my best view, the use of military power should be the last option, and if necessary should be led by the U.S. and Western countries," he said. "We should ask ourselves how much we would delay the Iranian program -- for how many months, for how many years -- and the second question is what will happen in our region the day after."
Diplomacy, though, is only good for so long, he stressed.
"When you say that this is the time for diplomatic activity and sanctions, it doesn't mean that you have two, three, or five years," he explained. "We have a limit of time, and the limit of time is until the Iranian leader will take the last step to having a bomb."
Mofaz also addressed the ongoing crisis in Syria, where well over 10,000 people have been killed and thousands more driven from their homes since the uprising began in March 2011.
"My expectations are that the Western countries should give humanitarian support to the Syrian people," he said. "We cannot be part of it, and it is clear why."
Mofaz was more optimistic about Israel's strained relationship with Turkey, which he believes will be resolved "in the coming months" because it is strategically necessary for both parties
On the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Mofaz says he does not support Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon's recently proposed program of coordinated unilateralism, in which Israel would not attempt to annex any territory east of the security fence and the Knesset would pass a law encouraging settlers to move to the other side of the fence.
Mofaz said that Israelis and Palestinians must "break the ice" and get back to the negotiating table. The future permanent border between Israel and a Palestinian state should be determined by the settlement blocs that house more than 250,000 settlers, he said, adding that Israel should continue to build in those blocs.
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Istanbul to convene a new worldwide forum of countries to share info and help integrate efforts to fight terrorism -- but Israel wasn't invited.
In her opening remarks at the June 7 forum, Clinton framed the terrorism challenge as a common world cause and emphasized the need to build up civilian institutions, coordinate anti-terror efforts, and establish a unified, long-term strategy for fighting terrorist groups' ideology and their sources of funding.
"We view this forum as a key vehicle for galvanizing action on these fronts and for driving a comprehensive, strategic approach to counterterrorism," Clinton said, standing alongside Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu. The United States and Turkey are the co-chairs of the initiative, known as the Global Counterterrorism Forum.
Although Clinton mentioned that terrorism is a challenge in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Maghreb, Turkey, and Europe, she didn't mention Israel or any of the groups that support terrorist attacks against Israeli interests, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
"We underscore our condemnation of all acts of terrorism, which cannot be justified on any grounds whatsoever, and our continuing commitment to oppose terrorism irrespective of the motives of the perpetrators of such acts," read the September 2011 political declaration that established the forum.
Although 29 countries and the European Union were invited to be founding members, Israel was not. After facing repeated questions at last week's briefings, the State Department put out the following explanation as to why Israel was not included:
"Our idea with the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) was to bring together a limited number of traditional donors, front line states, and emerging powers develop a more robust, yet representative, counterterrorism capacity-building platform. A number of our close partners with considerable experience countering and preventing terrorism are not included among the GCTF's founding members," the statement said. "We have discussed the GCTF and ways to involve Israel in its activities on a number of occasions, and are committed to making this happen."
The founding members are Algeria, Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Morocco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The State Department's explanation wasn't enough to satisfy critics of the administration, who point out that Israel is an ally and has more experience with terrorism and counterterrorism than, say Japan, or Switzerland.
Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) joined together Monday to protest the Obama administration's decision to exclude Israel from the new forum, in a letter to Clinton.
"As you know, there are few countries in the world that have suffered more from terrorism than Israel, and few governments that have more experience combating this threat than that of Israel," they wrote. "We strongly believe that Israel would both benefit from, and contribute enormously to, this kind of exchange. We look forward to hearing from you about whether the administration shares our view that Israel rightfully belongs as a full participant in the and what, if any, steps you are prepared to take to right this wrongful omission."
The Israeli government hasn't publicly complained about the snub and the Israeli embassy in Washington declined to comment, but multiple Congressional sources said that Israeli officials have complained privately to them, saying the Israeli government was unhappy about being left out.
"Obviously the U.S. is looking to adhere to the wishes of Turkey and the Turks have made it very clear they don't want the Israelis there," said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "But since this is a U.S.-sponsored event, hosted in Turkey, the U.S. should not be listening to anybody about who they should or should not invite."
There is no formal planning going on inside NATO to prepare for defending Turkey from the violence spilling over from Syria, even though Turkey is considering whether to formally invoke NATO's chapters on collective defense, a top Obama administration official said Monday.
"Our Supreme Allied Commander [Adm. James Stavridis] can do a certain amount of planning... but there has been no formal tasking and there has been no formal request by the Turks for consultations in an Article 4 or Article 5 scenario," said Liz Sherwood-Randall, the National Security Council's senior director for Europe, in remarks Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu briefed his foreign minister and defense minister counterparts on Syria at a high level meeting in Brussels this month, and reports said that Davotoglu discussed at length a cross border attack by Syrian forces on a refugee camp inside Turkey that killed two. Davotoglu is also reported to have said the Syrian regime has "abused a chance offered by the Annan plan."
The Obama administration also believes that the Annan plan "is failing," is currently searching for a "plan B" in Syria, and is preparing military related options in case diplomacy breaks down. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that NATO might have to get involved earlier this month, during a ministerial meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group in Paris.
"Turkey already has discussed with NATO, during our ministerial meetings over the last two days, the burden of Syrian refugees on Turkey, the outrageous shelling across the border from Syria into Turkey a week ago, and that Turkey is considering formally invoking Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty," Clinton said.
The White House is unhappy with the options it's been given on Syria and is searching for a new strategy for removing President Bashar al-Assad, The Cable has learned.
"There was a fundamental decision made at the highest level that we need a real Syria policy with more options for the president," one administration official with knowledge of the internal deliberations said. "Our allies were coming back to us and saying ‘What's your next move?,' and we were forced to admit we didn't have one."
The new push includes adjustments in personnel handling the portfolio. Before March, National Security Council Director Steve Simon headed up the internal interagency process. Now, multiple officials confirm that NSC Senior Director for Strategy Derek Chollet has been added to the leadership of the Syria policy team and has been coordinating the interagency process for several weeks. Simon, Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, State Dept. Special Advisor Fred Hof, and Ambassador Robert Ford are still very active on the Syria portfolio.
Simon, Feltman, and Hof have been traveling all week and will be with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris Thursday. There she will attend an ad-hoc meeting of foreign ministers where "core" members of the Friends of Syria group will confer on next steps.
Chollet, the former deputy to Anne-Marie Slaughter at the State Department's Policy Planning shop, has also been nominated to be the next assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, replacing Sandy Vershbow, who is now deputy secretary general of NATO. Chollet has taken on the day-to-day management of the interagency process while he awaits confirmation.
New options are now being considered internally, including another discussion of setting up buffer zones inside Syria, one administration official confirmed. The administration has also authorized direct contact with the internal Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and at least one State Department official has met with the FSA's nominal leaders in Turkey.
The rethink comes eight months after Obama explicitly demanded the Syrian leader's removal, saying, "The time has come for President Assad to step aside."
His administration is still struggling to come up with a way to make that call a reality.
There's a growing consensus inside the administration that the violence in Syria is not abating and that multinational diplomatic initiatives such as the plan put forth by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan are not convincing Assad to enter into a political process to transition to democracy, much less yield power and step down.
Clinton hinted Wednesday that fresh options are under discussion.
"We are at a crucial turning point," Clinton said, speaking from Brussels. "Either we succeed in pushing forward with Kofi Annan's plan in accordance with the Security Council direction, with the help of monitors steadily broadening and deepening a zone of non-conflict and peace, or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered."
The potential shift in U.S. policy predates the Annan plan, however.
Following a failed effort to convince Russia and China to endorse a resolution condemning Assad in February and the subsequent attempts to convince Russia to play a more constructive role following Vladimir Putin's election to the presidency in March, top levels of the Obama administration began exploring other options, according to multiple U.S. officials, congressional officials, and experts briefed on the discussions.
One administration official said that the hope that Russia could be convinced to reign in Assad has now faded, as has the notion that Turkey and the Arab Gulf states would be willing to bankroll the Syrian opposition and even arm the FSA while the United States largely confined itself to a diplomatic role.
The administration's position had been to look the other way while Arab states armed the Syrian opposition, but pledges of aid by Gulf states have not materialized and the Turkish government, which has committed to an anti-Assad position and is hosting the FSA, is waiting for the United States to chart a clear way forward.
"They are not thinking two steps ahead. That's why there is a demand for a plan B," the administration official said, referring to the White House. "The position they took at the last Friends of Syria meeting is not sustainable."
The United States has pledged $25 million in humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and communications equipment to the internal opposition. But lawmakers who met with internal opposition leaders last week said that they hadn't gotten that assistance.
"The most stunning, unsettling conclusion I drew from the leaders of the Free Syrian Army was that they have essentially got no help from anyone. They are literally running out of ammunition while Assad's forces are being resupplied by Iran and Russia," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable in an interview.
Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spent their Senate recess on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border, meeting with Turkish officials, FSA leaders, and refugees.
"What they want us to do is to lead. They want us to lead the Friends of Syria, who have given them increasingly sympathetic rhetoric but not the wherewithal to defend themselves," he said.
The Syrian internal opposition is buying weapons and ammunition on the black market at exorbitant prices and claims that large parts of the Syrian military are demoralized but are unwilling to break with the government until they see the opposition has real international support.
"They are all waiting for the U.S. to say ‘We're in this,'" Lieberman said.
There was at least one State Department official inside the McCain-Lieberman meeting with leaders of the FSA, Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh and Col. Riad al-Asaad, two U.S. officials confirmed. The FSA leaders asked the United States to provide RPGs, anti-aircraft guns, and ammunition. The FSA leaders also said they have proof that the Assad regime is using helicopter gunships to attack civilians in the city of Idlib, as apparently shown in this YouTube video.
Turkish officials told McCain and Lieberman that they were willing to let weapons flow over their borders and consider other more aggressive steps to help the internal Syrian opposition, but that they won't do so unless Washington leads the way.
The Turks told the senators there are currently 25,000 registered Syrian refugees in southern Turkey, although the registrations have not kept pace with the flow of refugees across the border so the actual number could be much higher. The Turks also said that if the refugee total tops 50,000, they will require help.
"They Turks want American leadership and they know American leadership is totally absent. The Turks say they may -- if this flood of refugees continues -- they may need international assistance," McCain said. "Every place we talked to, they want American leadership. It's just disgraceful that they haven't acted so far."
The administration official explained that the White House does not want to become so heavily involved in the Syria conflict, for example by directly arming opposition fighters, because it puts the United States on the hook for their success and would probably require increased levels of commitment as the conflict drags on.
"They've got this half-pregnant position that is offensive to the sensibilities of the people on the ground and confusing to the Turks," the official said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
A new set of sanctions against Iran is pending in the Senate, but the Obama administration refuses to say whether or not it supports the legislation as negotiations with Tehran resume.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said today that he still intends to move as soon as possible to pass the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, named for Finance Committee heads Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), that was approved by the committee in February. The bill would pile on more punitive measures against Iran's energy, shipping, and mining sectors, while punishing a broader range of Iranian government officials for their involvement in human rights violations.
Before the latest Senate recess, Reid attempted to pass the bill by unanimous consent, but Republicans objected because several senators want to offer amendments to strengthen the bill. Lawmakers from both chambers and both sides of the aisle want the bill to go through the regular legislative process so that changes can be made before passage, but Reid says the bill should be passed as is.
Reid told reporters today that his staff would be meeting today "to see if something could be worked out," regarding a way forward for the legislation. (After the meeting, a Reid spokesman told The Cable that "nothing" was worked out at today's meeting and there is no definitive schedule for moving ahead with the bill.)
"I think the best thing to do is to move forward with the bill that was reported out of committee on a bipartisan basis, unless we can get agreement from basically everyone," Reid said. "Each day that goes by without Iran feeling more of our sanctions, that's too bad for the world and helpful to Iran. We need to move forward on this as soon as possible."
The Obama administration hasn't said anything positive or negative about the legislation, even though it has been vocal about other Iran sanctions bills being debated in Congress. Administration officials met with Iranian negotiators as part of the P5+1 group in Turkey last weekend and more talks are scheduled for next month in Baghdad.
If the administration supports the new sanctions, it risks upsetting the new negotiations just as they are beginning. If the administration doesn't support the new sanctions, it leaves them open to GOP allegations of weakness towards Iran in the midst of the presidential election season.
National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment today on whether or not the White House supports quick passage of the Johnson-Shelby bill. Late last month, a senior administration official told The Cable, "We're not just taking a position on that particular bill at this point."
House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA) told The Cable Monday that he supports moving forward with the bill quickly.
"I think it's perfectly appropriate to keep up pressure with the sanctions. I think you've got to keep ramping up the pressure," he said. "If we want to add to the options the president has, I think that's a good idea."
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) said today that without the administration's green light, the bill probably would not move quickly through Congress.
"Unless the administration advocates for that, I think it's less likely," he said.
That's right, your humble Cable guy is on his way to Germany to participate in the 48th annual Munich Security Conference, one of the largest gatherings of national security officials in the world.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), and a large delegation of experts and lawmakers led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) will be at the event, which begins Friday. Other senators and former officials from Washington headed to Munich include Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Mark Udall (D-CO), Brent Scowcroft, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalizad, Kurt Volker, Dan Senor, and many others.
"It is arguably the most important security conference of them all," McCain told The Cable. "It's like Davos without the Hollywood aspect."
When McCain learned that The Cable will be at the conference, blogging and tweeting the whole time, he said, "Oh, no.... I'm going to call the German embassy."
Lieberman gave The Cable a little more historical perspective about the conference, which he has been attending for over 20 years, after first being invited by Sen. John Glenn (D-OH). Bill Cohen, who served as senator and later defense secretary, led the U.S. congressional delegation to the conference at that time. Cohen passed the baton to McCain when he left the Senate, and McCain invited Lieberman to be the co-leader of the delegation to give it a bipartisan character.
"For decades, it has been an occasion to discuss critical issues in the U.S.-European alliance. In the past 10 or 15 years it really has been broadened," Lieberman said. Defense ministers and foreign ministers from just about every NATO country attend and recently more and more heads of state are showing up as well, he said.
Among the foreign leaders expected to attend, in addition to U.S. and European officials, are Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jabali, and perhaps even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The interactions with the Russian delegation are always interesting, Lieberman said.
"We've had some very eyeball-to-eyeball matches when President [Vladimir] Putin has come," he said.
The main topics of the formal conference sessions will be the effect of the global recession on defense budgets, what President Barack Obama's so-called pivot to Asia means for U.S.-Europe relationship, and the uprisings in the Arab world.
But a lot of the action happens informally in the hallways and in the bilateral meetings that take place on the sidelines of the sessions. Last year, Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov actually exchanged the final documents of the New START treaty there.
McCain and Lieberman always plan one stop on the way to Munich. This year, they are touching down for a few hours in Madrid to meet with the Spanish government led by newly elected President Mariano Rajoy Brey.
It's a lot of foreign policy packed into only a couple of days, but watch this site for coverage of all the action.
"It's quick," Lieberman said. "We go Thursday and we'll be back Sunday night in time for the Super Bowl."
Photograph by Kai Mörk
After Turkey's Foreign Ministry lashed out at GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry for saying that Turkey is led by "Islamic terrorists," the Perry campaign doubled down on those remarks and told The Cable the incident shows why Perry is bolder than President Barack Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney on foreign policy.
"Governor Perry will not apologize because he doesn't think the comments merit an apology. He will not back down from the comments," Perry's top foreign policy advisor Victoria Coates told The Cable on Tuesday.
Coates was reacting to the Turkey's statement that it "strongly condemned" Perry's comments at Monday's GOP presidential debate, when Perry said Turkey was ruled by "what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists." He continued by saying, "Not only is it time for us to have a conversation about whether or not they belong to be in NATO, but it's time for the United States, when we look at their foreign aid, to go to zero with it."
"Turkey joined NATO while the governor was still 2 years old," the Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said. "It is a member that has made important contributions to the trans-Atlantic alliance's conflict-full history. It is among countries that are at the front lines in the fight against terrorism."
Perry himself defended the comments Tuesday afternoon. "This is a country that's got some explaining to do to the United States," Perry told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "The idea that [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan's regime has somehow or other earned our respect is not correct."
Coates pointed to the question by Fox News Channel's Bret Baier, which referred to the increased murder rate of women in Turkey, the lack of press freedom, and Turkey's support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
"The key to the whole business is to look at the question and the way it was asked," she said. "It's an important distinction that what [Perry is] saying is that the Turkish leadership is engaging in behavior that many people would associate with Islamic terrorists."
She added that Perry, who lived in Turkey as an Air Force pilot decades ago, would prefer to have a good relationship with Ankara, but "the governor's point is that [Turkish bad behavior] is not going to get better if we ignore it."
So would Perry, if elected president, put Turkey on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, along with Hamas supporters Iran and Syria? Not exactly.
"No, we would not list Turkey as a state sponsor of terrorism. We don't have any evidence of them engaging in international terrorist acts," Coates explained. "I think we know they are extremely supportive of Hamas, but these things go in stages."
But what about the new U.S. missile defense installation in Turkey and the Obama administration's efforts to encourage Turkey to push for positive change in Syria?
"We need to be very mindful of how much responsibility we hand over for something as important as the missile defense sites," said Coates. "And up until recent days, Turkey has been quite close to Syria."
Coates then called out the Romney campaign for not yet weighing in on the issue.
"It is not untypical for Gov. Perry to be more forthright about situations like this than Gov. Romney. He has less concern for niceties and is more concerned with the national security of our country," she said.
The Obama administration is ultimately responsible for "appeasing unfortunate Turkish behavior" -- part of its larger foreign-policy flaw of pursuing engagement at all costs, according to the Perry campaign.
"It is a pattern of the Obama administration that [Gov. Perry] finds deeply concerning, that outreach and engagement is the goal, whereas Gov. Perry feels that furthering American interests is the goal."
State Department spokesman Mark Toner defended Turkey at Tuesday's press briefing and said Turkey is not run by Islamic terrorists.
"We absolutely and fundamentally disagree with that assertion," Toner said. "Turkey, as I said, is a strong partner in the region. We've seen it make a very courageous stand against what's going on in Syria, for example. It continues to play a very positive and constructive role in the region. And it is, as often cited, an example of so-called Islamic democracy in action."
The Romney campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Vice President Joe Biden is in Baghdad right now on a surprise visit before he travels this weekend to Turkey and Greece.
Biden landed on Tuesday afternoon in Baghdad and is expected to hold meetings with top Iraqi officials about the future of the U.S.-Iraqi partnership. He will stay for two days, multiple news outlets reported.
"Vice President Biden has arrived in Baghdad, Iraq," his office said in a release. "While there, the Vice President will co-chair a meeting of the U.S.-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee. He will also meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, and other political leaders. The Vice President will also participate in, and give remarks at, an event to commemorate the sacrifices and accomplishments of U.S. and Iraqi troops."
On Friday, Dec. 2, Biden will arrive in Ankara, where he'll have meetings with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and lay a wreath at the Ataturk Mausoleum before continuing on to Istanbul. In Istanbul, Biden will attend a global entrepreneurship summit hosted by Erdogan.
National Security Advisor to the Vice President Tony Blinken told reporters on Monday that he expects Biden to discuss U.S. assistance in fighting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been attacking Turkish forces recently.
"The PKK is a common enemy of Turkey, the United States, and Iraq, and we expect to focus on that," Blinken said.
Blinken also said Biden hopes to discuss the situation in Syria, the upcoming meeting of Cypriot leaders in January, the war in Afghanistan, "and the prospects for progress in normalizing relations between Turkey and Armenia." He'll also meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Orthodox Christian Church.
Regarding Turkey's deteriorating relationship with Israel, Blinken said, "I suspect that that will come up."
"It pains us to see the two of them at odds because they're both such close partners of the United States," Blinken said. "And the bottom line is that improved relations between Turkey and Israel would be good for Turkey, good for Israel, and good for the United States and indeed good for the region and the world so that's something we will continue to encourage."
Biden will then travel to Athens on Monday, Dec. 5, where he will hold the administration's first meeting with new Prime Minister Lucas Papademos. He'll also meet with President Karolos Papoulias, as well as former Prime Minister George Papandreou, who heads the largest party in Parliament, and Antonio Samaras, who heads the second largest party.
But the Greeks shouldn't expect any direct financial assistance as they struggle with their fiscal crisis.
"I think the U.S. very much recognizes the sacrifices being made by the Greek people as they pursue this reform process and view the fiscal and structural reforms that have been agreed on with the European partners and with the IMF as critical," said Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs Michael Froman. "On the economic situation, the Vice President will be supportive of the overall reform effort and the package of measures that have been put in place by the European partners and by the IMF."
In what seems like a deliberate ploy to escape the cold autumn weather gripping Washington, President Barack Obama will leave for Cannes on Wednesday for the G-20 summit and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is off to Istanbul for an international meeting on Afghanistan.
Upon arriving in Cannes on Thursday morning, Obama will hold bilateral meetings with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He will then meet with the "L-20," an elected group of labor leaders from the G-20 countries. On Thursday afternoon, the formal G-20 schedule commences.
Obama will meet on Friday with the newly reelected Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, followed by a press conference, and then perhaps some more one-on-one time with Sarkozy. Other bilateral meetings could pop up, according to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.
"The G-20 agenda is critical to growing our economy here back at home, to strengthening the recovery, to increase exports and to create jobs," NSC Senior Director for International Economics Mike Froman told reporters on Monday morning. "In Cannes, we expect the eurozone to be the primary focus of discussion, but in addition, the leaders will focus on mechanisms that have been put in place to ensure strong, balanced and sustainable growth."
Froman said other topics at the G-20 summit will include financial regulatory reform and how to keep momentum going on G-20 priorities, such as security and infrastructure development, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, fighting corruption, and strengthening the multilateral trading system.
"[T]here is growing agreement around the world that the focus at Cannes needs to be on growth," said Treasury Undersecretary Lael Brainard. "President Obama remains intensely focused on putting Americans back to work. Recovery in the U.S. remains fragile and still too vulnerable to disruption beyond our shores."
Brainard called the new European plan to stave off financial collapse "significant" but declined to comment on whether or not the administration has confidence that Europe's the $1.4 trillion firewall the Obama administration is recommending will actually be implemented. The officials didn't comment directly on the idea of China bailing out Europe, but they didn't seem thrilled about the prospect, either.
So the concept that China and other emerging economies are part of this discussion, that they will be there, along with ourselves and other industrialized countries, speaking with the Europeans, talking about the elaboration and the implementation of their plan, and expressing unity and support of what the Europeans are doing, we think is very much appropriate," Froman said.
Brainard also implied -- but did not say outright -- that the United States was not supportive of the European idea of imposing a tax on all trades of stocks and bonds. She talked about the Obama administration's financial responsibility fee as the preferred approach.
"We think that the financial responsibility fee, which is on the liabilities of the largest financial institutions, is well-targeted to make those institutions that are bearing greater risk pay more. It is better targeted to prevent evasion. And the IMF went through a similar assessment exercise and came, frankly, to a pretty similar conclusion," she said.
Meanwhile, Clinton leaves Monday night for London to attend a conference on cyber security policy. On Wednesday, Clinton will participate in an international conference in Istanbul on the way forward in Afghanistan. The conference is part of the lead up to the Bonn conference on Afghanistan scheduled for Dec. 5.
"Istanbul is seen as an opportunity for Afghanistan's neighbors to reiterate their commitment to a stable, secure, economically viable Afghanistan and to supporting Afghan-led reconciliation, the transition to Afghan security leadership, and then a shared regional economic vision," a senior administration official told reporters on Monday. "It's a gathering of regional foreign ministers. The U.S. is actually there just as a supporter, which is critical."
The Bonn conference is expected to include 85 countries and 15 international organizations, and is being held to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Bonn Agreement in December 2001, which was convened to establish an interim government for ruling Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion.
As for Wednesday's conference in Istanbul, the opening session will feature remarks from Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul. Clinton will make remarks on Wednesday afternoon after lunch.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar will also be at the conference, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari will be in town for a U.S.-Afghan-Pakistani trilateral meeting as well. The United States has been pressing the Pakistani government to cut ties with the Haqqani network, but there's no progress to report just yet.
"The secretary, I think, was quite clear that we all need to see visible signs of progress as a matter of some urgency in days and weeks, as she noted, as opposed to months and years," the senior administration official said.
The United States and Turkey signed an agreement to station U.S. missile defense radar in Turkey, just as Ankara's relations with the West seem to be deteriorating.
The Sept. 14 agreement signed between the two governments will allow a Raytheon-produced AN/TPY-2 X-band radar to be based in the Turkish city of Kurecik. Turkey will be responsible for management of the installation, but the site will be protected by 50 U.S. soldiers and will be funded by the United States. Some residents have already planned an event to protest the new site.
"This is probably the biggest strategic decision between the United States and Turkey in the last 20 years. It is a major strategic decision by Turkey," a senior administration official said in a Sept. 15 briefing for a small group of reporters at the White House.
President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are scheduled to meet Tuesday in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. They've met and spoken often and their personal closeness was key to the success of the missile defense agreement negotiations, another senior administration official said.
"This was a decision that could only be taken by Prime Minister Erdogan. [He and Obama] have built a relationship of respect, they've built a relationship which is very candid, and they've talked through many difficult issues," a third senior administration official said. "The Prime Minister assured the president that he wanted this to happen and he directed his bureaucracy to make it happen."
Meanwhile, in Congress, lawmakers are ramping up their criticism of the Turkish government. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) led a bipartisan letter signed by seven senators, which was sent today to Obama that cited "concern regarding the Turkish Government's recent foreign policy decisions that call into question its commitment to the NATO alliance, threaten regional stability and undermine U.S. interests."
The letter charges that the Turkish government led by Erdogan has taken several foreign decisions that are adverse to U.S. interests. These include expelling the Israeli ambassador and recalling its ambassador to Israel in retribution for Israel's refusal to apologize for a deadly IDF raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla; cancelling NATO's 2011 Anatolian Eagle air defense exercise, in which Israel has participated in since 2001; inviting Chinese military planes to replace U.S. and Israeli aircraft at such exercises; and banning Israeli commercial aircraft from Turkish airspace.
"Mr. President, it appears that Turkey is shifting to a policy of confrontation, if not hostility, towards our allies in Israel and we urge you to mount a diplomatic offensive to reverse this course," the senators wrote. "We ask you to outline Turkey's eroding support in Congress with Prime Minister Erdogan at the earliest opportunity and how its current ill-advised policy toward the State of Israel will also negatively reflect on U.S.-Turkish relations and Turkey's role in the future of NATO."
Also signing the letter were Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Mark Warner (D-VA), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Scott Brown (R-MA).
The senators also want the administration to assure Congress that the missile-defense data collected from the Turkish radar system will be shared with Israel in real time. Turkish media had reported that Turkish officials wanted assurances that the data would not be shared with Israel.
The administration officials described how they dealt with that issue inside the negotiations. The U.S. officials said there is no deal that prevents the information from Turkish radar from being shared with Israel, as all the U.S.' military intelligence is fused together.
"There is an understanding that the radar is a NATO system that is designed to protect NATO from threats from the Middle East. It's understood that the U.S. has a separate and robust missile defense cooperation program with Israel," a senior administration official said, noting that Israel also hosts an identical AN/TPY-2 radar, which they argued makes the radar in Turkey of marginal importance to the defense of Israel.
"At the same time, it's also understood that the data from any U.S. radars and sensors around the world may be fused with other data to maximize the effectiveness of our missile defenses worldwide," the senior administration official said.
Another senior administration official explained that there was no agreement from the U.S. side not to share data from the Turkish-based radar with others, including Israel.
"Data from all U.S. missile defense assets worldwide, including not only from radars in Turkey and Israel, but from other sensors as well, is fused to maximize the effectiveness of our missile defenses worldwide; this data can be shared with our allies and partners in this effort," a senior administration official said.
There seems to be some disagreement on that point. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Sunday that the data from the Turkish radar site would not be shared with Israel.
"We will provide support only for systems that belong to NATO and are used solely by members of NATO," he said, calling reports to the contrary a "manipulation."
After the Wall Street Journal reported on this explanation based on the same briefing, Davotoglu claimed that Ankara had been assured by Washington that the three senior administration officials who briefed reporters did not exist. The Cable can confirm they did exist.
The Obama administration is framing the Turkish agreement as one of five achievements that advance its 2009 decision to move away from the Bush administration's missile defense approach. In place of the Bush plans, the White House has adopted what it terms the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which is now exactly two years in the making.
In addition to the Turkish agreement, the Obama administration has championed the Sept. 13 agreement with Romania to base a SM-3 missile defense battery there; the agreement with Poland to base SM-3 missile defense batteries there that went into effect on Sept. 15; NATO's commitment to the EPAA; and the deployment to the Mediterranean of one Aegis ship, the U.S.S. Monterey, committed to the missile-defense mission.
Kirk's office is also leading the opposition to missile-defense cooperation with Russia. He sent a memo, obtained by The Cable, on Sept. 8 to leaders of the House Armed Services Committee, accusing Russia of espionage and cooperation with Iran on nuclear and missile technology.
Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov are working on a joint missile-defense plan, Kirk said, but Russia's cooperation with Iran makes such an agreement too risky.
"The danger is that Russia will have access to America's most time-sensitive, real time missile defense data," Kirk wrote, noting that Ryabkov announced he is going to Iran at the end of the month to discuss missile defense.
The United States continues to work with Russia to find a path forward on missile-defense cooperation, although the administration officials said there was no concrete progress to announce.
"We remain convinced this could be a major win-win for the U.S.-Russia relationship and the Russia-NATO relationship," a senior administration official said. "But they remain skeptical on the impact of the system on Russia's security, so we have a lot of work still to do."
Representatives from the countries that are aiding the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) will convene in Istanbul, Turkey, this Thursday to develop new plans for assisting the Libya rebels as they assume control over their country.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is currently in New York, has been working the phones on Libya all day. First, she had a conference call with Chris Stevens, the State Department's special envoy to the TNC, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who was then in Cairo. She then spoke with TNC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil.
Clinton then convened a call with several members of the Libya Contact Group, including French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, Denmark's Foreign Minister Lene Espersen, the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, and Qatari's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al Thani.
"The agenda covered financial support for the TNC and the Libyan people, continuing efforts to ensure the protection of civilians, reinforcing the TNC's efforts to pursue an inclusive and broad-based democratic transition, and preparations for immediate needs for essential services and humanitarian relief," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Monday's briefing.
The State Department will be sending Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Gordon to Istanbul for the Contact Group meeting, which is being held at the political directors' level. Typically, the State Department would send the undersecretary of state for political affairs to such a meeting, but that position is vacant while the administration awaits the confirmation of Wendy Sherman, President Barack Obama's nominee for that post.
The Cable reported last week that U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon will be temporarily brought back to Washington to stand in for Sherman while she awaits confirmation, but Nuland said that Shannon would begin work in Washington late Monday and Gordon, who has been assisting Clinton during this crisis, was prepared to go to Istanbul to represent the United States.
Feltman was in Benghazi last week and emphasized the importance of preventing retribution and violence in his discussions with the TNC, Nuland said.
Several Qaddafi officials reached out to the State Department in the final days leading up this weekend's event, but the State Department didn't pursue negotiations with any of them, Nuland said.
"There have been lots of feelers from lots of folks claiming to represent Qaddafi, including more desperate ones in the last 48 to 24 hours. But none of them were serious because none of them met the standard that we insist on, that the international community insisted on, which is to start with his willingness to step down," she said.
The TNC's top priority at the Istanbul meeting will be to convince the international community to speed up the release of some of the estimated $30 billion in frozen Qaddafi assets. Those assets are frozen both by U.N. Security Council resolutions and unilateral measures taken by the United States and others.
"Our diplomats will work with the TNC as they ensure that the institutions of the Libyan state are protected, and we will support them with the assets of the Qaddafi regime that were frozen earlier this year," President Obama said today.
The State Department has sped up the process for releasing some of the funds to the TNC, Nuland said. It is pursuing a dual-track approach, preferring to work with the U.N. sanctions committee but also planning to release money unilaterally if the United Nations does not act quickly.
"I can't give you a precise answer of how much and when, but know that we are focused like a laser on it now," she said.
Daniel Serwer, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said that the U.N. sanctions committee route could be extremely tedious and that the administration should start by giving the TNC funds slowly, while also requiring the TNC to account for how it is spending the money.
"What's important is to begin a steady flow and to have mechanisms in place to insure transparency and accountability in the flow," he said. "The TNC needs a flow of funds, it doesn't need to be a giant flow. Giant flows of money can be poisonous in these kinds of situations."
Early last week, several reports suggested that the White House was preparing to firmly, finally, call on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. But one week later, the Obama administration has made no such declaration and senior officials are now saying that U.S. rhetoric doesn't matter one way or the other.
The silence from the administration has left many in Washington wondering what caused the White House to back away from a firmer stance. Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News reported that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan convinced President Barack Obama to delay the U.S. announcement for two weeks in a phone call between the two leaders on Aug. 11, in order to give Turkey the chance to try to convince Assad to stop murdering civilians.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor denied that report to The Cable, saying, "While we of course work to coordinate with friends and allies, the United States makes foreign policy decisions based on our interests and our values. Period."
Vietor also denied that the Obama administration's plan to explicitly call for Assad to step down was delayed. However, two administration officials not directly involved in the decision told The Cable that they were expecting the announcement to be made on Aug. 12, and then were surprised it never came.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today that it's not important if the United States calls on Assad to go or not, but should rather devote its energies toward establishing an international coalition with other countries that possesses leverage over the Syrian regime that the United States does not. She specifically mentioned Turkey.
"It's not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go," Clinton said at an NDU event this morning, while sitting alongside Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. "If Turkey says it, if [Saudi Arabian ruler] King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it. We don't have very much going on with Syria, because of a long history of challenging problems with them."
The administration's diplomatic options with Damascus are few. Despite the fact that the U.S. has not recalled Ambassador Robert Ford from the embassy, there are reportedly no direct interactions between the United States and the Syrian regime.
"I am a big believer in results over rhetoric," she said. "And I think what we're doing is putting together a very careful set of actions and statements that will make our views very clear; and to have other voices, particularly from the region, as part of that is essential for there to be any impact within Syria."
It's true that the administration has been steadily rolling out sanctions on the Syrian regime and pressing other countries, especially Turkey, to exert their influence over Assad. Clinton spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu before he went to Damascus, and State Department official Fred Hof visited Ankara the same week. And while Davutoglu has ramped up the rhetoric -- most recently saying that Assad must change course "or else" suffer some as-yet unspecified consequences -- the Syrian regime has only increased its violence against the domestic protest movement in recent days.
In Washington, senators and critics have been calling on the administration to remove the confusion from its declaratory policy on Syria, caused by a series of gradually and incrementally harsher condemnations of the regime's actions -- but all of them stopping short of a call for Assad to go. In the cases of Egypt and Libya in recent months, the administration has faced criticism from all sides for being either too slow or too quick to call for Hosni Mubarak and Muammar al-Qaddafi to step down, respectively.
On Aug. 11, White House spokesman Jay Carney went right up to the line and said, "Syria would be a much better place without [Assad]; he has lost his legitimacy, and now long since lost his opportunity to lead the transition that the Syrian people are demanding take place.... We believe that a transition needs to take place in Syria, and that Syria will be better off without President Assad."
So what's keeping the White House from just pulling the trigger and publicly calling for Assad to step down?
"Basically they are there. It's just a matter of how they say it and when," said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It is important to be clear. The question is just when is the best time to do it."
Turkey's last ditch attempt at dialogue with the Assad regime (Davutoglu said the latest engagement attempt was Turkey's "final word" before taking steps to pressure the Syrian regime) threw a wrench in the Obama administration's timeline. The White House wants to coordinate closely with the Turks to bring maximum pressure to bear, said Tabler.
"I think the Turkish thing clearly caught them by surprise. It's slowing things down," he said. "It's important [to call for Assad to go] because it focuses the U.S. government and dispels ambiguity. But you want to make sure you say it when you have all your allies on board."
Tabler's WINEP colleague Michael Singh disagreed in an article today in Foreign Policy, where he argued that, by indicating that Assad must go but not actually saying it, the administration is confusing people in the region and leaving the opposition twisting in the wind:
The problem with this ‘wink and nod' approach to calling for Assad's departure is that it leaves sufficient ambiguity to hamper American efforts. It feeds the Syrian regime's efforts to convince domestic constituencies who may be on the fence that things will one day return to business as usual. It results in a lack of clarity down Washington's bureaucratic chain -- which is a very long chain indeed -- as to what precisely the U.S. policy is in Syria, leading U.S. diplomatic and military officials on the ground around the world without precise guidance. And, perhaps most damagingly, it feeds into a narrative that the U.S. response to the Arab uprisings has been to hedge our bets and decide whom to support only when the ultimate outcome is already clear.
But Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Steven Cook said that the administration is trying not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq, when Turkish sensitivities were not taken into account.
"It seems the administration is doing what it can to give the Turks some room here, but there's really no evidence they've had any influence on Assad's behavior," Cook said. "The way this is being interpreted in the Middle East is that the Turks are giving Assad 15 days of cover so he can snuff out the protests."
Some experts, however, think the whole debate over what the administration does or does not say about Assad is superfluous, and could even be counterproductive if there's no action to back it up.
"This is being held out there by all these pundits that if we just say it, it's going to make it so," said George Washington University professor and FP contributing editor Marc Lynch. "Once you've said it, well then what? Five minutes later it will be all the pundits saying Obama's weak and he's not doing anything about it.... Everyone wants to see something happen but there's a broad recognition of how little leverage we have."
According to Lynch, the problem with the Obama administration's Syria policy was actually completely different.
"I think they hung on to the idea of ‘Assad could reform' too long," he said. "That was a bigger mistake than not saying Assad must go."
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gets to Istanbul on Friday, senators and their staffs will be watching closely to see if she moves the ball forward on an agreement to station U.S. missile defense radar there, an agreement many Republicans oppose.
"We write with concern over recent reports that the administration may be nearing completion of a bilateral agreement with the Turkish Government to base a U.S. AN/TPY-2 (X-Band) radar in Turkey," wrote Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) in a July 12 letter to Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta obtained by The Cable.
The senators want the radar to be based in either Georgia or Azerbaijan, which they argue are better locations for defending against a missile attack from Iran. But more broadly, they are concerned that Ankara will place a number of onerous restrictions on the radar, such as demanding that no data be shared with Israel. The senators have also accused Turkey of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran, which they said calls into question their reliability as a partner in organizing a missile defense system aimed at Tehran.
In a May 12 meeting with Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, a senior Missile Defense Agency representative told the senators that "a forward-deployed X-Band radar in either Georgia or Armenia would have significant advantages for the missile defense of the United States," the senator wrote.
The senators wrote a May 16 letter to Miller asking for a complete analysis of alternative sites, but they said that they have yet to receive any response.
Kyl and Kirk also suggested that they will attempt to thwart any missile defense agreement with Turkey unless the Turks agree to share data with Israel, stop violating Iran sanctions laws, and keep the system under the control of U.S. personnel.
For both the Obama administration and the George W. Bush administration preceding it, international missile defense deployment has always been based on both security and diplomatic considerations. The Bush administration plan to place missile defense infrastructure in Poland and the Czech Republic was a key aspect of strengthening relationships with those two countries, until the Obama administration scuttled it.
A senior GOP Senate aide explained the insider rationale to The Cable.
"Secretary Clinton knows the Congress well and she knows that support for a radar in Turkey will quickly collapse on both sides of the aisle if the Turks get any control over its operational activity or veto rights over sharing data with Israel," the aide said. "Given Turkey's strained relationship with Israel and non-compliance with U.S. sanctions against Iran, there's a strong feeling that if the Turks have any operational control over the radar we can be sure it will be turned off the day we need it most."
Four Republican senators are calling on the Obama administration to place a sensitive missile defense-related radar site in Georgia, rather than in Turkey, as is currently planned.
"We believe that the U.S. should deploy the most effective missile defenses possible -- in partnership with our allies -- that provide for the protection of the U.S. homeland, our deployed forces, and our allies," began a Feb. 3 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates signed by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), James Risch (R-ID), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and James Inhofe (R-OK).
The senators are responding to statements from the Turkish government that it would only agree to host the new radar, known as TPY-2, if the United States agrees not to share with Israel any of the information gathered by the radar site, which is part of a NATO system discussed at the recent Lisbon summit. Turkey also wants command and control over the radar and wants NATO to remove any references to Iran as the threat targeted by the missile shield.
For all these reasons, the senators think Georgia would be a better option.
"We believe that the Republic of Georgia's geographic location would make it an ideal site for a missile defense radar aimed at Iran, and would offer clear advantages for the protection of the United States from a long range missile as compared to Turkey," the senators wrote. "What's more, the Republic of Georgia should be a significant partner for future defense cooperation with the U.S."
The senators asked Gates to tell them if Georgia was under consideration as a possible host for the radar site and, if not, what other alternatives the Pentagon is considering.
The prospects of NATO or the Obama administration actually placing a missile defense radar site in Georgia are slim, considering that Georgia is not in NATO and that the consequences for U.S. -Russia and NATO-Russia relations could be devastating.
But the letter is a sure sign that the new Congress is prepared to ramp up its advocacy of restoring defense cooperation with Georgia, which has slowed to a crawl since the 2008 Russian invasion. Other senators who are calling for more military support and cooperation for Georgia include John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Richard Lugar (R-IN), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"The United States, under substantial Russian diplomatic pressure, has paused the transfer of lethal military articles to Georgia, and no U.S. assistance since the war has been directly provided to the Georgian Ministry of Defense," Lugar wrote in a December 2009 report. "Consequently, Georgia lacks basic capacity for territorial defense."
Last week, we reported that the GOP is holding up the nomination of Frank Ricciardone to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Today, we bring you the letter from Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explaining his objections to the nomination.
Brownback, who will retire from the Senate at the end of this year, has long been critical of Ricciardone dating back to the nominee's time as ambassador to Egypt during the Bush administration and as one of the key officials chosen to strengthen Iraqi opposition groups in early 2003. Brownback states in his letter that Ricciardone "downplayed" the Bush administration's pro-democracy efforts in Egypt and "did not favor" a strong effort to work with Iraqi opposition groups in the run up to the invasion.
"From the latter days of the Bush administration to today, opposition groups from Africa to the Middle East to Asia have been questioning the U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights. Given these questions, I am not convinced that Ambassador Ricciardone is the right ambassador for Turkey at this time -- despite his extensive diplomatic experience," Brownback wrote.
Brownback also criticized Ricciardone for his work while in Cairo to establish an endowment fund to provide non-military aid to Egypt, which the senator argued would have been a slush fund for the Mubarak government and contributed to the further marginalization of democracy and human rights opposition groups there. The Obama administration is negotiating over the controversial endowment even to this day.
"I believe democracy and human rights should be considered on par with other aspects of our bilateral relationships, but I am not convinced that Ambassador Ricciardone shares that view. I am concerned that the endowment plan will marginalize further discussion about the development of democracy in Egypt," he wrote.
All of this speaks to how Ricciardone would conduct American diplomacy in Turkey, according to Brownback, who alleges that secular Turkish opposition groups are already complaining they don't have good access to current ambassador Jim Jeffrey, who is on his way to take over for Chris Hill in Baghdad.
Brownback is requesting that State provide written answers and assurances on a list of questions ranging from Ricciardone's views on numerous issues to assurances regarding how the State Departmetn will conduct aspects of foreign policy. He also signaled that Turkey's recent decisions to vote against new sanctions on Iran at the U.N. Security Council and harshly criticize Israel in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident will also be part of Ricciardone's confirmation debate, which could resume when Congress returns from recess.
"I am also concerned that we have not fully considered the ramifications of a Turkish tilt toward Iran and away from Israel, and I will give those issues some attention before the Senate reconvenes in September," Brownback wrote.
Full letter after the jump:
The nomination of Frank Ricciardone to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey is being held up in the Senate and the GOP has no intention of allowing a vote on the nomination any time soon.
A spokesperson for Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, confirmed to The Cable that his office has placed a hold on the nomination, which was reported out favorably by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month. Brownback is preparing a letter now to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explaining the reasons for his objections.
Brownback's office declined to specify the contents of the letter, but multiple GOP senate aides from other offices said that there was widespread support throughout the caucus for Brownback's position and that there was nothing specific the administration could do to convince Ricciardone's detractors to allow his nomination to proceed. If Brownback did release his hold, it's likely another one would surface soon after.
"He's just the wrong guy for this sensitive post at this time and the hope is that the administration will recognize that he won't be confirmed this year and nominate someone better," said one senior GOP aide close to the issue.
Of course, the president could appoint Ricciardone this month during the congressional recess and avoid a Senate confirmation vote, but then Ricciardone would be ambassador only until the new Congress is seated in January, at which point a potentially larger GOP Senate caucus would likely raise the same objections.
The controversy over the nomination is mired in the history of U.S. relations with several of the countries in which Ricciardone has served, including Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan.
To his supporters, Ricciardone is a distinguished 34-year veteran of the Foreign Service who has taken on tough assignments in dangerous places on behalf of both Democratic and Republican administrations. To his critics, Ricciardone's record shows a pattern of being too close to the governments he is interacting with and too tepid on the mission to push values such as democracy and human rights with tyrannical regimes.
The tenuous nature of the U.S.-Turkey relationship right now due to Turkey's vote against new sanctions for Iran at the U.N. and Turkey's bold anti-Israel stance in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident have put a spotlight on the nomination.
The administration might be wary of spending its limited political capital to push through the Ricciardone nomination to a floor debate in the Senate because it could open up a broader public discussion of Turkey policy the White House might not think is useful given the delicate diplomatic environment.
There are signs that the administration is working hard now behind the scenes to reevaluate its approach to Turkey. For example, the State Department is hosting a high-level meeting today on Turkey policy, led by Clinton and Policy Planning chief Anne Marie Slaughter and with the participation of Assistant Secretary Phil Gordon.
"The ultimate aim of [the meeting] is to assess in a free, think-tanky sort of way, are we moving in the right direction, are there other areas we can address?" a State Department official said, explaining that this one of multiple meeting being held to come up with "out-of-the-box thinking to try to assess where we need to go."
One GOP Senate aide lamented that the administration seemed tone deaf to Republican objections to Ricciardone.
"They're trying to get together to figure out their Turkey policy and this nomination shows they don't have one."
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is attempting to move four Middle East diplomatic nominees Tuesday, including the controversial selection of Francis Ricciardone to become ambassador to Turkey.
"Through more than three decades I have observed Turkey's continuing transformation into a more democratic, more open, and more economically vibrant, modern state and a player with growing influence on the world stage," Ricciardone will say in his opening testimony (pdf), obtained by The Cable.
Noting decades of cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey, Ricciardone will also express disappointment at Turkey's recent U.N. Security Council vote against new sanctions on Iran and Turkey's deteriorated relationship with Israel following the Gaza flotilla incident.
"Turkey and Israel are both important partners of the United States," he will say.
But he will also note Turkish assistance with American efforts related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will describe Turkey as "one of our strongest partners in the fight against international terrorism."
Ricciardone will be sharing the witness table with two other nominees, Gerald M. Feierstein, who is nominated to become the envoy to Yemen and Maura Connelly, who is nominated to be President Obama's ambassador to Lebanon.
The nominee to become ambassador to Iraq, Jim Jeffrey, who is also the outgoing ambassador to Turkey, will hear questions form senators by himself in a separate panel. Jeffrey is replacing Chris Hill, who will retire and join the University of Denver in September.
All four nominees will likely be approved by the committee despite some GOP opposition to Ricciardone based on criticisms of his tenure as ambassador to Egypt during the George W. Bush administration. But whether the full Senate will clear the nominees before the August recess is unclear.
Jeffrey is being fast tracked, our sources say, and should be confirmed by the full Senate before the break. The Senate is also sitting on the nomination of Robert Ford to become envoy to Syria, but Senate sources don't see that nomination moving any time soon.
Ford was most recently the deputy chief of mission in Baghdad, but now he sits at home waiting for the Senate to act. He has already been replaced in Baghdad by Stu Jones, a former deputy assistant secretary in State's Europe bureau who will stay on when Jeffrey takes over.
The U.S. taxpayer-funded Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, led by former Congressman Lee Hamilton, is giving out its annual award for public service Thursday, and the winner is ... Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu!
Davutaoglu "personifies the attributes we seek to honor at the Woodrow Wilson Center," Hamilton said in announcing the event, adding that his "contributions have been numerous and significant."
The Turkish foreign minister has been in the news a lot lately, such as when he said the Israeli incident aboard the Gaza flotilla "is like 9/11 for Turkey."
He was also a key figure in the Brazilian-Turkish drive to head off new U.N. sanctions on Iran by striking an 11th-hour fuel-swap deal, an agreement the Obama administration has dismissed as inadequate and unhelpful.
House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee chairman Gary Ackerman, D-NY, wrote to Hamilton Wednesday to express his "deep concern and dismay" over the award to Davutoglu.
"Turkey's foreign policy under Foreign Minister Davutoglu's leadership is rife with illegality, irresponsibility and hypocrisy," he wrote, citing Turkey's denial of the Armenian genocide, its occupation of northern Cyprus, Turkey's vote against new Iran sanctions, and what Ackerman described as the ongoing "demonizing" of Israel as exhibited during the flotilla crisis.
"A foreign leader who represents and defends this kind of foreign policy, one who has championed Turkey's most odious efforts to deny to others the human dignity that Turkey rightly expects for its own people, is not a worthy recipient of the WWC Public Service Award," Ackerman wrote.
The center was created in 1968 by an act of Congress as a private/public partnership, and U.S. taxpayers contribute about a third of the center's annual revenue.
Many lawmakers are fed up with what they see as Turkey's unhelpful actions in the international arena.
"There will be a cost if Turkey stays on its present heading of growing closer to Iran and more antagonistic to the state of Israel," Rep. Mike Pence, R-IN, told a news conference Wednesday. "It will bear upon my view and I believe the view of many members of Congress on the state of the relationship with Turkey."
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-NY, called recent actions by Turkey "disgraceful."
In an emailed statement, the Wilson Center explained, "Awardees are selected based on a collective body of their lifelong career and achievements ... Awardees are not chosen for their political views ... and we do not endorse the views of Woodrow Wilson Awardees on specific issues."
The statement also said that the event was a fundraising event and that Congress has been pushing the center to find more private sources of funding. "These Awards Dinners have been critical for helping to raise some of the funding the Wilson Center needs," the statement said.
"Mr. Davutoglu has had a diverse career as a scholar, a professor, a political scientist, an author, a civil servant, an international diplomat, and currently as Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs... He also fits the Wilsonian mold of being both a scholar and a policymaker," the statement reads, noting that Davtoglu was invited to accept the award in August 2009.
Did President Obama give Brazil and Turkey the nod to pursue their recent 11th-hour fuel-swap deal with Iran?
That's what Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu claimed in a Wednesday press conference in Istanbul, appearing to contradict clear signals that the Obama administration didn't look favorably on the agreement.
"[Obama] paved the way for this process," Davutoglu said, claiming that Obama had personally encouraged Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to pursue dialogue with Tehran when the three leaders met at last month's nuclear security summit in Washington.
It's true that Obama "encouraged" Turkey and Brazil to hold discussions with Iran, a White House official tells The Cable, but he never indicated that a deal like the one announced this week would be sufficient to alleviate international concerns or stave off sanctions.
Nor did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke with Davutoglu by last Friday, give the talks an unqualified thumbs up. "During the call, the secretary stressed that in our view, Iran's recent diplomacy was an attempt to stop Security Council action without actually taking steps to address international concerns about its nuclear program," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
According to the White House, Obama did not mean to suggest that a fuel-swap deal alone would be enough to assuage U.S. concerns about Iran's nuclear program. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government would still have to prove to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. Security Council that its intentions were peaceful, stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, and comply with previous U.N. sanctions resolutions.
The New York Times reported Monday that Obama had sent "detailed letters in the last week of April outlining specific concerns" about Brazil and Turkey's planned diplomatic outreach to Iran -- concerns that apparently went unheeded.
The previous fuel-swap deal, which Iran initially agreed to in October but later repudiated, would have seen Iran ship its low-enriched uranium to Russia. There, it was to be enriched to a higher grade for use in Tehran's research reactor, ostensibly for medical purposes.
But in the intervening months, Iran continued to expand its nuclear program, and announced that it had the technology to enrich uranium to 20 percent -- closer to the grade needed to produce nuclear weapons.
"The president encouraged the Turks and Lula to talk to the Iranians about encouraging Iran to meet their international obligations," the White House official said. "That can include the [Tehran research reactor] aspect but that also must include the other parts of the deal in October."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.