The Cable

Internal report on Syria says embassy lacks clear guidance on sanctions

What good are sanctions if the people on the ground don't know how to implement them?

That's a question lawmakers are sure to ask at today's opening of the conference on new Iran sanctions legislation, and that's the criticism levied in a new State Department inspector general's report on Syria.

"The most immediate issue requiring greater clarity concerns economic sanctions," reads the IG's latest report on the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. "There is no front-channel guidance on the issue. The inspection team reviewed email and informal traffic regarding sanctions and waiver policy, and found several areas in which the guidance appeared to be contradictory."

The major U.S. sanctions against Syria are laid out in the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, which limits U.S. exports there to food, water, and a select list of items approved by the Commerce Department. And while the embassy staff in Damascus, who have been without an ambassador since 2005, is great about reporting on the Syrian government's wide-ranging efforts to subvert the sanctions, the report found there was "inadequate guidance regarding how embassy officers should advise potential U.S. exporters of sanctions and possible waivers."

The report also states that although the Obama administration's initial announcement last summer that it was restoring an ambassador to Syria yielded some diplomatic benefits, those benefits have trailed off and the Syrian government's engagement remains poor almost one year later.

Although the embassy has noticed some increased access to Syrian officials, for the most part, they avoid contact with U.S. diplomats for any reason, the report explained. For example, the chargé d'affaires, Charles F. "Chuck" Hunter (above right), is not able to meet with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem.

"Economic officers have no access to officials in key ministries such as the finance, energy, or industry ministries, and the situation is similar for officers elsewhere in the Embassy," the report states. "Most Embassy business, routine and otherwise, is conducted through diplomatic note or during visits by senior Washington officials and congressional delegations, when access is granted."

One of the problems could be the fact that since 2005, there have "excessive changes" in the embassy's front office personnel, including five chargés d'affaires and seven acting deputy chiefs of mission.

"However, this situation can be expected to improve with the return of an ambassador to Damascus," the report says.

And if and when Obama's ambassador nominee, Robert Ford, ever gets to Damascus, he faces a herculean task in resurrecting an embassy that has taken a series of beatings over the last few years. "Embassy Damascus operates in an exceptionally difficult political and physical environment," the report notes, citing Syrian government activities to thwart the embassy's attempts to conduct public diplomacy as well as security threats, such as the car bombing of the embassy in 2006.

Our sources report that the State Department hasn't been pushing hard recently for Ford's nomination to move forward. Several GOP senators have placed holds on the nomination, partly because they want more information about alleged Syrian weapons shipments to Hezbollah.

The report also goes much further in calling out Syria and its leaders for their poor record on democracy and human rights than any senior official has been willing to do on the record for some time.

"Syria is a repressive state, ruled by a hereditary authoritarian leader. Political opponents of President Bashar al-Asad's government are regularly arrested and jailed. Human rights advocates are routinely persecuted. Web sites such as Facebook and YouTube are blocked.  Opposition outlets are subject to government censorship, as are the media. The government's feared intelligence apparatus maintains a heavy presence throughout society."

The report also took the time to point out:

-          Freedom House places Syria near the bottom of its world democracy index

-          Syria has been on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1979

-          In its 2009 Global Corruption Report, Transparency International ranked Syria 147 out of 180 countries regarding government corruption

The Damascus embassy, even in its tenuous state, has focused on human rights in its reporting to Washington.

"In one month reviewed by inspectors, 25 percent of the section's outgoing cables addressed human rights issues," the report states.

The inspector general is calling on the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, headed by former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman, to "initiate an interagency review of all sanctions-related issues and provide the embassy with explicit, formal guidance on how to address them, including specific clarification regarding the rules of engagement."

The IG also recommends that State sell a "garden site" and a consular property in Aleppo to raise an estimated $65 million worth of funds that "could be put to better use."

The Cable

Ambassador nominee still haunted by Cuban romance

President Obama's nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte to be the next U.S. ambassador to El Salvador still faces Republican opposition due to a relationship she had with a Cuban American more than 15 years ago.

The objections surfaced again during today's business meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which approved her nomination despite "no" votes by several GOP committee members. Led by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the Republicans are demanding more information about Aponte's long-ago romance with Roberto Tamayo, a Cuban-born insurance salesman who was alleged to have ties to both the FBI and Castro's intelligence apparatus.

DeMint and the other Republicans want access to all of the FBI's records on the relationship. The FBI interviewed both Aponte and Tamayo about the matter back in 1993, but Aponte has admitted she declined to take a lie-detector test. She withdrew herself from consideration to be ambassador to the Dominican Republic in 1998 after then Sen. Jesse Helms promised to ask invasive questions about the relationship at her hearing, citing "personal reasons."

Now, the GOP is making an issue out of it all over again.

"The allegations were apparently serious enough for her to withdraw her nomination in 1998 so I think it's fair to ask some questions," DeMint told The Cable.

"With that many Republicans voting no in the committee, one person is probably going to ask for a debate and a vote," DeMint said. That's the clear code language for a Senate hold, which is often just a senator's promise not to support a simple confirmation by unanimous consent. "I doubt she'll be confirmed without a vote."

Sen. John Barrasso, R-WY, and anti-Castro Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, have both seen at least some of the FBI's material. Barrasso said he supported DeMint's request to see the whole file.

But Menendez came to Aponte's defense at the business meeting and said, "If I thought that after having reviewed the file that Miss Aponte would be a security risk to the United States in any context, but particularly in the context of the Castro regime having access to her, I would oppose her. But that is simply not the case."

He also disputed the existence of a classified memo that was reportedly prepared for Helms with damaging information about the relationship and alleged contacts Amonte had with Cuban intelligence operatives.

"I've talked to people who served with Senator Helms and his staff and there is no memo," said Mendendez. "It's hard to disprove something that doesn't exist."

Chairman John Kerry, D-MA, noted that she has received top-secret security clearance twice since the alleged affair. Not having an ambassador in El Salvador hurts American interests, he added.

"After an exhaustive investigative process, with the entire U.S. intelligence community looking at this twice since these allegations appeared about her former boyfriend, she has been given top-secret clearance," Kerry said. "Either our intelligence community is completely incompetent in looking at these things, or we have to trust them."

At her March 17 confirmation hearing, Aponte gave her most detailed account to date about the relationship and her interactions with Cuban officials in the 1980s.

"Between 1982 and 1994, I was romantically involved with a Cuban American. It was a romantic relationship. In the course of that relationship, he had some contacts with the Cuban Interests Section that arose out of volunteer work that he did for Cuban Americans, who like himself, wanted to travel to Cuba to see relatives," Aponte said.

"Because we were dating, were a couple, on occasion we would go out with other couples from the Cuban Interests Section who helped him and facilitated the paperwork. They were all social contacts. There came a time when the relationship was not working out. We finally broke up in 1994. In 1993, in the Clinton administration, I was visited by the FBI who wanted to discuss the relationship with me," she said.

The FBI later gave Aponte "a clean bill of health," a National Security Council spokesman told the Washington Times in 1999.