The Cable

Twitterati report: Syria trip mixes work with play

The State Department's two leading Twitterati, Special Advisor on Innovation Alec J. Ross (@alecjross) and Policy Planning staffer Jared Cohen (@jaredcohen), are in Syria this week leading a delegation of tech companies hoping to, as the Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon puts it, "woo President Bashar al-Assad away from his strategic alliance with Iran" with offers of networking equipment, computer software, and the like.

But it's not all work and no play for Ross and Cohen, who have been finding some time to take in the sights and tell us about it, 140 characters at a time. For example, according to Ross, on Tuesday Cohen challenged the Syrian Minister of Telecom to a cake-eating contest and called it "Creative Diplomacy." Match that, Tehran!

Ross and Cohen both tweeted about their trip to the Tonino Lamborghini Caffe Lounge in Damascus, but while Ross was "amused" by the place, Cohen wants his 300,000-plus tweeps to know that "I'm not kidding when I say I just had the greatest frappacino ever at Kalamoun University north of Damascus."

Good to know!

There were some travel tips as well. "Feel bad for @alecjross who I just watched get charged 5000 Syrian pounds at an ATM and only get 500 out of machine," tweeted Cohen.

In between drinking frappuccinos and touring such places as the Souk al-Hamadiye, the famous covered marketplace in Damascus, Cohen and Ross did find time to hold substantive meetings with Syrian students, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, government officials, and Assad himself.

The students complained that the Syrian government blocked Google, Tashkil, Facebook, YouTube, etc., according to Cohen. Apparently they don't block Twitter...

Ross explained that the trip is not just about engaging Assad. "This trip to #Syria will test Syria's willingness to engage more responsibly on issues of #netfreedom," he tweeted.

The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Iran, Kyrgyzstan, BP, North Korea, Pakistan

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. These are the highlights of Tuesday's briefing by spokesman P.J. Crowley:

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Tuesday with Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, who heads to Brussels Wednesday to attend the meeting of European council, which "will take up the issue of strong measures to implement and accompany U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929" regarding Iran, Crowley said. "Resolution 1929 keeps the door open for continued engagement between the P-5 plus one and Iran as well as other differences between us," he added.
  • More countries have offered up assistance to help with the BP oil spill, bringing the total number of countries offering to help to 18. Qatar has offered containment boom. Sweden has followed up on an earlier offer of assistance to include skimmers. So far, the U.S. has accepted offers from Mexico, Norway, the Netherlands and Canada. The International Maritime Organization is scanning the globe for more boom now.
  • There was some new information on why the U.S. hasn't been accepting these offers more and faster. Apparently it's about the cost. "For the most part, they are offers to sell supplies. And in determining whether to accept these offers, we look at the availability of domestic sources and also, you know, compare pricing on the open market," Crowley said.
  • Assistant Secretary Bob Blake spoke Tuesday with Kyrgyz interim President Roza Otunbayeva Wednesday about the ongoing ethic violence there. Blake will travel to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and then go on to the Ferghana Valley to evaluate the humanitarian situation there and then be in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, on Friday. "We're prepared to airlift medicines as needed," Crowley said, "They're going to have dramatic humanitarian needs in the very near term."
  • He denied that the U.S. was taking a hands off approach, declared that there was a humanitarian crisis in Kyrgyzstan with 80,000 to 200,000 displaced persons, but said there was no plan right now for direct intervention.  "No one takes lightly the aspect of providing direct support, or even direct intervention," Crowley said, "Our advice to the interim president was to work through the OSCE and the U.N."
  • Blake and Assistant Secretary Mike Posner were already traveling in the region, and had meetings in Ashkhabad Tuesday as part of the inaugural U.S.- Turkmenistan annual bilateral consultations.
  • Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman is still in Iraq and met with President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
  • Crowley also talked about the State Department delegation currently in Syria centering on technology companies. The delegation is being led by is Alec Ross, the secretary of State's senior adviser for innovation, Jared Cohen from the secretary's Policy Planning staff, and includes Dell, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Symantec and VeriSign. "The initiative is in line with President Obama's Cairo speech of last year, where he called for expanding cooperation between the United States and Muslim-majority countries, and promoting job creation, education and technological innovation," said Crowley.
  • Crowley dismissed statement by North Korean leaders that they would respond militarily if the U.N. takes action to condemn them for sinking a South Korean ship. "That sounds like the same kind of provocative behavior that has characterized North Korea, unfortunately, since early 2009," he said, "North Korea cannot expect us to continue a business-as-usual approach when they go about sinking the Cheonan. We can't proceed as if this never took place. Actions have consequences."
  • The State Department is looking into the Chinese sale of two more nuclear reactors to Pakistan. "this appears to extend beyond cooperation that was grandfathered when China was approved for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group," Crowley said, "We believe that such cooperation would require a specific exemption approved by consensus of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, as was done for India. So we're not looking at any difference between the two.
  • Crowley said the State Department was aware of the arrest of Gary Faulkner, the American who went hunting for Osama Bil Laden in Pakistan with a sword, but said they haven't had any consular access to him yet.