The Cable

Here we go again: GOP criticizes Obama inaction on Syria

Two GOP senators opened another line of criticism of President Barack Obama's approach to the Middle East on Thursday, this time calling on the administration to more strongly criticize the Syrian government for its deadly crackdown on popular demonstrations and begin engaging the Syrian opposition.

Government violence against protesters in Syria is escalating, with security forces reportedly killing 15 people on Wednesday during a raid on a mosque in the southern city of Deraa. Some reports put the night's death toll at 37 or more. The State Department put out a statement condemning the deaths and issued a 90-day travel alert on Thursday that warned Americans about the violence surrounding the protests.

"The United States is deeply troubled by violence and civilian deaths in Dara'a at the hands of security forces. We are concerned by the Syrian Government's use of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests in Dara'a to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal rights. We condemn these actions and extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who have been injured or lost their lives. We call on the Syrian Government to exercise restraint and refrain from violence against peaceful protestors," The statement read.

But Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) want to know if the Obama administration is reaching out to Syrian opposition leaders and offering them support, as it did in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

"The Syrian people must know that the United States stands with them against the brutal Assad regime.  We can ill afford another timid embrace of a democratic uprising," the senators said in a Thursday statement. "We urge the President, Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Ford to publicly condemn the murders committed by the Assad dictatorship and to demonstrate their support for the Syrian people."

By invoking Ambassador Robert Ford, Kyl and Kirk are calling for the administration to make good on its argument that the United States needed an ambassador in Damascus to have maximum influence with the Syrian government. Kyl and others Republicans held up the Ford nomination for 10 months because they saw the appointment of any ambassador as a reward to the Syrian regime, and they wanted the administration to more clearly spell out its Syria policy.

The president used a recess appointment for Ford to circumvent the Senate confirmation process. Kyl and Kirk now want Ford to use his perch to condemn the Syrian regime's crackdown.

"Ambassador Ford should begin a sustained campaign of outreach from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to the Syrian opposition movement," they said.

The Syrian government and the U.S. embassy in Syria have never been close: An internal report last April stated that the access of embassy officials to those inside the regime is scarce. This makes the danger for Americans in Syria even graver.

It is still unclear who has organized the demonstrations in Syria, so the Obama administration may find it difficult to engage with opposition figures, even if it wanted to.

Pressure on the administration to get tough with the Syrian regime is growing. The Washington Post printed an editorial today that called on Obama to demand an investigation into the killings in Deraa and tighten sanctions on Damascus.

"After Wednesday's massacre, Syrians are likely to feel still angrier - but they also will be watching the response of the outside world," the editorial stated. "That's why it is essential that the United States and Syria's partners in Europe act quickly to punish Mr. Assad's behavior. Verbal condemnations will not be enough."

UPDATE: Late Thursday afternoon, the office of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney put out the following strongly worded statement on the violence in Syria:

The United States strongly condemns the Syrian government’s brutal repression of demonstrations, in particular the violence and killings of civilians at the hands of security forces.  We reject the use of violence under any circumstances.  We are also deeply troubled by the arbitrary arrests of human rights activists and others.  Those responsible for the violence must be held accountable.  The United States stands for a set of universal rights, including the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and believes that governments must be responsive to the legitimate aspirations of their people.  We call on the Syrian government to exercise restraint and respect the rights of its people and call on all citizens to exercise their rights peacefully.

The Cable

Moroccan FM: Obama needs to “adjust” his Middle East approach

Two years after President Barack Obama's famous speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, it's time for him to rethink and adjust his approach to the region, according to the foreign minister of Morocco.

Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri, who is touring Washington this week, met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday afternoon. He sat down with The Cable for an exclusive interview just before the meeting, following a speech at the Brookings Institution. Fihri said that Obama should revise his strategy for dealing with the Arab world in light of the dramatic events sweeping the region.

"[Obama] now has some results, some bad, some good, some question marks. We need an evaluation, an adjustment," he said. The recent rifts between European allies aside, the United States and Europe must come together to establish a clear approach to the region, he said.

"We need coherent and complementary actions vis-à-vis all of the south of the Mediterranean."

Asked whether the United States and Europe have different interests in the region, especially in Libya, he said, "Now they have common interests."

The United States could start by deepening and broadening its strategic relationship with Morocco, he suggested. Morocco has a free trade agreement with the United States, as well as a compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, but wants a deeper strategic dialogue and greater cooperation in areas like counter-narcotics, he said.

"Now, because the world has changed, now we have to decide on a new roadmap, action oriented, to look to the future, because our society has changed, our economy has changed, and we have to readjust this strong partnership in the context of our common evolution," he said.

Following their meeting, Clinton thanked Morocco for leading the drive for Arab support for the Libyan intervention, especially last weekend during a crucial meeting in Paris. Fihri said that it was the responsibility of all U.N. member countries to enforce the Security Council resolution to protect civilians but that Morocco was not in a position to participate militarily.

"Morocco has other military concerns because of the Sahara issue... but we have to think first about our national interest," he said.

Morocco supports the international effort to protect civilians in Libya, but said that some nations should be left alone to sort out their own affairs, and noted the example of Saudi Arabia.

"Saudi Arabia is an important state, has an important role, and is key for many things. We have to respect their policy, not only at a domestic level. We cannot decide many things in the region without Saudi Arabia," Fihri said.

Clinton praised Morocco's political reforms as a model for the region. She also said that the military intervention in Libya was making "significant progress," and had halted the Libyan government's pending assault on Benghazi, which would have put hundreds of thousands of Libyans at risk.

"I know that the nightly news cannot cover a humanitarian crisis that thankfully did not happen, but it is important to remember that many, many Libyans are safer today because the international community took action," she said.