The Cable

16 Senators: Syria’s Assad has lost his legitimacy

Many in Congress are getting impatient with what they see as a lack of concrete action by the Obama administration to condemn and punish the Syrian government for its brutal crackdown on civilian protesters. Today, 16 senators are co-sponsoring a resolution calling on the administration to get tough on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) spearheaded the resolution (PDF) with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and John McCain (R-AZ). The foursome held a press conference on Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol to announce their new effort and demand that the Obama administration expand its activities to sanction, condemn, and pressure the Syrian government to stop killing civilians in the streets.

"I know that there are some who had hoped when these protests first broke out that Bashar al- Assad would pursue the path of reform rather than the path of violence and brutality. But that has clearly not been his choice. He is not a reformer. He is a thug and a murderer who is pursuing the Qaddafi model, and hopes to get away with it," said Lieberman.

"First and foremost, [the resolution] sends a clear message that Bashar al Assad -- through his campaign of violence -- has lost legitimacy, and puts the Senate squarely on record as standing with the aspirations of the Syrian people," Lieberman added.

The resolution condemns the Syrian government for its crackdown on peaceful protesters, violating international human rights agreements, withholding food, water, and basic medical services to civilians, and torturing protesters in government custody. The resolution also mentions Iran's assistance to Syria's repressive government and Syrian meddling in Lebanon, which has included transferring weapons to Hezbollah.

The senators want the administration to expand the targeted sanctions it imposed last month on senior Syrian government officials, sanction Assad directly, expand the effort to combat media and information censorship in Syria, engage more with the Syrian opposition, and seek condemnation of Syria at the U.N. Security Council. The senators also want President Barack Obama to speak publicly about the crisis there.

"It's time to indict the guy who is giving the orders," said McCain. "And it's time for the President of the United States to speak up."

Two senior Senate aides said they expect the resolution to move to the Senate floor and be passed relatively soon.

Importantly, the Senate resolution declares that the Syrian government "has lost legitimacy" and expresses the belief that the Syrian people should determine their own political future. The State Department has resisted making that statement, knowing that once the administration declares Assad is no longer "legitimate," all efforts to work with the Syrian government to encourage better behavior will become more difficult.

Pressed repeatedly on that very question at Tuesday's briefing, State Department spokesman Mark Toner refused to say the Syrian government was no longer legitimate.

"We believe that he needs to take concrete steps to cease violence against innocent protesters and civilians, and he needs to address their legitimate aspirations," he said.

But Syria's main advocate in the Senate, SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), told The Cable on Tuesday that Assad's chance to be a reformer had passed.

"I said we have to put him to the test. I've always said it's a series of tests," Kerry said. "The chance was lost and that's the end of it."

UPDATE: Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) is now also a co-sponsor of the resolution, bringing the total number of co-sponsors to 17.

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The Cable

Pakistan military aid safer than the economic aid

As Congress contemplates cutting U.S. aid to Pakistan in light of the discovery that Osama bin Laden had been hiding there for years, the funds most at risk from disgruntled lawmakers are those currently allocated to the civilian government that is more sympathetic to Washington, rather than the money going to the Pakistani military, which is more wary of ties to the United States.

This irony is not lost on senior U.S. lawmakers who are thinking about scaling back promises of economic assistance. Most vulnerable are the funds promised under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package, which total $7.5 billion over five years.

Top senators admit that the civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari has staked a lot of its credibility on its decision to stand by Washington. But many in Congress say that the United States needs the Pakistani military to help it fight the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda, so they're more reluctant to cut this funding.

"The part that I'm most skeptical of is the economic part, the 5 year Kerry-Lugar plan," Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable in a Tuesday interview.

Levin's committee has control of the Pakistani Counterinsurgency Capability Fund, which goes directly to the Pakistani military, but he won't cut that funding in his authorization bill.

"It's not a matter of which part of the government to support, it's the mission or activities that are in our interest. And the military pieces that we're supporting, which is reimbursement of their costs for supporting our effort in Afghanistan plus training their military on the border, that's clearly in our interest," Levin said.

He said it's also in the U.S. interest for Pakistan to develop into a stable democracy that can provide for itself -- but that's not the most pressing issue at the moment.

"Sure, that's also in our interest but not as clearly," said Levin. "Plus, the money is much more easily transferable on the economic side than on the military side."

Several top senators, including Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Ops chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), also want to scale back the Kerry-Lugar-Berman funding because they don't feel it's being wisely spent or that the oversight is in place.

Two lawmakers who have called for a review of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman funding in the wake of the bin Laden killing are Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), two of the three authors of the legislation. As leaders on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, they play a role in authorizing the funds each year.

"Very little of the money has been spent -- only $179 million has been allocated from the $1.5 billion this year -- largely because we never worked out the accountability of the money, who in Pakistan would spend, how we would audit what they were doing, nor have we agreed on the projects," Lugar told The Cable in a Tuesday interview.

"We've made very little headway," Lugar said, although he added that he is among those who want to keep up ties with both Pakistan's military and civilian officials.

"We have to stay engaged and we've been through this before," he said. "We need to find ways to have a better rapport with Pakistan."

Berman has criticized the administration's decision to certify that Pakistan "demonstrated a sustained commitment towards combating terrorism," a requirement under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid bill passed last year. He wants the administration to use the money as leverage to pressure the Pakistanis to more aggressively go after militant groups.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told The Cable on Tuesday that he would soon send a letter to President Barack Obama demanding that funds to Pakistan be cut off if the administration can't stand by that certification.

According to the most recent chart compiled by the Congressional Research Service (PDF), the U.S. government has given Pakistan $20.7 billion in aid since fiscal 2002, and is requesting another $2.9 billion for Pakistan in next year's budget.

From that total, $14.2 billion has gone to the Pakistani military, primarily for coalition support funding, reimbursement for counterterrorism operations, and foreign military. Of the $6.5 billion in aid to Pakistan that has gone to the civilian side, $4.8 billion was provided to "economic support funds," and the rest was spread out between programs such as food aid and international disaster assistance.

UPDATE: Berman's spokesperson Gabby Adler writes in to clarify Berman's position on the aid:

Ranking Member Berman is primarily concerned about security assistance for Pakistan. The section 203 certification made by the Secretary of State applies to security assistance, not civilian assistance, and Mr. Berman maintains that strengthening Pakistan's civilian government and democratic institutions remains one of the few ways to ensure a long-term, healthy relationship with that country.

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