The Cable

Obama administration in full court press ahead of Middle East speech

The Obama administration has been furiously advancing its regional diplomatic efforts on a wide range of issues in the run-up to the Middle East speech that President Barack Obama will deliver at the State Department on Thursday.

Top administration officials have been meeting with Arab leaders, preparing new announcements on aid to the region, finalizing sanctions on bad actors, and closely coordinating the president's message in the last few days. Obama's mission is a tough one -- to clarify a consistent U.S. approach to the region despite his administration's varied responses to the uprisings that have occurred throughout the region this year. And there's a lot on his plate.

"Specifically, a successful speech will need to align America with the most positive aspects of Arab rebellions against autocracy; reflect a balance between the hope and fear triggered in equal parts by seismic political change; signal American support for a process of democratic choice without suggesting indifference to the outcome of free and fair elections; project both disapproval and understanding -- but not endorsement -- toward those U.S. friends, especially in the Gulf, who refuse reform and repress its advocates; and explain why the maniacal dictator in Libya merits NATO bombing while the capo di tutti capi in Damascus does not even merit specific personal opprobrium for his outrageous behavior," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The administration ratcheted up its response to Damascus today, announcing that the United States will expand sanctions to include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and six senior Syrian officials for human rights abuses over their brutal crackdown on anti-government protests. The administration sanctioned some Syrian officials last month, but this is the first time Assad himself is the target of such measures.

On Monday, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Jordan's King Abdullah in Washington in a potential preview of the speech's message on Middle East peace. "We both share the view that despite the many changes, or perhaps because of the many changes, it's more vital than ever that the Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table," Obama said after the meeting.

The speech is not expected to delve into the details of any plan to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, a process that ended formally with the resignation of Special Envoy George Mitchell, but the administration has also been in close contact with the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to coordinate messaging. Netanyahu will meet with Obama on Friday in Washington, and will also deliver a speech to Congress on May 24.

Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg is in Israel and the West Bank today, meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Steinberg will participate in the U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue on Thursday, which will firm up progress on U.S.-Israel security cooperation.

Steinberg was in Bahrain on Tuesday, along with Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, reinforcing the explicitly different tone the administration has taken with that regime, which is also implicated in human rights abuses against protesters.

"During his meetings, Deputy Secretary Steinberg affirmed the long-standing commitment of the U.S. to a strong partnership with both the people and the Government of Bahrain and stressed the importance of full respect for universal human rights," the State Department said in a read out. "He urged all parties to pursue a path of reconciliation and comprehensive political dialogue."

Meanwhile, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has been busily firming up the administration's stance on Yemen, where protesters have been pressing the government to fulfill promises of a leadership change. Brennan called President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Wednesday to urge him to implement the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered agreement, which would see Saleh step down from power.

"Brennan noted that this transfer of power represents the best path forward for Yemen to become a more secure, unified, and prosperous nation and for the Yemeni people to realize their aspirations for peace and political reform," the White House said in a statement about the call.

What about Egypt and Tunisia? The State Department has been working to finalize a new aid package for Middle East countries transitioning to democracy, the Wall Street Journal reported today, just in time for Thursday's speech.

On Libya, Obama is expected to claim limited success in the mission to protect civilians, pledge additional support for the Transitional National Council, and repeat calls for Col. Muammar al Qaddafi to step down.

Obama is also planning a series of events following the speech to drive home his message. On May 20, he will go to CIA headquarters to thank the agency for its work in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. On May 22, he'll address the AIPAC conference in Washington.

The relationship between the Arab Spring and the drive for Middle East peace is one area of the speech lawmakers are listening for closely. Does the president think the wave of democratic revolutions across the region make the peace process easier or harder?

"I think in some ways it makes it harder and in some ways it makes it easier," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable. "The thrust of the Arab Spring is democratic and not really religious so that makes it easier. But it's also harder because when you have a population in a state of upset it's kind of hard to lead to that population."

The Cable

Violence breaks out on the Georgian - South Ossetian boundary

A group of Georgians was fired upon on Wednesday at the boundary line between Georgia and the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, the first clash there since March 2009. The details of the melee are disputed by the two sides.

A top Georgian official told The Cable that about 15 civilians were roaming around the forest near the boundary line collecting food when uniformed troops, whom he claimed were Russian soldiers, opened fire when the Georgians attempted to flee. The official said that two citizens were wounded and four civilians were arrested during the incident. One 17-year-old boy was shot in the stomach and is in serious condition. An older man was lightly wounded. The rest of the party managed to escape.

 "There is a plant that is used as food and 15 people went to gather that plant in the forest, from age 12 to age 30. They came across a Russian border patrol and the Russians asked them to surrender," Shota Utiashvili, spokesman for Georgia's Interior Ministry, told The Cable in a phone interview from Tbilisi. "That's in contradiction with the agreement that we have with Russia, which states that they should be warned and released, not detained and shot at."

The security service of the South Ossetian administrative body disputed the Georgian account, claiming that the guards were South Ossetian, not Russian -- and that the 15 civilians in question were, in fact, armed.

"At the time of the arrest unidentified persons opened fire at the South Ossetian border guards with a goal to free detained persons. A response fire was opened, as a result attackers scattered and hid on the territory of Georgia," they said in a statement.

The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi is preparing to issue the following statement, obtained in advance by The Cable:

"The United States embassy is concerned by reports of a violent incident along the administrative boundary line with South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region. We urge all parties to exercise restraint in the wake of the incident, to share fully all details with the European Union Monitoring Mission and to participate as soon as possible in an ad hoc meeting of the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism. This incident highlights the ongoing need for EUMM access to both sides of the administrative boundary line."

The European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) does not currently have access to those arrested and is not able to travel into South Ossetia; it has not issued a statement at this time.

For the Georgians, the incident highlights the problem of the regional status quo, whereby Russia maintains de facto control of the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but doesn't have diplomatic or legal responsibilities there.

"The Russians say ‘we have nothing to do with this, this is the independent South Ossetian government.' But this is a typical thing, they can always hide behind the so-called South Ossetian state," Utiashvili said.

"We need a more concerted Western effort, that's the only way to avoid more escalation and more violence. What's important is that the Russians see that these things don't go unnoticed."

Back in Washington, several U.S. senators are trying to push for greater U.S. involvement in the Russian-Georgian dispute over the territories. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) has been warning through reports about the de facto U.S. ban on selling arms to Georgia and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced a resolution expressing the sense of the Senate "that it is the policy of the United States to support the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Georgia and the inviolability of its borders, and to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as regions of Georgia occupied by the Russian Federation."

In an interview with The Cable, Shaheen said she would continue to push for U.S. involvement in mediating the conflict as well as more defense cooperation between the United States and Georgia.

"Georgia is an important ally in a tough neighborhood. The United States should continue to strongly support Georgia's sovereignty, to support non-military efforts to restore Georgia's territorial integrity, to reject any claims of spheres of influence in the region, and emphasize that all nations should be free to enter into alliances and relationships as they see fit," she said. "A prosperous, stable and secure Caucasus region is in all of our interests -- including those of Georgia, Russia, and the United States."

UPDATE: Sen. Shaheen mentioned our story and the incident at Wednesday afternoon's hearing with Assistant Secretary of State Phil Gordon. In his response, Gordon criticized Russian activity in the disputed territories and called for Russia to live up to its related international commitments.

"It is precisely this sort of incident that happened today that underscores why we are so concerned about the unresolved situation in Georgia. You are right to underscore in your resolution and just now Russia's lack of full compliance with the 2008 ceasefire," Gordon said. "Our strong view, like that of pretty much every country in the world, is to recognize Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. And the Russian military presence there, about which the Russians are not fully transparent, is a problem and can lead to just the sort of incident you mentioned, as can the lack of international observation, which is something we have pushed for for a long time."