The Cable

U.S. ambassador to Syria gains support in Congress as Treasury unveils new sanctions

As the Obama administration tightened sanctions against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Congress is warming to the idea of confirming U.S. envoy to Damascus Robert Ford.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) came out this morning in support of the confirmation of Ford, who was sent to Damascus via a recess appointment last year. Several senators, including Lieberman, objected at the time to the United States sending an ambassador to Damascus, arguing that it would amount to a reward for Syrian bad behavior. Now, just as several countries, including Saudi Arabia, are pulling out their ambassadors, Lieberman is arguing that Ford must stay.

"This time, I believe the Senate should quickly vote to confirm Mr. Ford as our top diplomat in Damascus," Lieberman wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Wednesday. "While the Obama administration originally envisioned Amb. Ford's primary purpose as engagement with the Syrian regime, that is no longer the case. Rather than being an envoy to Assad, Mr. Ford is now first and foremost our ambassador to the Syrian people and a bridge to the democratic transition they demand."

Lieberman's about face, which was largely due to Ford's trip to the restive city of Hama last month to observe the anti-regime protests there, removes one obstacle to his confirmation. Other senators who were opposed to confirming him in the past include Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL). Neither Kyl nor Kirk has said whether they will continue to oppose Ford's nomination this time around.

Some on Capitol Hill don't like the optics of the United States confirming an ambassador to Syria while other countries withdraw their envoys as a means of registering their opposition to Assad's crackdown, which has increased in brutality over the past 10 days.

"Senator Lieberman is one of the great national security leaders of this generation, and Robert Ford is a skilled diplomat, but it makes no sense to have an American ambassador in Damascus now," one senior GOP congressional aide told The Cable. "It's a sad day when the Saudi king has greater moral clarity than the president of the United States."

Regardless, the gap between the Obama administration's stance on Syria and Congress's demands for action is narrowing. Administration officials have been hinting that the White House will officially call for Assad to step down this week, perhaps on Thursday, signaling the end of the administration's two-year effort to engage the Syrian government.

The State Department was also heavily invested in the visit to Syria yesterday of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, even sending Fred Hof to Ankara coordinate pressures and messaging with the Turks. The Davutoglu visit doesn't seem to have given protesters a respite from the Syrian regime's crackdown, though: Troops loyal to Assad reportedly killed at least 35 people today.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland previewed the administration's coming change in rhetoric at Tuesday's briefing. "In the case of Syria, the message from 2009 was, if you are prepared to open Syria politically, if you are prepared to be a reformer, if you are prepared to work with us on Middle East peace and other issues we share, we can have a new and different kind of partnership," she said. "And that is not the path that Assad chose."

Today, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions against the Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, and Syriatel, the largest mobile phone operator in Syria.

"By exposing Syria's largest commercial bank as an agent for designated Syrian and North Korean proliferators, and by targeting Syria's largest mobile phone operator for being controlled by one of the regime's most corrupt insiders, we are taking aim at the financial infrastructure that is helping provide support to Assad and his regime's illicit activities," Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said in a statement.

Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the administration action is in part a recognition of the facts on the ground in Syria and in part an attempt to stay ahead of Congress, which is preparing to move forward with a new Syria sanctions bill when congressmen return to work in September.

The bill, authored by Lieberman, Kirk, and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), would authorize President Barack Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.

Whether or not Ford gets confirmed will be a key test of whether Congress can get on board with the administration's approach.

"We need to have someone who is meeting with the opposition and people who want to interact with the U.S. in the future," said Tabler. "Unfortunately in this town, its either peace process or isolation. We need a more creative policy."

The Cable

Can Kerry save the State Department on the “supercommittee”?

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) will be on the "supercommittee" that's charged with slashing government spending, but will he use that power to rescue the State Department from its looming budget nightmare?

Kerry, along with Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Veterans Committee chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA), are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's three picks to represent the Senate Democrats on the 12-member supercommittee, which must find $1.5 trillion in new spending cuts by Thanksgiving. If the supercommittee -- which was created by the debt ceiling compromise legislation -- fails to reach an agreement, an automatic trigger will go into effect and cut $600 billion from entitlements and $600 billion from defense.

Kerry, who always denies he is jockeying to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she steps down (probably after the 2012 election), certainly looks like the leading candidate for the post. He has traveled frequently to hotspots like Afghanistan and Pakistan on behalf of the administration, led the push for Senate ratification of New START nuclear arms reductions, and is beginning a new push to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty. He even toed the administration's line that the war in Libya does not amount to hostilities.

The State Department, meanwhile, is preparing for what could be its worst budget year in a very long time. After two years of budget increases during the Obama administration, the dire fiscal situation has placed diplomacy and development funding on the chopping block. In April, the Obama administration voluntarily cut $8 billion from the State Department budget as part of the deal to avoid a government shutdown.

The House allocated $39.6 billion for State and foreign operations in fiscal 2012, not including war funding of another $7.6 billion. The administration had requested about $53 billion for fiscal 2012, and the fiscal 2011 level is about $47 billion. But with the GOP knives drawn, if Senate Democrats don't fight hard for State Department money, Foggy Bottom will have to start taking drastic measures beginning in October to cut programs and staff.

Kerry has taken the lead in the Senate to defend the State Department budget. His authorization bill, released last month, largely supports the administration's budget request. It stands at odds with  the authorization bill put forth by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and the appropriations bill put forth by Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), which would both slash State and USAID programs.

State is depending on the Senate to get them through this mess. Other key senators that State is looking for help from are Appropriations Committee leaders Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Thad Cochran (R-MS), and State and Foreign Ops subcommittee heads Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

In the House, House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) has been working with House leadership to ensure that defense spending doesn't fall victim to the supercommittee's cuts. The Hill reported that McKeon is a "major contender" to be on the supercommittee. Even if he's not chosen, our sources report that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has committed to choosing at least one member who will hold the line on defense.

Because the debt deal defines "security " spending as Defense, State, Intel, DHS, and Veterans funding, defense and diplomacy funding are in direct competition with each other this cycle. Ironically, by embracing the Obama administration's wider definition of "security" spending, the GOP has forced a showdown between State and the Pentagon over budgets.

 Clinton and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates served for years as influential advocates of the argument that the national security toolkit needs to be rebalanced in favor of more funding for diplomacy.

"I never miss an opportunity to call for more funding for and emphasis on diplomacy and development," Gate said last year, adding, "I am keenly aware that the Defense Department -- by its sheer size -- is not only the 800 pound gorilla of our government, but one with a sometimes very active pituitary gland."

But Gates is gone and there is a new budget reality in Washington. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the trigger in the debt deal a "doomsday mechanism," meaning that the Pentagon can't afford to take $600 billion in additional cuts.

But those cuts have to come from somewhere, and if they don't come from defense, then State and foreign aid funding could be in real trouble. 

Whether Kerry is able to stand up for diplomacy and aid funding, in opposition to his GOP counterparts, will determine the functionality of the State Department he one day hopes to lead.

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