The Cable

Robert Ford: Syria violence reminds me of Iraq

There are growing indications that the Syrian uprising is turning violent, according to U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who today called on the Syrian's opposition to enunciate a clearer vision for the future of Syria.

Ford, appearing via videoconference to an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, stressed that the vast majority of the Syrian protest movement remains peaceful, but said that frequent denials by Syrians  that the country could descend into civil war "reminds me of what I heard in Iraq in 2004" -- right before sectarian bloodletting seized the country. Ford served as political counselor to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006.

Syrians -- including defectors from the army -- are increasingly taking up arms against their own government, Ford said, referring to ambushes of buses containing Syrian soldiers and the Oct. 2 murder of the mufti of Aleppo's son as evidence. Ford noted that no one knows the true extent of the armed presence.

At the event, which also featured Washington Institute fellow Andrew Tabler, Ford said that the real change in the protest movement -- which has now gripped Syria for seven months -- is that more demonstrators are openly questioning whether to use violence to achieve their aims.

Ford was adamant that the United States government opposes a militarization of the Syrian protest movement, saying that it was not only the morally wrong decision but a tactical mistake as well.

"The Syrian security forces "are still very strong, and there is not an armed opposition that is capable of overthrowing the Syrian government," Ford said.

In response to the deteriorating situation in Syria, Ford said that the United States was pushing Syria to allow a U.N. fact-finding mission into the country, to grant more visas for international media, and to invite international monitors into Syria to ensure that human rights are being respected.

Ford also said that he has met recently with Ali Farzat and Riad Seif, two prominent members of the opposition who were recently assaulted by security forces loyal to the regime, to "send a message that the international community is watching."

Ford has repeatedly reached out to opposition activists, a practice that has led to several scrapes with violence with Syrians loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. He was attacked on Sept. 29 while meeting with veteran politician Hassan Abdul Azim, and attended a funeral of a slain activist shortly before it was broken up by security forces.

Asked whether the merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo was wavering in its support of the regime, Ford noted that sanctions implemented by the United States and the European Union -- which recently sanctioned the Syrian Central Bank -- have had a dramatic effect on the Syrian economy, resulting in rising frustration among Syrian businessmen.

"Business is just terrible," he said. Ford then recounted a story of recently walking into a grocery store to buy eggs, and finding that the store was no longer carrying them. When he inquired why, the grocer responded, "People don't buy them, they're too expensive."

So far, the opposition has failed to capitalize on this opportunity because it has not won over the business community because it has not outlined its plan for a political and economic transition in the country. "The Syrian opposition needs to convince those fence-sitters that peaceful change is possible, and that peaceful change is better for them," he said.

Ford praised the formation of the Syrian National Council as "encouraging," but said that the council had still not gone far enough in developing the opposition's agenda. "They have a lot of work to do, however, in terms of organizing themselves and reaching out to people in Syria and bringing them on board," he said, adding that it "needs to focus heavily on developing greater support inside Syria."

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The Cable

Obama wants all countries to reject visits by Iranian officials

The Obama administration has been in intensive discussions with foreign leaders about the alleged Iran-sponsored assassination plot and, among other steps, is asking countries around the world to stop letting Iranian leaders stop by for official visits.

"We are taking robust diplomatic action to hold Iran accountable for this plot, isolate them internationally and increase pressure on the regime," Undersecretary of State for Political Affair Wendy Sherman said at a Thursday hearing before the Senate Banking Committee. "And we will be asking all countries to consider appropriate actions, including denying Quds Force officers any platform to operate within their countries."

Sherman said that, over the last 48 hours, calls have been made to every single capital in the world by President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Sherman herself, and every assistant secretary in the State Department to encourage all countries to tighten sanctions and pressure on Iran.

"We have encouraged them to make sure that the Quds Force stops doing business in their countries, to look at high-level visits that might be coming from Iranians to their country, and to consider, let's say, postponing, if not cancelling outright, those visits," she said.

Obama ramped up the rhetoric further during his joint press conference on Thursday with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

"This is not just a dangerous escalation, this is part of a pattern of dangerous and reckless behavior by the Iranian government," Obama said. "And for Iran to have been involved in a plot like this indicates the degree to which it has been outside of accepted norms of international behavior for far too long. This is just one example of a series of steps that they've taken to create violence and to behave in a way that you don't see other countries doing."

Obama promised to "apply the toughest sanctions and, you know, continue to mobilize the international community to make sure that Iran is further and further isolated and that it pays a price for this kind of behavior."

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the Obama administration had direct contact with Iran regarding the issue on Wednesday, but she declined to elaborate on the interaction. It is possible that the contact was in New York between the U.S. and Iranian delegations to the United Nations.

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has completed individual meetings with all 14 other Security Council delegations. State's top counterterrorism official, Dan Benjamin, went to New York to join Rice in those meetings.

"I think it's premature to say what the Security Council might be prepared to do, but we're continuing to work on that," Nuland said.

Other countries are buying the basic idea of the plot, Nuland said, despite fairly widespread skepticism among Iran watchers about the likelihood the Quds Force would put such a clumsy plan into place.

"Countries may find it quite a story, but they're not surprised that Iran would be capable of something like this," she said.

The State Department is sending a team to Moscow to brief Russian officials about the plot after Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked Clinton for more information.

At the hearing, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) called on the administration to put its support behind passage of the Iran, North Korea and Syria Sanctions Consolidation Act, which he cosponsored along with 75 other senators.

"Our efforts to date have been transformative. But as Iran has adapted to the sanctions, unanticipated loopholes have allowed the regime to adjust and circumvent the sanctions and drive forward its effort to achieve a robust nuclear program," Menendez said. "We have to be just as prepared to adjust and adapt by closing each loophole that arises."

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who has been calling for Treasury to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, said at the hearing that the administration must do more and already has the authority to sanction 14 companies that the Government Accountability Office has cited as still doing business in Iran.

Kirk noted that the United States has sanctioned only 11 Iranian officials for human rights violations, while the European Union has sanctioned 61 officials.

Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen testified at the hearing that sanctions against Iran's Central Bank were under consideration.

"Further U.S. action against the CBI, if it attained multilateral support, could further isolate the CBI with a potentially powerful impact on Iran," Cohen said. "[A]ll options to increase the financial pressure on Iran are on the table, including the possibility of imposing additional sanctions against the CBI."

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