The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Syria, Turkey, Palestine, Egypt

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. These are the highlights of Monday's briefing by spokeswoman Victoria Nuland:

  • Poland is the new protecting power in Damascus following today's closing of the U.S embassy in Damascus and the departure of Ambassador Robert Ford. "So any remaining American citizens in Syria who haven't heeded our repeated travel warnings, which were updated again today, can receive consular services through the Embassy of Poland," Nuland said. Ford will head the State Department's Syria team in Washington and try to maintain relationships inside Syria. Fred Hof will maintain relationships with opposition leaders outside Syria, Nuland said. Ford met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem before he left town. The U.S. is not breaking diplomatic relations... yet. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrives in Damascus Tuesday.
  • Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is coming to Washington this week. At the 2012 Munich Security Conference last weekend, The Cable asked Davutoglu if it was true that his government has requested NATO to start planning for contingencies in Syria. Davutoglu said, "It's not true," but we're told otherwise.
  • The State Department can't confirm reports that Qatar has brokered an agreement between Fatah and Hamas. "We're obviously seeking more information about precisely what was agreed," Nuland said. She said that State is still waiting to hear about it directly from the Palestinians, but Hamas is still a terrorist organization and the U.S. is still against that. "Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence. It must recognize the state of Israel. And it must accept the previous agreements and obligations between the parties, including the road map. So those are our expectations," Nuland said.
  • State isn't happy that the NGO workers in Egypt are now going to be charged and tried in Egyptian courts. "These groups and the individuals associated with them do not fund political parties or individual candidates. Many of these groups have worked in Egypt for many years, supported by the U.S. government, in order to promote democracy and free elections. There's nothing new in their activities," she said. More Americans are seeking refuge at the U.S. embassy. 17 people are affected, about half of them Americans.
  • Former Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens has been appointed as the acting undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, pending the confirmation of President Obama's nominee, USIP's Tara Sonenshine. All nominations are stuck in the senate, so Stephens could be running the public diplomacy shop at State for a while. Nuland compared the situation to when Ambassador Tom Shannon was brought in for a while as acting undersecretary for political affairs while Wendy Sherman awaited senate action. "But the full expectation is that the Senate will act promptly on Therese Sonenshine's nomination," Nuland said without elaborating on what's behind that expectation.

The Cable

Kerry: We have many options to help the Syrian people fight back

The Syrian people have the right to fight back against their government and the international community has several options to help them in that regard, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Saturday.

As the tempo and intensity of Bashar al-Assad regime's violence against civilian accelerates and the U.N. Security Council remains paralyzed, the United States and its partners are planning their next steps. As a press conference Saturday night at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, several members of the U.S. congressional delegation laid out several ideas under consideration for protecting the Syrian people.

"There are many different options as to how we can do that," said Kerry. "There are the early beginnings of a civil war taking place in Syria. And if the government is going to kill randomly, people deserve the right to defend and fight for themselves."

Kerry declined to specify what steps Washington might take to directly support the internal Syrian opposition or the Free Syria Army, the ragtag defectors who have taken up arms against Assad, but he warned the Syrian government and its supporters Russia and China that the United States would not stand idly by.

"Syria is not Libya," Kerry said. "But nobody should interpret that statement to suggest that it means that Syrian leaders can rely on the notion that they can act with impunity and not expect the international community to assist the Syrian people in some way."

He also insisted that there will be another round of negotiations on a Security Council resolution regarding Syria, despite the vetoes by Russia and China that followed last week's efforts to build world consensus on the way forward.

"I'm confident this will be revisited," Kerry said. "Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and Ambassador [to the U.N. Susan] Rice are prepared in a competent way to embrace Russian and Chinese concerns, but not in ways that would undermine the ability of the people in Syria to have their voices heard or to be oppressed or create a longer stalemate."

He continued: "I think that balance can be found, I'm confident it will be found. There will be another shot at the effort but it is really important for Russia and China, critical leaders in the world today [to join us]. They have an opportunity in the next days to step up and were inviting them to do so. I hope they will join us on such a critical statement with respect to rights of innocent people."

Speaking at the press conference in Munich Sunday night, congressional delegation leaders John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) laid out more specific ideas on how the international community can help the people of Syria.

"There's a lot we can do to provide moral support and to provide material support, along with Turkey and other nations, in assisting these people with medical care and other assistance," McCain said. "I do not know how Russia and China can represent themselves as members of the world community and still oppose a resolution that would help bring this bloodletting to an end."

Lieberman said he hopes some sense could be talked to the Russians and the Chinese and that the Security Council would work on another resolution.

"But if that doesn't work I don't think we can just stand by. I hope the international community and the U.S. will provide assistance to the Syrian Free Army in the various ways we can. I hope we will work with Turkey and Jordan to create safe havens on the borders of those two countries with Syria," Lieberman said. "What's happening in Syria today is exactly what we got involve in Libya to stop from happening.... I understand Syria is more complicated, but one choice we don't have is just to stand back and let the government kill people who are fighting for their own freedom."

Speaking on Monday in Bulgaria, Clinton laid out the most specific ideas to date about how the Obama administration plans to move forward on the issue.

"So what do we do?  Well, faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future.  We have to increase diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime and work to convince those people around President Assad that he must go, and that there has to be a recognition of that and a new start to try to form a government that will represent all of the people of Syria," she said.

The Obama administration will seek new regional and international sanctions against Syria and will try to expose those who are still funding and arming the regime, Clinton said. She also promised to increase contacts with the Syrian opposition and provide humanitarian relief to the Syrian people.

Clinton didn't, however, promise another run at the Security Council, indicating only that more diplomatic efforts were on the way.

"Over the coming days, I will be consulting closely with our allies and partners in Europe, in the Arab League, and around the world," she said. "So we will be consulting with the foreign minister here and others about what we can do to rescue this deteriorating situation before it's too late."