The Cable

Senators call for aiding the Syrian opposition

A bipartisan group of senators will introduce a resolution Friday calling on the Obama administration to start providing direct material and technical assistance to the Syrian opposition.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs subcommittee, and committee member Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) are leading the charge on the resolution, which will be formally introduced Friday afternoon but was obtained in advance by The Cable. The resolution would set into writing that it is the sense of the Senate that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should leave power and that the United States should begin providing direct support to the opposition to make that happen.

"The Senate... urges the President to support an effective transition to democracy in Syria by identifying and providing substantial material and technical support, upon request, to Syrian organizations that are representative of the people of Syria, make demonstrable commitments to protect human rights and religious freedom, reject terrorism, cooperate with international counterterrorism and nonproliferation efforts, and abstain from destabilizing neighboring  countries."

The State Department has said it could provide humanitarian assistance in Syria but has stopped short of pledging any aid that could be used in the burgeoning civil war between the opposition and the Syrian regime.

The resolution also urges Obama to add more targeted sanctions on Syrian officials, establish a "Friends of the Syrian People" group, engage the international community on the potential to provide safe havens for Syrian civilians, begin discussions about prosecuting those guilty of war crimes in Syria, and get a handle on the vulnerability and security of Syria's conventional, biological, chemical, and other weapons.

The senators also call out Russia and China for vetoing the recent United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria and condemn Russia and Iran for supplying the Syrian regime with weapons.

"Bashar al-Assad is responsible for killing at least 6,000 Syrian men, women, and children. The regime's brutal violence has torn the country apart and threatens to destabilize the entire region. The international community can and should do more to support the people of Syria during this terrible hour in their history," said Casey, in a statement to The Cable.

"The Syrian people can't expect Assad to heed calls for his departure, nor can they rely on the United Nations to act. For the sake of innocent lives in Syria and the security of the entire region, the United States must keep up the pressure on the regime and begin planning for a post-Assad Syria," Rubio said in his own statement. "We need to hasten Assad's departure from power and also lay the groundwork for the difficult path towards a true, inclusive democracy."

The other original co-sponsors of the resolution are Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Jon Kyl (R-AZ). We're told the resolution could be on the agenda for the SRFC's next business meeting on Valentine's Day. If approved, it could then go to the Senate floor via a number of different avenues.

The resolution notes that Syria is a signatory to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It then expresses the sense of the Senate that the Syrian regime has pursued a brutal crackdown that includes "gross human rights violations, use of force against civilians, torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary executions, sexual violence, and interference with access to medical treatment."

The senators also quote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Jan. 30 statement, when she said, "The status quo is unsustainable....The longer the Assad regime continues its attacks on the Syrian people and stands in the way of a peaceful transition, the greater the concern that instability will escalate and spill over throughout the region."

The Cable

State Department unaware Russia trying dead anti-corruption lawyer

The State Department had a response ready at today's press briefing in case it was asked about the trial of those responsible for the death of Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The problem is that the Russian's aren't trying his killers -- they are trying Magnitsky himself -- even though he died over two years ago.

On Feb. 7, the New York Times reported that the Russian government is moving forward with tax evasion charges against Magnitsky, even though he died in detention in November 2009, reportedly after being abused and then refused medical attention by his captors. The title of the article was "Russia Plans to Retry Dead Lawyer in Tax Case."

Asked about the plan to try Magnistky posthumously at Thursday's press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland read from her briefing book the following comment:

"We've seen the press reports about the re-opening of the Magnitsky case. We continue to call for Russian authorities to bring those responsible for Sergei Magnitsky's death to justice."

"But this is the case against him, they're going to try him," one reporter told Nuland.

"I thought it was, they were re-opening the case against some who were found guilty," Nuland said.

"No, they're going to try him," the reporter responded. "And he's dead."

We know the State Department has been following the case because it has become a major cause on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both parties are pushing the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011. The bill targets his captors as well as any other Russian officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights."

The administration doesn't support quick passage of the Magnitsky bill, but last year the State Department did quietly issue visa bans for the Russian officials linked to the case.

Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to link the passage of the Magnitsky bill to the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was put in place in the 1970s to punish Russia for its treatment of Jewish would-be emigrants, but now stands in the way of U.S.-Russian trade in the context of the WTO.

The administration admitted last July that Russia threatened to torpedo many areas of U.S.-Russian cooperation if the Magnitsky bill became law.

"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes," the administration said in its official comments on the bill. "Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes."

"The Russian Duma has already proposed legislation that would institute similar travel bans and asset freezes for U.S. officials whose actions Russia deems in violations of the rights of Russian citizens arrested abroad and brought to the United States for trial," the administration said. "We have no way to judge the scope of these actions, but note that other U.S. national security interests will be affected by the passage of the S. 1039."

Responding to a request from The Cable, Nuland sent out a statement Thursday afternoon that addressed the trial of Magnitsky himself:

"Pursuing criminal charges against Sergey Magnitskiy serves no purpose other than to deflect attention away from the circumstances surrounding this tragic case. We continue to call for Russian authorities to bring those responsible for Mr. Magnitskiy’s death to justice.”