The Cable

“Friends of Syria” meeting will be about humanitarian access

The first even "Friends of Syria" meeting Friday in Tunis will focus on ensuring humanitarian access and a possible short-term ceasefire, according to State Department officials traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in London.

Clinton had several meetings with European and Arab leaders on the sidelines of the London conference on Somalia to prepare for "Friends of Syria" event, where dozens of countries will meet to determine what steps the international community can take to bring relief to the communities under siege from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"There is a lot of concern, of course, about what's happening in places like Homs, the horrific conditions in which people [find themselves], and how do we get the right type of humanitarian and medical assistance [into Syria] that people need," a State Department official told reporters traveling with Clinton in London.

"And [there is] general agreement that while all of us have been working with various humanitarian well-known organizations, U.N. organizations on the ground, that the real challenge is the access issue. And it is going to be up to the Syrian government to be -- the Syrian authorities, the Syrian regime -- to respond to the international community's real commitment to provide the type of assistance."

The Tunis meeting should result in concrete proposal for speeding humanitarian and medical assistance to the civilians inside Syria, but all would require the agreement of the Assad regime, the official said.

The second main focus of the Tunis meeting will be to coalesce around a plan to transition toward democracy in Syria. Members of the Syrian National Council, the opposition group composed mostly of people living outside Syria, has its own plan for transition that it will present at the Tunis meeting. That plan and the Arab League backed plan for transition are not mutually exclusive, the State Department official said.

"Everybody is backing the Arab League transition plan who's at the conference tomorrow, but it's incumbent upon the Syrian National Council to talk about how they would translate that transition plan into action on the ground and for them to articulate it in a compelling way that's comprehensible, understandable to Syrians inside and out," said the official.

The third focus of the Tunis meeting will be how the international community can coordinate sanctions to bring maximum pressure and isolation on the Assad regime.

How does the "Friends of Syria" group plan to incentivize Assad to go along with any of these ideas? According to a report by the Associated Press, Clinton and the other leaders are considering issuing Assad a 72-hour ultimatum whereby he would have to agree to a ceasefire and grant humanitarian access or face as yet unspecified additional penalties. The ceasefire could be granted in 2 hour per day increments, as the International Committee for the Red Cross has suggested.

"Clinton met Thursday in London with foreign ministers and senior officials from about a dozen countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates," the AP reported.

Representatives from Syria's internal opposition groups will not be at the conference. One administration official told The Cable that Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had urged in internal discussions that opposition council leaders from Damascus and Homs be included in the Tunis meeting but ultimately they were not invited.

The Obama administration has focused on interacting with the external opposition and avoiding direct contact with the Free Syrian Army, which is working closely with the local rebel councils inside Syria, the administration official said.

But the State Department official speaking with reporters in London said the administration was confident that the SNC was adequately representing the array of opposition groups inside and outside Syria.

"It's a very complicated political situation that they face that the Syrian opposition members, whether they're inside or outside, have a hard time communicating with each other given the restrictions that are put on to the -- onto the Internet, onto movement, given the horrific conditions under which people are living and operating inside Syria," the State Department official said. "The opposition has done a fairly good job of reaching out, being able to synthesize views from across Syria. And I think that all of us are favorably impressed with the direction in which they're moving. But we'll hear from them tomorrow in terms of specific needs."

The Cable

State Dept.: Al-Shabab down, but not out in Somalia

The Al-Shabab terrorist group has been"significantly degraded" but not defeated in Somalia, which is why the UnitedStates is pushing for an expansion of international troops there, according toa senior State Department official.

Secretaryof State Hillary Clinton is enroute today to London to attend a major conference on Somalia being hosted Thursdayby British Prime Minister David Cameron andForeign Secretary William Hague. OnFriday, Clinton and several of the other foreign ministers will travel to Tunisto attend the first ever meeting of the "Friends of Syria" group.

Oneof the main goals of the Somalia conference is to round up funding for addingthousands of additional foreign troops to the AfricanUnion Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) tosupport the fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) there and fight Al-Shabab.

"There's no question that al-Shabab has been significantlyweakened over the last two years, in large measure to the security --aggressive security posture taken by AMISOM, Ugandans, and Burundians inparticular," a senior State Department official told reporters on the plane toLondon.

"In the last year, they have beencompletely removed from the core of Mogadishu and have been driven furthernorth beyond the university. Al-Shabab remains a serious threat in many partsof south-central, but they have been put under enormous pressure in the northwestby Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa, supported by Ethiopia, and under pressure in the southby the incursion of the Kenyans. They have not been defeated, but they havebeen significantly degraded and they are under continuing pressure."

Al-Shabab is affiliated with al Qaeda,which has also seen several of its senior leaders in East Africa killed overthe last year and a half, the official said. Two al Qaeda leaders killed inEast Africa were associated with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies inNairobu and Dar Es Salaam, and the 2002 bombing of the Paradise Hotel inMumbasa.

In anticipation of the Somaliaconference, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimouslyWednesday to authorize the increase of the AMISOM from 12,000 to 17,731 troops.That will allow AMISOM to incorporate some 4,000 Kenyan troops into its structureand expand its operations well outside the area surrounding Mogadishu, theofficial said.

The Security Council also banned theexport of charcoal out of Somalia, which is apparently a major source ofrevenue for al-Shabab. When asked how the international community plans toenforce that ban, the State Department official said the United States wouldask neighboring countries to cease importing Somali charcoal.

The TFG has its own problems, buthas committed to a roadmap that calls for the establishment of a constituentassembly, the drafting of a new constitution, and the indirect election of anew president, a new parliament, and a new parliamentary speaker -- all byAugust.

"We hope, coming out of London, thatall of those parties participating -- those from the international community aswell as from the TFG -- will reaffirm their commitment to seeing that thisroadmap is implemented and completed on time," the official said.

Over the last three years, the U.S.government has spent about $385 million on the AMISOM mission in Somalia, aboutone-third of the total international funding commitment. The official said theUnited States wants to see more money come from Arab League nations and Turkey.

At Wednesday's State Departmentpress briefing, spokesman Mark Toner confirmed that Clinton will meet on thesidelines of the conference with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.When asked what the two officials would discuss, Toner said, "A lot of things, clearly."

"Our goal remains to put thisrelationship back on track, you know, to try to put some of the problems thatwe have had in the relationship, some of the challenges behind us and moveproductively forward," Toner said.