The Cable

Nobel Peace laureate: The international community is failing in Syria

The international community must do much more to pressure the regime of Syrian Bashar al-Assad, but the time has not come yet for any military intervention, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Yemeni dissident Tawakkul Karman tells The Cable.

"The international community has not performed its duties sufficiently to assist and support Syria and the people of Syria. And due to this delay in action, this is why we have this huge scope of destruction and blood," Karman said in a Thursday interview. She was in town to speak at the International Women of Courage Awards, hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama.

"When we talk about intervention, we do not talk about military intervention, we talk about all forms of peaceful intervention that would place more pressure on the Assad regime, strangulate him from every direction, and cut all forms of aid to the regime," she said.

Karman identified several useful steps the international community still has not taken to escalate the pressure on the Syrian regime, including freezing the assets of Assad himself and his entourage, severing diplomatic relations with the regime, and increasing political and economic sanctions, all of which should be done before further militarizing the conflict.

"So far unfortunately the international community has chosen only to speak out and then do nothing," she said. "Arming the opposition is the last resort. It's more important to support the revolution by using financial means at this point. Money is the lifeblood of these regimes."

The time may come when the international community should move to arm the Syrian opposition for an all-out fight with Assad, according to Karman.

"The question is, has the international community exhausted all other options before getting to this point?" she said. "So far that hasn't happened."

Karman also said the international community must not be fooled by false concerns that extremist elements, such as al Qaeda, will take over in Syria if and when the Assad regime falls.

"These are the same concerns that were expressed before the fall of Qaddafi, Mubarak, and Saleh, and we all know that these dictators are the ones who feed the ideology of al Qaeda and help spread its beliefs," she said. "And without these dictators the Arab world is much more peaceful and stable. And the youth of the Arab Spring are determined to ensure that all forms of terrorism in the region are stopped."

"If there are any incidents, it's the dictators who are behind them to instill fear in the international problem," she said. "In general, this problem does exist and the Arab youth are determined to wipe it out. This is the message of our peaceful revolution."

Asked about growing concerns about recent al Qaeda-linked attacks in Yemen, she said: "It's the remnants of the Saleh regime and this is not al Qaeda."

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Are the MEK’s U.S. friends its worst enemies?

For years, a slew of advocates - many of whom have been paid for their services -- have flooded U.S. airwaves on behalf of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization opposed to the Iranian regime.

After months of difficult negotiations, the MEK has finally begun moving out of its secretive Iraqi home near the Iranian border, called Camp Ashraf. But the group's American advocates have now become a major obstacle in the international effort to move the MEK to a new home in Iraq and avoid a bloody clash with the Iraqi military, officials say.

U.N. special representative in Iraq Martin Kobler, with help from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and the State Department, has organized efforts to relocate the MEK to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport. The first convoy of about 400 MEK members arrived there last month. The second convoy of about 400 MEK members arrived Thursday at Camp Liberty, Reuters reported.

The United Nations and the U.S. government have worked tirelessly in recent months to avoid a violent clash between the MEK and the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which is determined to oust the MEK from Camp Ashraf, where more than 3,000 members of the group, many of them suspected to be armed, have lived for years. Two previous attempts by the Iraqi government to enter the camp resulted in bloody confrontations.

But the U.N. and the State Department's efforts have been made exponentially more difficult due to the MEK's surprisingly strong base of support in Washington. In recent weeks, retired U.S. officials and politicians -- many of whom admit to being paid by the MEK or one of its many affiliates -- have mounted a sophisticated media campaign accusing the U.N. and the U.S. government of forcing the group to live in subhuman conditions against its will at Camp Liberty, an accusation U.S. officials say is as inaccurate as it is unhelpful.

"This is tough enough without paid advocates making it worse," one official told The Cable.

"Camp Liberty: A Prison For Iranian Dissidents in Iraq," reads a March 3 full-page ad in the New York Times, leveling the surprising accusation that the former U.S. military base is unfit for human occupation. The ad quotes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani calling Camp Liberty "a concentration camp" -- a charge Giuliani made at an MEK-sponsored conference late last month in Paris. The ad also quotes former Democratic National Committee chairman and Vermont Governor Howard Dean, former Homeland Security secretary and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz trashing Camp Liberty.

However, according to an Obama administration official who works on the issue, it's actually the MEK that is trashing Camp Liberty -- literally. According to this official, the U.N. has reported that MEK members at Camp Liberty have been sabotaging the camp, littering garbage and manipulating the utilities to make things look worse than they really are. While there are some legitimate problems at the camp, the official admitted, the U.N. has been monitoring Camp Liberty's water, sewage, and food systems on a daily basis and the conditions are better than the MEK is portraying.

The New York Times ad is only the latest in a years-long, multi-million dollar campaign by the MEK and its supporters to enlist famous U.S. politicians and policymakers in their efforts to get the group removed from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations and resist Iraqi attempts to close Camp Ashraf, which the new government sees as a militarized cult compound on its sovereign territory.

The campaign has included huge rallies outside the State Department, massive sit-ins at congressional hearings, and an ongoing vigil outside the State Department's C Street entrance.  MEK supporters there tout the support of a long list of officials, including Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, and former Sen. Evan Bayh.

The administration official told The Cable that, as delicate negotiations between the U.N., the United States, the Iraqis, and the MEK continue, the role of these often paid advocates is becoming even more unhelpful and potentially dangerous.

"The Americans who ought to know better and claim to be on the side of good solutions are really damaging it. Either they are too lazy or too arrogant to actually do their homework. They don't spend the time to learn facts, they just pop off. They accept the MEK line without question and then they posture," the official said. "We have a plan that has a chance to work and the Iraqis want it to work. The MEK ... it's not clear. And in this situation they are being badly advised by the people whose names appear in these ads."

 "Whether the MEK wants a resolution or wants a confrontation is something we're still debating. It's that bad," the official said.

The relationship between the American advocates and the MEK leadership, led by the Paris-based Maryam Rajavi, has led both to pursue strategies that neglect the dire risks of sabotaging the move from Camp Liberty to Camp Ashraf, the official said. Rajavi is said to have created a cult of personality around herself and to rule the MEK as a unchallenged monarch.

"The not-too-stable Queen [Rajavi] hired a bunch of court flatterers to tell her that she's great, which is fine, except that she has now forgotten that these are hired court flatterers. She thinks they are actual advisors," the official said. "Meanwhile her wise counselors are being marginalized by those who are saying ‘Oh Queen, your magnificence will cause your enemies to fall on their knees.' And she's beginning to believe them."

"By enabling Rajavi to indulge her worst instincts and encouraging her to think she has more power and leverage she does, they may precipitate a crisis, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid," the official said.

Another example of the American advisors' unhelpfulness was the MEK's recent public call to be relocated en masse to Jordan, an idea the U.S. official said came from the group's American friends. There was just one problem: Nobody had asked the Jordanians.

"To announce it publicly as a demand without checking with the Jordanians is the sort of thing you do to destroy it," the official said. "Why the hell should the Jordanians buy trouble like this by giving these people an autonomous militarized camp?"

U.N. and U.S. officials had been hoping to keep discussions open with Jordan about the possibility of hosting some MEK members in the event of an emergency, such as a renewed outbreak of violence. But U.S. officials now think that the MEK's actions have made that much more difficult.

"Whoever advised them has done actual demonstrable damage to a possible humanitarian solution. They're not helping. It's remarkable," the official said.

The arrival at Camp Liberty Thursday of the second convoy may signal that the MEK is coming around to the realization that the Iraqi government will never allow it to stay at Camp Ashraf. But the U.S. official warned that the group may have more tricks up its sleeve.

"The MEK will delay, confuse, deny, and spin until faced with an imminent disaster, and then they give only enough to avoid that disaster," the official said. "And the problem is: If you play chicken enough, eventually you will get into a head-on collision."

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images