The Cable

McCain resolution calls for safe zones and arming the Syrian opposition

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and five like-minded lawmakers unveiled a new resolution on Syria Wednesday that calls for establishing safe zones inside Syria for civilians and support for arming the opposition against the regime of Bashar al Assad.

The non-binding resolution stops short of calling for direct U.S. military intervention in Syria, which McCain supports, and is meant to create a consensus on increasing U.S. support for the Syrian opposition that the greatest number of lawmakers can rally around. As of now, the resolution has six sponsors, mostly Republicans. In addition to McCain, they are Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and John Hoeven (R-ND).

The resolution expresses that the Senate "recognizes that the people of Syria have an inherent right to defend themselves against the campaign of violence being conducted by the Assad regime" and "supports calls by Arab leaders to provide the people of Syria with the means to defend themselves against Bashar al-Assad and his forces, including through the provision of weapons and other material support, and calls on the President to work closely with regional partners to implement these efforts effectively."

The resolution also urges President Barack Obama to work with Middle East countries to develop plans for creating safe havens in Syria, which the senators feel "would be an important step to save Syrian lives and to help bring an end to Mr. Assad's killing of civilians in Syria," urges the president to hold Syrian officials accountable for atrocities, and supports the "Friends of the Syrian People" contact group, which will hold its second meeting Sunday in Turkey.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to attend that meeting, after a stop in Saudi Arabia, but don't expect her to come out in support of the senators' proposals. As The Cable reported earlier this month, the Obama administration is willing to provide non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels and look the other way while other countries arm them... but that's about it.

Some reports claim that the U.S. has already begun to provide communications equipment to the internal Syrian opposition and the U.S. has pledged $10 million in financial aid.

State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday that ongoing violence by the Assad regime showed a lack of progress but that the U.S. position, which is to support a political process that would see Assad step down, hasn't changed.

"We will have the Friends of the Syrian People meeting this weekend. And I understand that Kofi Annan will also be making a report to the Security Council on Monday. So it's incumbent on all of us to keep the pressure on Assad to meet the commitment that he's made. And that's our intention over the next few days," she said.

On Tuesday, Clinton said she hopes the Assad regime will halt the violence so that a political process with the opposition -- which she also urged to cease the use of force -- can begin. "And I'm hoping that by the time I get to Istanbul on Sunday we will be in a position to acknowledge steps that the Assad regime and the opposition have both taken. We're certainly urging that those occur,' she said.

Nuland said the Syrian opposition will be represented at Sunday's meeting by the Syrian National Council (SNC). The SNC has tenuous ties to the internal Syrian opposition and to the Free Syrian Army, the loose network of military defectors and local militias whose nominal leaders are based across the border in Turkey. The administration won't work with the FSA, citing an opposition to violence from either side, and the FSA has rejected the SNC as its representative.

Clinton called on the Syrian opposition to get its act together in advance of the meeting in Turkey.

"They must come forward with a unified position, a vision if you will, of the kind of Syria that they are working to build. They must be able to clearly demonstrate a commitment to including all Syrians and protecting the rights of all Syrians. And we are going to be pushing them very hard to present such a vision at Istanbul. So we have a lot of work to do between now and Sunday," she said.

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The Cable

So much for U.S. food assistance to North Korea

The United States has halted plans to provide food aid to North Korea after North Korea promised to launch a missile into outer space next month, although the Obama administration maintains there is no "linkage" between the two issues.

Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific security affairs, testified Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee that after North Korea announced it would use a long-range missile to launch a satellite into space, violating the missile moratorium it agreed to last Leap Day, the United States decided not to send the 240,000 tons of food there it had promised in that very deal. But the Obama administration is not using food as leverage, Lavoy insisted. The administration simply can't trust the North Koreans to honor their commitments now, even when it comes to ensuring that the food is delivered to its intended recipients.

"The North Koreans have announced that they will launch a missile. We are working very closely with allies and other partners in the region to try to discourage North Korea from launching this missile as they've intended. But we believe that this reflects their lack of desire to follow through on their international commitments," Lavoy testified. "And so we have been forced to suspend our activities to provide nutritional assistance to North Korea largely because we have now no confidence that the monitoring mechanisms that ensure that the food assistance goes to the starving people and not the regime elite, that these monitoring mechanisms we have no confidence that they would actually abide by the understandings."

Some lawmakers were skeptical that the administration was not punishing the North Koreans for their upcoming missile launch by withholding the food aid, but Lavoy insisted the two issues were not linked, even though they were announced in the same Feb. 29 statement and negotiated at the same time with the same officials.

"We don't believe that nutritional assistance should be a lever to achieve a political outcome. It is a humanitarian effort that we have intended. And again, it's regrettable that this has stopped," Lavoy said. "So the reason, again, why we're not providing that food assistance at this point is because our confidence in their ability to meet their agreements has been diminished. We do not use it as a lever to change their policies."

State Department Spokeswomand Victoria Nuland also said Wednesday that the issues aren't linked, but she implied that the food aid could be restored if the missile launch is scuttled.

"We don't have confidence in their good faith. If they want to restore our confidence in their good faith, they can cancel the plans to launch this satellite," she said. "They are separate issues, but they come together at the point of whether the government's acting in good faith."

During the talks that led up the Feb. 29 statement, the U.S. side made clear to the North Koreans that any missile launch, even a satellite launch, would be a deal breaker, Lavoy said.

Lavoy also warned that the North Korean leadership might do something else provocative on or around the April 15 celebration on the 100th birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, perhaps as a way for new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to establish his power and legitimacy.

"Our suspicions about North Korea using its celebrations this year to enhance its missile program were confirmed when North Korea announced on March 16th that it plans to conduct a missile launch between April 12th and 16th," Lavoy said.

Lavoy also said that the North Koreans intend to launch the missile in a southward direction, although nobody knows where the missile or its debris might land.

"A number of countries are potentially affected. The debris on fall on their countries. It could cause casualties. This affects South Korea, of course, but also Japan, Okinawa, the island of Japan, and the intended impact is probably somewhere close to the Philippines or maybe Indonesia," he said.

Both Japan and South Korea have publicly warned they may shoot down the missile if it crosses over their territory.

HASC Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) said the upcoming missile launch was further evidence that the North Koreans never had any intention in engaging in real denuclearization talks and that the regime's stance has not changed since the death of Kim Jong Il.

"This is typical behavior shown by the regime, a cycle of provocations and reconciliations designed to get what they want without giving up their nuclear weapons program," McKeon said. "It's becoming clear that the same aggressive, reckless cycle will continue under the new North Korean dictator. Although the Chinese and Russian governments publicly expressed concern about the planned missile launch, they have been unable or unwilling to bring their North Korea ally back to the negotiation table."

Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner (R-OH) pressed Lavoy on President Barack Obama's hot mic comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvdev in Seoul, in which Obama asked Medvdev to ask Vladimir Putin to give him "space" on the missile defense issue until after the November election.

"Are you aware of the deal the president has with Medvedev and with Russia that would be revealed to us after the election that perhaps isn't secret to you that would limit our missile-defense capability, either in deployment use or scope, that, of course, is a serious -- you know, a serious concern to this committee as we look to the rise of North Korea?" Turner asked. "Are you aware of the subject matter of the president's missile-defense deal, secret or not, with the Russians? And if you're not, why are you not?

"No, sir, I am not," Lavoy responded. "And I can assure you that we do believe that missile defense and our phased-adaptive approach to missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region is very much alive. It's very much part of our comprehensive approach to deal with the threat posed by the North Koreans. And it's something we're committed to."

"OK. I would greatly appreciate it if you would ask the president what are the details of his deal with the Russians concerning missile defense that cannot be disclosed until after the election," Turner replied.

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