The Cable

Derek Mitchell to be named ambassador to Burma

The State Department's special coordinator for Burma policy, Derek Mitchell, has been chosen to be the first U.S. ambassador to Burma, formally known as Myanmar, since 1990.

Mitchell, a well-regarded Asia hand who was a foreign-policy advisor to the Obama campaign, was formerly the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs. He was appointed to the new job of Burma envoy last April to lead the implementation of the administration's engagement policy with the Burmese regime. Mitchell also worked previously at the Center for Strategic and International Studies with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the State Department's lead Asia official and a key architect of the new Burma policy.

Responding to incremental reforms in Burma, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January became the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Burma in 50 years and announced that the United States intended to send an ambassador there in the coming months.

On Wednesday, following limited parliamentary elections that swung heavily in favor of the party of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, Clinton announced that the U.S. administration would partially ease some of the sanctions on Burma, easing travel bans on some Burmese officials, recalibrating a ban on investments, and pledging to open up parts of Burma's banking sector to foreign banking services, such as international credit cards.

"We are very close to being able to name formally an ambassador," a senior administration official said in a Wednesday conference call. "We are in the process now of what is called seeking agrement with the authorities in Nay Pyi Taw. That is the formal process whereby their government agrees to our nominee."

Two people familiar with the administration's deliberations confirmed Thursday that Mitchell is that choice.

Initial reaction to the news of Mitchell's pending nomination was overwhelmingly positive, and Burma experts said he had handled the sensitive job of special coordinator with skill and tact.

"He's done a fantastic job and his appointment to be the ambassador would signal that center of action is shifting from Washington to Nay Pyi Taw," the Burmese capital, said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "He's been a great policy coordinator and I'm sure he will be an excellent ambassador."

Mitchell has a good relationship with Suu Kyi, strong support on Capitol Hill, and the confidence of the human rights community, Malinowski said. He added that the administration's incremental response to incremental reforms in Burma was properly calculated.

"The devil is in the details, but in principle, what they announced yesterday is right on the money," he said. "The administration is being quite proactive now and this decision deepens their stake in the outcome. But the progress is reversible and it's really important they continue to approach this not as a success now, but potentially a great success three years from now. It's not a success yet."

Michael J. Green, a former top Asia official in the Bush White House and one-time nominee for the Burma envoy job, also praised the Mitchell selection.

"I think Derek has done very well in his job. He has been surefooted and he has the confidence of all the stakeholders in this Burma policy debate," Green said.

The choice of a political appointee, as opposed to a Foreign Service officer such as current chargé d'affairs Michael Thurston, sends a strong message to the Burmese, Green said.

"I think the administration's policy is calibrated about right," Green said. But Burma is still in need of much greater reforms and President Thein Sein has limited control, he noted.

"There are still campaigns against the ethnics, there are still campaigns about the minorities, there are still unresolved [issues] with Burma's relationship with North Korea, and Burma still has a constitution that is fundamentally undemocratic," Green said. "They [the administration] know that this progress is reversible. They want to show some support for Thein Sein, and appointing Mitchell is the right move."

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Image

The Cable

Kurdish leader: No to arming the Syrian opposition

The international community should support a transition to democracy in Syria, but shouldn't arm the rebel fighters, Kurdistan regional President Massoud Barzani said in Washington Thursday.

"It's important that the future government of Syria be a democratic coalition that protects the rights of Kurds and all other Syrians," Barzani said at a Thursday speaking event at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He said the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) supports whatever dialogue and negotiations that the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition may enter into and said that the safety and security of Syrian Kurds was a high priority. As for the Kurdistan National Council of Syria, a recently formed umbrella group representing Kurdish opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Barzani said the KRG would help, but not with weapons.

"We are ready to support them, but not with military support or providing ammunition ... It could be moral support, political support, financial support. And we will use our influence to help solve their problems," he said. "It would be good for them to enter into talks and negotiations so they can reach an agreement with the other groups of the opposition."

"What we see right now, neither the current government not the opposition have anything decreed to provide for the Kurdish people," he said. "But that issue is left to them, so whichever way they conduct their negotiations, we will support the outcome of their negotiations."

Barzani's comments were starkly different than those of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said this week that Assad "will not fall" and said he was against any process that led to the overthrow of the Syrian regime.

Barzani said he met with President Barack Obama twice and also met with Vice President Joseph Biden on Wednesday, and told them that Maliki is consolidating power in a dictatorial way. He said Obama and Biden reassured him that the United States would remain committed to cooperation with Kurdistan and committed to helping Iraqi solve its serious internal political problems.

"Iraq is facing a serious crisis ... it's coming towards one-man rule," Barzani said. "We have a situation in Baghdad where one man is the prime minister and at the same time he is the commander in chief of the armed forces, he is the minister of defense, he is the minister of the interior, and he is the chief of intelligence. And lately, he has been communicating to the head of the Central Bank that that should also come under the power of the prime minister. Where in the world can you find such an example?"

Barzani called for a multiparty, multiethnic process to address the issue of power sharing in Iraq. If that process fails, Barzani said he would hold a referendum in Kurdistan to determine the way forward. He implied, but didn't say explicitly, that that referendum would be for Kurdish impendence.

"The current status quo in Baghdad is in no way our option and we will not accept that as an option," he said. "Otherwise, we will be obliged to go back to the people and have the people make their decisions."

The Maliki government is reneging on its agreements that allow Kurdistan to sign its own oil contracts and is taking total control of Iraq's armed forces, according to Barzani.

"The new Iraqi army needs to be formed on the basis of being an army of the country, not the army of an individual," he said.

Barzani said he disagreed with former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's decision to publicly denounce Obama's selection of former NSC staffer Brett McGurk to replace Jim Jeffrey as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Allawi said McGurk was too close to Maliki to be objective.

"Had Allawi consulted with me, I would have told him not to issue that statement. He has been nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and he will implement U.S. policy," Barzani said.

Barzai also staunchly defended the innocence of fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, against whom Maliki's government has brought charges. Hashemi had been evading those charges in Kurdistan and is now in Saudi Arabia, though he has pledged to return to Iraq.

"He is still the vice president of Iraq. He has not been convicted, and this issue has been politicized," Barzani said, adding that Maliki had told him to help Hashemi escape Iraq, revealing the politicization of the issue.

"Why does Maliki send me a message so we should help him sneak out of the country? If he's a criminal, why should he be given that opportunity to sneak out? They wanted to show that everybody wants to respect the judicial system except for us."