The Cable

McCain and Lieberman meet with the Free Syria Army

Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) are on a surprise trip to the Turkish-Syrian border to meet with leaders of the Free Syria Army and visit Syrian refugees, who have been under attack by Syrian government forces.

The senators' trip was not associated with the efforts of U.N. envoy Kofi Annan, whose cease-fire agreement seems to have failed to stop the violence. McCain and Lieberman said in a statement that Syrian President Bashar al Assad has violated the terms of Anann's cease-fire and that the only practical way forward is to arm the Syrian opposition.

"We respect Mr. Annan's desire to find an end to the killing in Syria. Unfortunately, Bashar al-Assad does not share this goal. That fact has been clear to many of us for months, but it should now be undeniable for everyone," the senators said. "Indeed, reports indicate that Assad has used the time provided by the recent diplomatic initiative to kill up to 1,000 additional men, women, and children in Syria. And just yesterday, Syrian forces fired across the border with Turkey, killing and wounding people in a refugee camp on Turkish territory."

McCain and Lieberman were in Hatay province Tuesday and met with the leaders of the Free Syrian Army, General Mustafa al-Sheikh and Colonel Riad al-Asaad. They also toured a refugee camp and met Syrians who had recently arrived from across the border. They are the first members of Congress to meet the FSA leaders and to visit the border, and the senior-most U.S. officials to do so.

"All of the Syrians we met with are grateful for the humanitarian assistance that many nations are providing, as are we. But this does not change the basic fact: The international community is failing the people of Syria," the senators said.

"Make no mistake: The situation in Syria is an armed conflict. This is a war. Diplomacy with Assad has failed, and it will continue to fail so long as Assad thinks he can defeat the opposition in Syria militarily. And right now, using tanks and artillery and even attack helicopters, Assad has the upper hand on the battlefield."

The senators acknowledged the Obama administration's decision to provide communications equipment to the Syrian opposition but said that would have little effect against the regime's tanks. They repeated their call for arming Syrian rebel fighters, as they called for in their congressional resolution earlier this month.

"Under these conditions, no one should think that Assad will stop killing and leave power anytime soon. Indeed, the unanimous opinion of everyone we have spoken with on our visit is that there is no end in sight to the horrific violence in Syria," they said. "The only way to reverse this dynamic is by helping the Syrian opposition to change the military balance of power on the ground. This means delivering all of the non-lethal assistance that has been pledged thus far. But it means doing a lot more."

The senators were in Istanbul Monday, where they met with Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the Syrian National Council and other top opposition leaders. They also met with the recently defected Syrian deputy oil minister Abdo Hussameldin, with Turkish President Abdullah Gul, and with the recently recalled Turkish ambassador to Syria Omer Onhon.

In their statement, they repeated their call for foreign air power to suppress Assad's military and called on the U.S. administration to increase its activities to protect the Syria people.

"If America still stands for the cause of oppressed people who are fighting for their freedom, and justice, and deliverance from tyranny, we cannot abandon the people of Syria," they said. "We cannot shirk our responsibility to lead. Our deepest values and interests compel us to act in Syria, and we must do so before it is too late."

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