The Cable

Kerry: Time to consider safe zones and arming the opposition in Syria

The United States needs to do more to protect civilians in Syria, including considering setting up safe zones inside Syria and potentially arming the opposition, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable in an interview Tuesday.

Kerry also warned that if the balance of power is not tilted in Syria in the opposition's favor, it's unlikely that President Bashar al-Assad will step down. A political transition that sees Assad removed from power remains the goal, he said, but the United States must step up its efforts to make that goal a reality.

"You have to change the current dynamic. That's to me the bottom line," Kerry said. "We have to increase the pressure, change the calculations, and succeed in creating a capacity for a movement to a negotiated reform process with a transition that takes place through elections at the right moment."

"That's could be something Russia might buy into and the international community might as well, but Assad won't unless the on the ground calculations change," said Kerry, who just returned from a conference in Jordan that included Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Kerry said his trip had helped convince him that more must be done to help the internal Syrian opposition, well beyond the low levels of humanitarian and communication aid the United States is providing now.

"The concept of a safe zone is a reality and worth the discussion. The concept of working with the Turks and the Jordanians, if everybody is on the same page, there could be some [military] training [of the opposition forces]. If we can enhance the unity of the opposition, we could consider lethal aid and those kinds of things," Kerry said.

But he cautioned that the United States should insist on greater unity within opposition ranks before it provides lethal aid, noting that international efforts to train opposition fighters could help establish that very unity. Safe zones within Syria would have to be defended by some foreign military force, but not necessary the United States or NATO, Kerry explained.

"King Abdullah [of Jordan] made some very interesting suggestions about Jordanian possibilities with respect to that and the Turks also have some options," he said. "I'm talking about Gulf states and the Arab League engaging and leading on this with NATO perhaps as a support structure behind the scenes to back it up," he said.

Asked if there were any conditions under which he would support U.S.- or NATO-led airstrikes on the Syrian military, Kerry said, "Sure."

"If Assad was killing his people in a continued massive way without any regard to his word, the truce, the inspections, and monitors, etc.," Kerry said, adding that we haven't yet gotten to that point.

"Of course the violence is continuing, but not in the kind of way that would suggest to you that airstrikes would make the difference," he continued. "There are a bunch of things that would need to start happening before you put that on the table."

Kerry confirmed that there's a debate inside the administration on when to officially declare that U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan's plan has failed, even though two administration officials said last month that the plan "is failing." The question is whether to let Annan declare it himself or to round up partners and allies and preempt Annan by calling it earlier.

"My view is it would be better for Annan to make a judgment about his own mission but his mission cannot become a vehicle of interminable delay, and we have to be prepared to take measures necessary to protect life and move the process," Kerry said. "If [Annan] can pull a rabbit out of a hat, terrific, but I think we have to be planning a lot of contingencies while he's operating because I'm not optimistic."

Kerry sees new hope that the United States and Russia can find some common ground on the way forward in Syria, and he sketched the outlines of what that might look like.

"There were distinct ways in which hopefully we can get on the same page in order to create a process that might be helpful. You don't want the place to just collapse," Kerry said. "There's a unanimity that Assad has to be part of the transition and to get him out. The question is how. [Lavrov] thinks that Assad has to transition out of there in a respectful way, through a peaceful process."

Any effort to intervene directly in Syria should be Arab-led, Kerry said, but he denied the accusation that the United States is failing to lead or even "leading from behind," as many Republicans allege.

"This ‘failing to lead' refrain is just a political refrain," he said. "The United States doesn't have to go off and do everything to be the leader. Actually, it's pretty smart to get somebody else to do some things for you. You save the American taxpayer a few dollars, you don't put American troops at risk, and you get the job done."

Kerry noted that the administration is planning for a range of contingencies, including safe zones. But the administration has been clear that it has no intention of providing lethal aid to the opposition or using U.S. or NATO assets to directly confront Assad's forces.

In remarks May 6 to the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough said that the administration recognized that Assad has no intention to halt the violence but said that the administration had not yet reached the point of abandoning the Annan plan or abandoning their current approach, which relies solely on diplomatic and economic pressure.

"And the question is whether you make the leap to the next step, which is either the United States undertakes military action or enables others to take military action," McDonough said. "Obviously we plan for every contingency, in the event we need that, but we just don't think the analysis at the moment is that-we do not believe that intervention hastens the demise of the regime."

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The Cable

House releases State and Foreign ops funding proposal; proposes wide range of cuts

The House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee has released its fiscal 2013 appropriations legislation, which would cut billions from the president's request for a range of key international programs.

The bill, to be marked up by the subcommittee Wednesday morning, would provide $40.1 billion for the base budget of the State Department, USAID, and international affairs programs in other agencies, in addition to $8.2 billion for diplomatic and development programs related to the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan in what's known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. If enacted, the legislation would represent a 12 percent cut from the administration's $54.71 billion budget request.

When war costs are taken out of the equation, the House proposal would represent a 14 percent cut to the administration's request. The House proposal would also cut $5 billion or 9 percent from the funding levels enacted in fiscal 2012.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, in its own allocations, proposed giving the State and foreign operations accounts $53 billion, roughly equal to fiscal 2012 levels, although the Senate proposed shifting $5 billion from the OCO account to the base budget. The Senate could mark up its version of the bill as early as next week.

"This is a tough, effective national security bill that continues to cut spending, reform our aid programs, and demand accountability from our partners and allies," Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) said in a release. "This bill reflects principled funding decisions that give the United States the flexibility to respond to a rapidly changing world while making sure our foreign aid is not a blank check for foreign governments who do not support our national security priorities."

Her Democratic counterpart, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), was more critical of the committee's proposal. She told The Cable that the House was cutting unnecessarily, considering that the overall discretionary allocations determined by the Republican majority, amounting to $1.028 trillion, was under the $1.047 trillion limit allowed under the Budget Control Act of 2011, the deal struck last year to avert a crisis over the debt ceiling.

"The proposed funding levels are insufficient for our nation to respond to health, education, and security challenges; make critical investments in diplomacy and development; and ensure robust oversight over taxpayer funds," Lowey said. "As the appropriations process moves forward, I will work to protect critical priorities and remove onerous policy riders that hurt our ability to maintain moral leadership worldwide."

The House subcommittee's bill contains several policy riders that have appeared in previous bills but are staunchly opposed by congressional Democrats and the administration. The legislation would reinstitute the so-called Mexico City policy, also known as the "global gag rule," which would bar funding to any international organizations that discuss abortion. The bill would also cap spending on family planning and reproductive health programs at the fiscal 2008 level.

According to a committee-issued press release, the bill also "maintains long-standing pro-life riders, including the ‘Tiahrt Amendment,' which ensures family planning programs are voluntary; the ‘Helms Amendment,' which bans ‘foreign aid from being spent on abortions; and the ‘Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which prohibits funds to organizations the President determines to support coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization."

For the State Department and USAID, the bill proposes cuts across the board, including steep cuts to programs that focus on multilateral institution building.

The State Department would be forced to operate with $433 million less than in fiscal 2012. The committee proposed giving State $12.9 billion for operations, $1.5 billion less than the president's request. USAID would get $1.2 billion in operations funding under the bill, a reduction of $73 million from last year's level and $252.5 million below the president's request.

On the United Nations, the House is proposing cutting U.S. funding for the U.N.'s Human Rights Council, the U.N. population fund, and any U.N. organization led by a "terrorist country." The bill provides no funding for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), following U.S. law that prohibits funds for any U.N. organization that has admitted Palestine as a member. Other U.N. agencies would see partial reductions in U.S. contributions until they provide full financial audits.

The bill would cut $632 million from the president's $7.9 billion request for international security assistance. Inside that total, the bill would fully fund the administration's $3.1 billion request for assistance to Israel and the $300 million request for assistance to Jordan.

The bill would also cut $3 billion from the administration's $17.2 billion request for bilateral economic assistance while proposing increased funding above the president's request for global health programs, refugee assistance, and democracy promotion activities.

The committee is also proposing a $725 reduction in the administration's $2.9 billion request for multilateral assistance, which would result in reduced U.S. contributions to a host of international organizations and multilateral financial institutions, including the provision of only half of the requested capital for the multilateral development bank,

As for country-specific funding requests, the bill would seek to cut foreign aid to several countries that do not meet Congress's conditions. For example, according to the committee's press release, the bill would affect foreign aid in the follow ways:

  • Afghanistan - The legislation withholds operating funds until a transition plan is submitted and withholds assistance until certifications that proper security is in place for civilian aid workers can be made.
  • Pakistan - The legislation prohibits economic and security assistance unless the Government of Pakistan is cooperating with the United States on counterterrorism efforts and other issues.
  • Egypt - The legislation prohibits economic and security assistance if the Government of Egypt does not adhere to the peace treaty with Israel, and requires the Secretary of State to certify that additional conditions have been met, including respect for due process of law.
  • Palestinian Authority - The legislation stops economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority if the Palestinians obtain membership at the United Nations or its specialized agencies without an agreement with Israel.