The Cable

State Department leads interagency team to talk Syria in Turkey

The State Department is leading an interagency team to Istanbul to hold the first round of talks with the Turkish government Wednesday on coordinating increased help for the Syrian opposition.

The administration team, which left Washington today, is being led by Acting Assistant Secretary Beth Jones and will include representatives from the Defense Department and the intelligence community. The trip is part of what the Obama administration has styled as its efforts to promote a change in the Syrian government outside of the U.N. Security Council, through interactions with like-minded countries and increased interactions with the internal Syrian opposition.

The meetings Wednesday represent the first implementation of the new arrangement with the Turkish government, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced following her Aug. 11 visit to Turkey. Reports from the trip said that Clinton had agreed to consider a no-fly zone and increase operational planning with the Turks, but this week the State Department sought to manage expectations about the "new" approach.

"[R]emember what the secretary committed to when she was in Istanbul, which was an interagency conversation, U.S. and Turkey sitting down together to share operational picture, to talk about the effectiveness of what we're doing now, and about what more we can do," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. "So this was not a bricks-and-mortar center. I don't want you to get the wrong idea. This is a bilateral conversation across the interagency."

Clinton made a point on her trip to Turkey of meeting with Syrian activists who operate inside Syria but she snubbed the Syrian National Council, which has set itself up as the main civilian body representing the opposition. Clinton did not meet with leaders of the Free Syrian Army, however.

"Our position on this one hasn't changed. We are providing nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition... but also, increasingly, training for those future leaders of the NGO sector, some of the types of groups that the secretary met with when she was in Istanbul," Nuland said.

Some of those activists have been complaining that they aren't getting the non-lethal assistance. A Washington Post report Monday said that activists were turning to the black market for gear because they hadn't received any satellite phones or other components of the $25 million the administration has authorized in non-lethal aid.

The Office of Syrian Opposition Support, which is in charge of the aid program, began working in June and has faced delays in getting the aid to the people on the ground, the Post reported. It is "fair to say that it's very much a work in progress. We are moving as aggressively as possible now that we have cleared many of the cobwebs in our own system and with our allies," Assistant Secretary of State Rick Barton told the paper.

Nuland defended the State Department's activity at Tuesday's briefing and suggested that the activists who spoke with the Post just happened not to be the ones getting the assistance.

"We are doing training on free media, countering the government's circumvention technology, legal and justice and accountability issues, and how to deal with the crimes that have been committed during this conflict, programs for student activists who are encouraging peaceful protest on the university campuses, programs for women," she said. "So we are extremely active, and if there are a few guys who are hanging out in Turkey who haven't actually gotten this stuff, it's because we're focused on the groups inside Syria."

The Cable

Peace Corps director Williams resigns

U.S. President Barack Obama announced today that Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams has resigned.

"From working tirelessly to improve volunteer support to his leadership in reforming and modernizing the agency, Aaron has been a champion of the thousands of remarkable Peace Corps Volunteers serving across the globe," Obama said in a statement. "I know the positive change that Peace Corps Volunteers make, and under Aaron's leadership the agency's work has been at the forefront of this Administration's efforts to increase global engagement.  I want to extend my thanks to him for his dedicated service and wish him and his family the best."

Williams has been heading the Peace Corps since being confirmed in August 2009. A lifelong development professional and former USAID official, Williams presided over several changes in the aid agency, including its expansion into countries including Sierra Leone, Indonesia, Columbia, Tunisia, and Nepal.

In a statement, Williams cited "personal and family considerations" as the reason for his departure.

But his tenure will likely be remembered for the sexual-assault scandal that rocked the corps in 2011 and brought significant congressional criticism of Williams's handling of the revelation that the Peace Corps had not properly responded to increased reports of attacks on female volunteers in foreign countries.

ABC News did a series of reports highlighting cases of rape and sexual assault against Peace Corps volunteers in which the victims said that Peace Corps leadership discouraged them from reporting the assaults and failed to take steps to ensure their safety.

After initially resisting cooperating with the ABC investigation, Williams testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and pledged to change the policies and culture of the Peace Corps, which several victims testified was focused on blaming the victims of sexual assault.

"There is no doubt that what these courageous women have done has opened our eyes to what we need to correct and we need to correct it now," Williams testified at the May 2011 hearing. "Rest assured, this type of thing, blaming the victim, will not continue in the Peace Corps of today."

Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), praised Williams' handling of the scandal and his time as head of the Peace Corps in a statement today.

“I have great admiration for Director Williams.  I watched him restore the credibility and reaffirm the mission of one of America’s finest organizations.  What he and the Peace Corps have achieved shows the best face of America," Leavhy said.

Carrie Hessler-Radelet, deputy director of the Peace Corps, will begin serving as acting director after Williams departs on Sept. 17.