The Cable

Top Democratic Senator: We need to do more in Syria

As rebel fighters bring their battle to the gates of Damascus, a top Senate Democrat is urging the United States to develop a more aggressive, more robust, and more strategic plan for ousting President Bashar al-Assad and supporting the Syrian opposition.

"We're at a point in the Syria crisis where we've got to have a more robust response to what's happening," Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who chairs the Middle East subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Cable in an interview Thursday.

"There's a growing frustration among people in both parties that there isn't a clear and specific and focused strategy, that it's been too tactical," Casey said. "The entire effort is lacking real strategic coordination."

Casey said the opportunity to remove Syria as a proxy of Iran in the Levant is too important to continue on the administration's current path of caution. The United States must ramp up financial, logistic, intelligence, and other types of assistance to the Syrian rebels, he said, and help the Syrian opposition fight the onslaught of Syrian air attacks on civilians.

"The people on the ground, there's no way they can endure the kind of air campaign that's underway right now. Unless you give serious consideration to somehow hampering that air force, you're not going to be able to change that dynamic," he said. "One of the best things our government can do is take a really thorough look at specific ways to hamper the ability of the Syrian air force to conduct the kind of attack they are conducting on their civilians," he said.

Casey said the Pentagon should work up plans for combatting the Syrian Air Force's ability to attack civilians, but stopped short of advocating providing anti-aircraft weapons, such as the shoulder-fired missiles known as MANPADS, to the Syria rebels.

The United States should seriously consider honoring Turkey's request for Patriot missile batteries to be stationed along the Syrian border, Casey said. The Obama administration is considering that now and may make a decision as early as next week, according to the New York Times.

"My understanding of the status of this is that Turkey has formally made its request to NATO and NATO has sent site-survey teams to Turkey to look at where to place them, what kinds of systems might be required, countries that could donate them," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday about the Patriot missile batteries.

Nuland said the Patriot batteries are meant to be for defensive purposes only and are not meant to defend airspace outside Turkey's borders. A survey team is in Turkey now and will report back to the NATO council, where any decision to deploy Patriot batteries to Turkey would be made.

"We've said that we strongly support NATO meeting the needs of our Turkish ally. We have to work through what precisely we would approve, but that process is in train," Nuland said.

Casey said the provision of Patriot batteries in Turkey along the Syrian border doesn't mean that NATO would be establishing a de facto no-fly zone over parts of Syria, but called it a step in the right direction. "It certainly provides a level of deterrence that we don't have there now," he said.

The Obama administration should also "amplify" the assistance the United States is already giving to the Syrian opposition, for example by increasing the intelligence assistance to those Syrian rebel groups the United States has identified as moderate and responsible.

The U.S. government has to ramp up its efforts to rally the international community toward a common strategy for Syria, Casey added.

If there's no change, there's a risk the U.S. could lose a real opportunity to diminish the influence and reach of Iran, according to Casey."Anything in the region that diminishes the influence of Iran is something we should be very focused on," he said.

"The killing you're seeing, that's a substantial factor in any decision you make. But the larger issue is our national security interest in the region."

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The Cable

Chuck Hagel being vetted for national security post

Former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel is being vetted for a possible top national security post in the Obama administration, multiple sources told The Cable.

Hagel, who co-chairs President Barack Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board, which provides independent advice on the effectiveness of the intelligence community, could be in contention for either secretary of state or secretary of defense, people familiar with the vetting process say.

Hagel, a moderate realist on foreign policy, would be a comfortable ideological fit for the president. He has publicly supported many of the administration's foreign-policy moves from his perch at Georgetown University, while often excoriating the GOP for what he sees as a takeover by "the extreme right."

Hagel was a harsh critic of George W. Bush's foreign policy, especially his decision to invade and occupy Iraq, which he once called "an absolute replay of Vietnam."

In the years since, he's remained a strong critic of Republicans in Congress.

"Now the Republican Party is in the hands of the right, I would say the extreme right, more than ever before. You've got a Republican Party that is having difficulty facing up to the fact that if you look at what happened during the first 8 years of the century, it was under Republican direction," Hagel told The Cable in a May interview. "The Republican Party is dealing with this schizophrenia. It was the Republican leadership that got us into this mess. If Nixon or Eisenhower were alive today, they would be run out of the party."

"Reagan would be stunned by the party today," Hagel said.

In 2008, the incoming Obama transition team offered Hagel several high-level jobs, all of which he turned down, including secretary of homeland security, director of national intelligence, and ambassador to China.

If appointed, he would likely be the lone Republican in the Obama administration's second-term cabinet: The president's first defense secretary, Bob Gates, is long gone, ex-CIA director David Petraeus is out after a sex scandal, and former congressman Ray Lahood, the current secretary of transportation, is expected to depart next year.

Both Hagel's office and the White House declined to comment on Hagel's potential nomination.

But former Senate staffer Steve Clemons, now editor-at-large at the Atlantic, said that Obama would be smart to pick Hagel.

"Hagel hides his keen understanding of complex strategic realities beneath an every-guy, aw-shucks veneer. He is one of the shrewdest, most well-informed, experienced national security hands who has served as a major force in GOP land in the legislative branch," Clemons said.  "Hagel has been feeding tough-love messages to Obama for some time on the Middle East, on Russia, on China, on the design and missions of the armed forces and the intelligence ecosystem surrounding them."

Hagel and Obama have been close since Obama was a candidate for president. His wife Lilibet endorsed Obama in 2008 and Hagel traveled with candidate Obama to Iraq that summer, along with Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI). If selected, Hagel would bring his independent streak into an administration that looks increasingly packed with Obama loyalists, as compared to the "team of rivals" Obama surrounded himself with in 2009, which included outsiders like Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his primary campaign adversary.

"He is not a yes man," Clemons said. "[Obama and Hagel] have maintained a disciplined, honest relationship about real issues. Picking Hagel means Obama is not going to sit on his laurels for round two of his presidency."

The fact that Hagel is being vetted does not ensure that he will be nominated for any job, but it adds his name to a short list of those being considered for top-level national security positions.

Sen. John Kerry's name has also been floated for defense secretary. Inside the Pentagon, most believe the job will go to Deputy Secretary Ash Carter or former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy.

Kerry is also said to be in contention for the secretary of state job, but the consensus among administration watchers is that the White House's vigorous defense of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in the face of harsh criticisms from several GOP senators indicates that the president intends to pick Rice to replace Clinton in Foggy Bottom.

Rice has been on Capitol Hill this week meeting with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Susan Collins (R-ME), almost all of whom declared they were more inclined to oppose Rice's potential nomination after meeting with her. Many in Congress are expecting a secretary of state nomination to come as early as this week.

Collins said Wednesday that Rice's answers to questions regarding the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi had an "eerie echo" of the twin attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, when Rice was assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

"Those bombings in 1998 resulted in the loss of life of 12 Americans as well as many other foreign nationals, and 4,000 people were injured," Collins told reporters today. "And what troubles me so much is that the Benghazi attacks echoes the attacks on those embassies in 1998 when Susan Rice was head of the African region for our State Department. ... She had to be aware of the general threat assessment and of the ambassadors' request for more security."

If the White House decides not to nominate Rice, some observers speculate, Rice could be appointed national security advisor, a position that requires no Senate confirmation. If that were to occur, current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon could be promoted to be White House chief of staff to replace Jack Lew, who is rumored to be in contention to become Treasury secretary.

Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, who could also replace Donilon, could be moved over the Foggy Bottom as the new deputy secretary of state should Rice move to the White House. That maneuver would allow McDonough to receive a promotion while keeping a close Obama confidant roaming the halls of Foggy Bottom.

Current Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns is rumored to be in contention to replace Rice as U.N. ambassador. Other names that have been floated for that post include Vice President Joe Biden's national security advisor Tony Blinken, White House advisor Samantha Power, and former Congressman Howard Berman.

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