The Cable

Russian foreign minister won’t return Kerry’s call

Secretary of State John Kerry called all the foreign ministers of countries that deal with North Korea following Monday's nuclear test and all but one of them picked up the phone -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Kerry made his first remarks about the new nuclear test, which the North Koreans warned the State Department about in advance.

"With respect to the DPRK, President Obama made it crystal clear last night and previously in all comments, as have other countries, that North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program are a threat now to the United States of America, because of what they are pursuing specifically, as well as to global security and peace," Kerry said.

"Following their latest provocation, which we have termed and believe is reckless and provocative, needlessly, I called Foreign Minister Kim of South Korea, I talked to Foreign Minister Kishida of Japan, I talked to Foreign Minister Yang of China, and we have placed a phone call to Foreign Minister Lavrov, and consulted with all of them with respect to the steps that we need to take," Kerry went on. "The international community now needs to come together with a swift and clear, strong, credible response, as pledged in the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2087."

The now-defunct six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program included the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and Russia. But Russia's leaders are the only members of that group with whom Kerry hasn't spoken this week.

At Wednesday's State Department press briefing, outgoing Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland denied that Kerry was frantically trying to reach Lavrov. (The Cable has confirmed that Nuland will soon be replaced at the podium by White House Deputy Press Secretary Jen Psaki.)

"There's been nothing frantic about it. He reached out to Foreign Minister Lavrov yesterday, made it clear again today that he's ready to talk whenever Foreign Minister Lavrov can find the time," Nuland said.

On Tuesday, Nuland said that Kerry had called Lavrov early in the morning and was hoping to connect with him by the end of that day. Lavrov has been traveling in Africa, she noted.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had similar difficulty reaching Lavrov quickly by phone. In early 2012, Lavrov was traveling in Australia and didn't return Clinton's call about a pending U.N. resolution on Syria.

One reporter asked Nuland Wednesday whether the State Department had communicated to the Russian Foreign Ministry its displeasure of Russia's announcement that it will continue to fulfill arms sales contracts to the Syrian regime.

"I think it's fair to say... that in every conversation with a senior Russian leader, from President Putin through Foreign Minister Lavrov and all the way down, the issue of Russia's continued resupply of Syria comes up," Nuland said.

"Maybe you could text him," one reporter joked.

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The Cable

Obama softens his rhetoric on Syria

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening, U.S. President Barack Obama significantly scaled down his rhetoric on the Syria crisis, lowering the high expectations he set only a year ago.

"We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian," Obama said Tuesday.

But in his 2012 State of the Union Address, Obama made a bold prediction that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government would quickly come to the realization that change in Syria was inevitable.

"As the tide of war recedes, a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana'a to Tripoli. A year ago, Qaddafi was one of the world's longest-serving dictators -- a murderer with American blood on his hands. Today, he is gone," Obama said last year. "And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied."

He now seems have some doubt.

Obama's 2012 speech came only five months after he first declared that Assad had to go.

"The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way," Obama said in a written statement in August 2011. "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside."

Now, 18 months after that call, Assad remains in place and the civil war in Syria rages on, with an estimated 70,000 civilian deaths, according to the United Nations. The Obama administration has resisted getting involved in the conflict other than through the dispersal of a limited amount of humanitarian aid.

The New York Times revealed recently that the White House decided not to arm and train elements of the Syrian opposition last summer over the objections of the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA.

Obama did say Tuesday, "In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy."

"The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can -- and will -- insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people," he said. "And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace. These are the messages I will deliver when I travel to the Middle East next month."

He didn't explicitly mention the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, though he did salute "the courage and sacrifice of those who serve in dangerous places at great personal risk -- our diplomats, our intelligence officers, and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces."

Note: Obama made much stronger comments about the fate of the Assad regime in a video message released late last month. Here's what he said:

We're under no illusions.  The days ahead will continue to be very difficult.  But what's clear is that the regime continues to weaken and lose control of territory.  The opposition continues to grow stronger.  More Syrians are standing up for their dignity.  The Assad regime will come to an end.  The Syrian people will have their chance to forge their own future.  And they will continue to find a partner in the United States of America. 

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