The Cable

State Department calls rebel attack on Syrian army troops ‘terrorism’

The rebel attack last week on a convoy of Syrian regime troops in Iraq was an act of "terrorism" because the Syrian troops were "non-combatants," the State Department said Monday.

An al Qaeda affiliated group has claimed responsibility for the attack on a Syrian military convoy in Iraq last week that resulted in the death of 48 Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqi guards. At Monday's State Department press briefing, outgoing spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the attack was an act of terrorism because the Syrian troops were not actively engaged in a firefight when they were attacked and because the attackers used "terrorist tactics."

"Well, let me first condemn the attack on the convoy. Any kind of attack like this, any kind of terrorism like this is something that we should condemn," Nuland said.

While there is no single agreed-upon definition of the word "terrorism," the U.S. government's own code of federal regulations defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

Reporters in the briefing noted that no civilians were targeted and that the rebels are engaged in all-out war with the Syrian regime, but Nuland held firm.

"Again, any time you attack noncombatants in this way -- and the techniques were obviously terrorist tactics -- we're going to call it what it is," she said.

Last December, the State Department designated the al-Nusra Front, a conglomeration of rebel groups with some ties to al Qaeda, as a foreign terrorist organization. But Nuland said that it was the circumstances of the attack, not the identity of the attackers, that made it an act of terrorism.

"Well, it obviously depends on the circumstances -- whether they were trying to defend themselves against enemy fire -- but we've been pretty clear about calling out attacks against folks who are not in the middle of a firefight all the way through this from both sides," she said.

Nuland said the State Department believes the Syrian troops had fled the fighting and sought medical treatment in Iraq. They were being returned to Syria when their convoy was ambushed using "terrorist tactics."

"So, it was not the same circumstance that the rebels have confronted when they are trying to defend the population from Syrian regime attack," she said.

One reporter pointed out that the United States routinely targets and kills members of various groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan who are not physically engaged in the fight at the time they are targeted. Nuland declined to comment on the perceived double standard.

"Again, it depends on the circumstances," she said.

Nuland also declined to confirm or deny a report by the German magazine Der Spiegel that Americans are training Syrian anti-regime forces in Jordan.

"I have nothing for you on that," she said.

The Cable

Donilon defends the Asia ‘pivot’

The White House's top national security official defended the Obama administration's rebalancing toward Asia and pledged to continue that policy in President Barack Obama's second term in a speech Monday.

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon addressed the Asia Society in New York Monday afternoon on the U.S. government's Asia policy and said that changing administrations in China, Japan, and South Korea this year marked a crucial point in the future of Asian diplomacy and America's role in the region. The U.S. rebalancing toward Asia, also known as the "pivot," was Obama's premier strategic foreign policy initiative in the first term, he said.

"It was clear [in 2009] that there was an imbalance in the projection and focus of U.S. power. It was the president's judgment that we were over-weighted in some areas and regions, including our military actions in the Middle East," Donilon said. "At the same time, we were underweighted in other regions, such as the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, we believed this was our key geographic imbalance."

For a definition of the strategy, Donilon pointed Asia hands to Obama's Nov. 2011 address to the Australian Parliament in Canberra, which coincided with the announcement of greater U.S. military deployment in Australia and Southeast Asia.

"So make no mistake, the tide of war is receding, and America is looking ahead to the future that we must build," Obama said then. "Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth -- the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation."

But Donilon focused on defending the pivot against accusations that it necessarily denotes a turn away from American engagement in the Middle East or Europe. He also pushed back against the widely held regional view that the strategy is meant to contain China's rise.

"Here's what rebalancing does not mean. It doesn't mean diminishing ties to important partners in any other region. It does not mean containing China or seeking to dictate terms to Asia. And it isn't just a matter of our military presence," Donilon said. "It is an effort that harnesses all elements of U.S. power -- military, political, trade and investment, development and our values."

He also emphasized that America's commitment to the Asia-Pacific region will not be diminished by the country's fiscal woes or the defense cuts that will have come as a result of the sequester. Donilon pledged to keep former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's promise to commit 60 percent of the U.S. naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 and he promised the United States would "prioritize" the region when rolling out new military platforms and technologies.

"In these difficult fiscal times, I know that some have questioned whether this rebalance is sustainable. After a decade of war, it is only natural that the U.S. defense budget is being reduced. But make no mistake: President Obama has clearly stated that we will maintain our security presence and engagement in the Asia-Pacific," he said. "Specifically, our defense spending and programs will continue to support our key priorities -- from our enduring presence on the Korean Peninsula to our strategic presence in the western Pacific."

Donilon also paid tribute to deceased Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke and praised his dedication to diplomacy in search of peace. Holbrook aide Vali Nasr released a new book this month arguing that the White House national security team, led by Donilon, systematically stifled Holbrooke's efforts to push forward on a diplomatic solution to the Afghanistan war.

"Richard was famous for his work from the Balkans to South Asia. But he was also a real Asia hand as the youngest-ever assistant secretary of state for East Asia," Donilon said. "Richard dedicated himself to the idea that progress and peace was possible -- a lesson we carry forward, not only in Southwest Asia, where he worked so hard, but across the Asia-Pacific."

Read Donilon's full remarks, as prepared for delivery, here.