The Cable

Biden Gathers Senators For Last-Minute Syria Briefing

On Capitol Hill Thursday, an intimate briefing between CIA Director John Brennan and the top two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee exploded into an impromptu and classified briefing on Syria with top leaders at the State Department, CIA, White House and Congress.

Originally billed as a briefing about a new CIA report defending enhanced interrogation practices, congressional aides said the focus of the briefing flipped unexpectedly to the war in Syria and was extended to the entire Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Attendees spotted by The Cable included Vice President Joe Biden, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, Saxby Chambliss, Ron Wyden, Susan Collins, and others.

As they exited the briefing, attendees remained tight-lipped. "I have nothing to say," Feinstein said. When asked if the briefing involved the CIA's interrogation practices, she said "no." Congressional aides confirmed that the briefing focused on Syria, but could not elaborate. Update: There is some confusion over whether the CIA report was delivered in a meeting prior to the Syria meeting. One Senate aide said Brennan did discuss the CIA report with Feinstein and Chambliss privately, but there was "no report formally delivered" to them or the committee.  Another Senate aide said the report was delivered by Brennan. The CIA declined to comment.

The meeting occurred in the backdrop of a dispute last week between lawmakers and the White House over its proposal to provide arms to Syrian rebels. In the House Intelligence Committee, both Democrats and Republicans rejected the White House's initial proposal to arm Syrian rebels, saying it lacked specifics, including what to do if sending arms fails to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

"We want to make sure that we know what the end game is and we want to make sure it's the right strategy," House Intel member Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) told the AP.

"We're supportive of the president's efforts to continue to put pressure on the Assad regime and to support the rebels, but we all continue to ask tough questions," Langevin added. "Do we know who these rebels are and in the long run, are we backing the right group, and are any action that we taking in total concert with the allies and surrounding nations in the region, so that this doesn't ever become a U.S.-only effort."

When asked if today's Senate Intelligence Committee was also about getting senators on board with funding arms to the rebels, a Senate aide told The Cable "yes."

At today's Senate briefing, Biden dashed out of the meeting before others in a sprint to the Senate Floor, where he presided over the passage of the immigration overhaul legislation, which passed by 68-32.

As The Cable jotted notes about the attendees present, staffers hovering near Burns nervously approached asking if your humble blogger had overheard their "private conversations" with the deputy secretary. The Cable had not-unfortunately. 

The Cable

Islamists Auction Off Cars to Buy Heat Seeking Missiles for Syrian Rebels

A group of hard-line Islamists in Kuwait raised enough cash to arm 12,000 Syrian rebels this week, according to statements by the group's leaders. The next step: flood the country with guided missiles, heat-seeking missiles and tandem warheads.

The United States is currently considering ways to provide small arms to moderate elements of the Syrian opposition. Washington officials swear they can keep those weapons from falling into extremists' hands. Perhaps that's so. But those CIA-led efforts may be eclipsed by a parallel push to give more powerful weapons -- capable of taking down commercial aircraft -- to the opposition. And these arms runners are far less concerned about the weapons winding up with the rebels' al qaeda-aligned Islamist wing.

This week, the Great Kuwait Campaign, a private organization of Kuwaiti clerics and politicians, announced a new phase of its fundraising campaign after successfully raising several millions of dollars from auctioning off cars, rounding up gold jewelry and soliciting donations.

The fundraising announcement came from the campaign's official Twitter account on Monday. The specifics about weaponry came from one of the campaign's organizers, Dr. Shafi Al-Ajmi, a hardline Salafi cleric who said the group already purchased anti-aircraft missiles, grenades and RPGs, and was planning to acquire heat-seeking and guided missiles.

In a similar statement on Tuesday, Dr. Waleed Al-Tabtabai, a former Kuwaiti MP and campaign organizer said that rebels urgently need heat-seeking and anti-aircraft missiles as well as anti-tank and armor-piercing weapons. (The two clerics' translated statements were flagged by the Middle East Media Research Institute, in a note to The Cable.)

Like many of the Syrian rebels, the campaign's members are conservative Sunni Muslims who support the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite. In the past week, the clerics have auctioned off GMC and Mercedes sedans and characterized successes in religious and sectarian terms*.

 

The Kuwaiti government, which officially supports the overthrow of Assad, told Reuters on Wednesday that unofficial fundraising requires a special permit to ensure the money "is going to the right side or to the right party." But some analysts doubt if Kuwait shares America's concern about sophisticated weapons getting in the hands of extremists.

"Who are these weapons going to? We don't know," Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, tells The Cable. "Most of the heavy hitting Islamists, who are the best trained and most capable, have nothing to offer America and are intensely anti-Western."

Falah al-Sawagh, a campaign member and former opposition member of Kuqait's parliament, did little to allay these concerns an interview yesterday. "Our only rule is to collect money and to deliver this money to our brothers which are helping the Syrian people," he told Reuters.  "The world has abandoned the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution so it is normal that people start to give money to people who are fighting." 

*All tweets translated using Google Chrome