The Cable

Did Kerry Just Ad-Lib His Way Out of a War?

Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American military strike by giving up his chemical weapons, an unscripted and off-handed remark that triggered a mad day of diplomatic scrambling and raised the first real prospect of a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis.

Speaking in London this morning, Kerry said Assad had one way, and one way only, of preventing the Obama administration from launching a military intervention into his country.

"Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week -- turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting," Kerry said. "But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done."

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki tried to walk back Kerry's comments almost immediately after he uttered them, describing the remarks as a "rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used."

By then, though, Kerry's ad lib had taken on a life of its own. A few hours after Kerry spoke, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that Russia would support putting Syria's chemical weapon storage sites under international control before "their subsequent destruction."

"We don't know whether Syria will agree with this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus," Lavrov said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, appearing with Lavrov in Moscow, said his country welcomed the Russian proposal and was prepared to act on it "to avert American aggression against out people."

The Obama administration reacted much more cautiously, noting that Lavrov had provided no timetables or details about how his idea would work in practice, but White House officials didn't dismiss the Russian plan out of hand.

"We're going to take a hard look at this," Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken told reporters at the White House. "We'll talk to the Russians about it."

By this evening, President Obama seemed receptive to the Russian proposal. In a series of interviews, he called it a "modestly positive development" and said he would hold off on a strike if Assad relinquished his chemical weapons.

The relatively warm U.S. response came in spite of the fact that the Russian proposal appeared to take the Obama administration by surprise. Lavrov spoke to Kerry by phone before his press conference in Moscow, but State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said she didn't know whether Lavrov had given his American counterpart any advance notice that he was about to float the idea of putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control.

Still, it's far from clear how Lavrov's proposal would work in practice even if Assad signed on. Syria has dozens of chemical weapons facilities, many of them moveable, and the U.S. intelligence community would have a hard time knowing where more than a fraction of the sites were at any one time. That, in turn, would mean that Obama would have to effectively take Assad's word that he'd turned over all of his weapons -- an assurance the president would probably be unlikely to trust. The weapons themselves are difficult to handle, so physically moving and ultimately destroying them would be dangerous and time-consuming, adding another complication to the president's calculus.

Either way, the Russian proposal could give the White House a face-saving way to pull back from launching a military intervention into Syria that has almost no public or Congressional support. President Obama and his top aides have spent days arguing that failing to punish Assad for using chemical weapons against his own civilians would threaten U.S. national security by making American adversaries believe that they could develop and use weapons of mass destruction without repercussions. Obama himself will make the case for striking Syria in a television address Tuesday night.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waded into the Syria debate for the first time on Monday and expressed strong support for the administration's handling of the crisis. She said it would be an "important step" if Assad placed his chemical weapons under international control but said the Russian proposal only came about "in the context of a credible military threat by the United States to keep pressure on the Syrian government."

So far, though, the Obama administration's growing public relations push appears to be having little impact. A new CNN/ORC International poll found that 70 percent of Americans oppose a U.S. strike on Syria, and lawmakers from both parties say legislation giving Obama the power to use force against Assad doesn't currently have enough votes to make it through Congress.

The broad opposition has left the White House in a box. Obama has called Assad's use of chemical weapons a "red line" and said he wanted to carry out strikes designed to degrade Assad's military and dissuade him from using the chemical weapons again. In recent days, though, the president has been facing the very real prospect of watching a majority in the House -- and potentially in the Senate -- vote against even a small-scale American military intervention. That type of humiliating legislative defeat would decimate Obama's standing at home and abroad.

Now, the Russian proposal could give the White House an out. If Assad puts his weapons under international control, Obama could claim that his threats of a strike were what caused the Syrian dictator to blink. That would allow the administration to claim victory without having to fire a shot.

For now, Washington is basically in wait-and-see mode as momentum builds for a proposal that wasn't on anyone's radar screen even twelve hours ago. Influential Senator Dianne Feinstein issued a statement saying she would "welcome such a move." On Monday afternoon, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon effectively endorsed the Russian plan and called for Assad to place his chemical weapons "in a safe place" before they could be destroyed. The next move, whenever it happens, will be made in Damascus. 

Alastair Grant - WPA Pool/Getty Images

The Cable

New York Times Issues Correction on Syrian Rebel Story

An error in a front page article published by The New York Times has elicited strong condemnation from supporters of the Syrian opposition on Friday for what they see as a misrepresentation of moderate rebels in the Syrian conflict.

On Thursday, the Times piece "Brutality of Syrian Rebels Posing Dilemma in West" went viral with the help of a gruesome execution video showing Syrian rebels reciting a macabre poem before executing seven unarmed regime soldiers. The video dominated cable news broadcasts and proliferated on social media websites and the Drudge Report. It also elicited a response from the State Department and Secretary of State John Kerry.

It was a newsworthy in part because it appeared to chip away at claims by the Obama administration that the Syrian opposition is largely made up of moderate forces. As The Times reported, the rebel commander who oversaw the executions in the video, Abdul Samad Issa, received weapons from the Western-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC), according to its source.

But the Syrian Support Group, a Washington-based advocate for more aggressive U.S. intervention in Syria, said Issa and his group, Jund al-Sham, has no connection to the Supreme Military Council and never did, in a statement to The Cable:

The article claims that the group has received supplies from the SMC command under General Idris, and that its relationship with national or international extremist groups is unknown. SSG has spoken to several of General Idris's deputy commanders, including Ltc. Musa'ab Saad Eldeen, as well as information-gathering contacts in Aleppo and Idlib for more information on the group.

According to all sources, the SMC has no previous or current relationship with Jund al-Sham and, contrary to the New York Times article, the group is not shown within the SMC's or SSG's delivery records as having received supplies from the SMC command. Jund al-Sham is independent of the SMC and of extremist groups, operates primarily in rural Idlib, and has relied heavily on fuel smuggling to Turkey for its funds. 

Sometime after the SSG issued this statement to The Cable, the Times posted a correction to its article noting that the execution video was not from this year. In fact, it was "made in the spring of 2012," according to a correction at the bottom of the article. In a statement to The Cable, the SSG's media director Dan Layman said the correction further vindicated the group's point. "The Times just corrected their article to show the time stamp on the video was the spring of 2012. Before the SMC even existed," said Layman.

Although it's true that the SMC wasn't founded until December 2012, the latest version of the Times story says the rebel group received arms from the SMC sometime this year, which the Times notes does not contradict its story.

"The date of the video has been corrected. The other facts in the article and video are not in dispute," Danielle Rhoades Ha, director of communication at The Times, told The Cable.

In any event, Layman and other members of the opposition lobby say presenting the year-old video in the middle of the Congressoinal debate over authorizing war was tendentious. "It really suggests how they're willing to sacrifice truth for their own anti-war sentiments," he said, referring to the newspaper.

But regardless of when the execution video was made, it still happened, and offers a window into how some rebel groups operate or at least operated at one point in time. It's also just one of many gruesome web videos with unconfirmed origins that have been used by both sides of the war for propaganda purposes. You can bet it won't be the last.

Controversy over the video follows another meta-media story surrounding Elizabeth O'Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War cited this week by both Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain during congressional hearings. In particular, O'Bagy has been cited for her Aug. 30 Wall Street Journal column arguing that "moderate opposition groups make up the majority of actual fighting forces" of the opposition -- a contentious assertion in the debate over whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria. What U.S. officials and the the Journal failed to mention is that O'Bagy is paid by the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a group that lobbies for greater U.S. intervention in Syria on behalf of the rebels.