The Cable

Obama Admin Keeping Syrian Rebel Leader Out of DC, Congressional Sources Say

As skepticism mounts in Congress over a proposed military strike in Syria, hawks on Capitol Hill are questioning why the Obama administration isn't using one of its most powerful advocates for intervention: General Salim Idriss, commander of the rebels' Supreme Military Council.

Long heralded as the poster child for Syria's moderate rebels, Idriss has yet to travel to Washington to make his case for U.S. intervention -- and it's not for lack of trying. Congressional sources and members of the Syrian opposition tell The Cable that the Obama administration has delayed or cancelled at least three scheduled trips for Idriss to come to Washington since March.

"The White House has stepped in at the eleventh hour to cancel planned trips in which tickets were bought and hotels were booked for Gen. Idriss to come to Washington," a frustrated Congressional aide tells The Cable. "It's beyond me why the administration is trying to prevent a very articulate person from answering the fundamental question that almost every lawmaker wants to know: Who the Hell is the opposition?"

A German-trained engineer with moderate views, Idriss has attracted the West with his nonsectarian outlook ever since he defected from the Assad regime last summer. 

To trip planners in the Syrian opposition, the State Department keeps coming up with new excuses to call off planned trips. In March, Idriss sent letters to U.S. officials asking for night vision goggles, humanitarian aid and training. Afterwards, the department blocked a trip to Washington telling opposition leaders it didn't want to the bring the opposition's military leaders to Washington before welcoming its political leaders, such as Sheikh Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib. In late June, after the administration determined that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against the rebels, the department blocked another planned trip. "We were told that they didn't want Idriss to come yet because they didn't think they could send him back with anything [i.e. weapons]" said a Syrian opposition source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Following the alleged chemical attack on Aug. 21 in which hundreds were killed, another effort to bring Idriss to Washington was again delayed by the State Department. "They thought it wasn't necessary because there was enough momentum behind the vote," said the opposition source.

But whatever momentum there may have been seems to have grinded to a halt. Preliminary whip counts show mounting opposition to a Syria strike in Congress, especially in the House of Representatives. Polls uniformly show that Americans are hostile to an assault on President Bashar al-Assad's regime: The latest survey, by CNN, found that 72 percent of Americans believe that an attack would not achieve anything for the United States.

Now, more than ever, advocates of intervention say Idriss's presence is needed to boost the case for surgical strikes. "People need to see that this is the leader of the armed opposition," Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, told The Cable. "He is the only one who has the ability to reassure members of Congress that the armed opposition is moderate and that the extremists can be marginalized."

It's still possible that Idris will find his way to Washington for a last-minute charm offensive. Just last week, Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress that Idris "is prepared" to travel to Washington to speak with Congress. At the time, the general was making his case in Germany and London. But opposition sources say those plans have yet to materialize.

The White House and the State Department did not reply to requests for comment, but there may be other reasons the administration wants to keep Idris at arm's length. While his Supreme Military Council has gained a great deal of international exposure, it remains of limited influence among fighting groups on the ground, which has led some officials to prefer that he focus on building stronger networks in Syria rather than yuck it up in Washington.

"The Supreme Military Council does not have a lot of traction on the ground," said Washington Institute for Near East Policy senior fellow Andrew Tabler. "[T]hey haven't been supported with arms, and they're spending a lot of time in Western capitals, instead of inside the country spreading their influence."

Still, some hawks in Congress say those tactical concerns should take a backseat to the job of convincing lawmakers to authorize a strike in Syria. "Lawmakers, especially Republicans need to know more about the opposition," said the congressional aide. "How many are radical? What percentage is politically-predisposed to hating the West? You saw that question from lawmakers all last week."

Syrian activists, meanwhile, find themselves on the defensive -- forced to beat back a litany of criticisms about the proposed U.S. mission in Syria and the opposition itself. Farah Atassi, a Syrian-American activist who supports intervention, says the media's constant attempt to paint the uprising as a bout of sectarian bloodletting misrepresents the conflict.

"What strikes me most in this debate is the amount of misinformation and ignorance when it comes to the roots of the Syrian revolution," she says. "Many people are under the illusion that a civil war is going on in Syria. This revolution was started by ordinary Syrian citizens -- not by radicals, extremists, or Islamists."

The Obama administration has relied on Kerry to address Congressional concerns about extremist elements within the Syrian opposition - primarily the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Kerry played down the importance of such groups during Congressional testimony last week, saying that only 15 to 25 percent of rebels belonged to extremist groups and that more moderate forces are getting stronger by the day.

The success of the administration's pitch will become clearer after this week's vote in the Senate. But as the "no" votes stack up, some hawks wish they had Idriss on their side right about now. 



National Security

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