The Cable

Exclusive: Kerry and Top State Dept Officials Split Over Syria Talks

Secretary of State John Kerry is at odds with several senior State Department officials over whether to press ahead with plans for a high-profile peace conference next month that is designed to put negotiators from Syria’s main opposition groups and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into the same room for the first time.

Kerry is strongly committed to holding the talks and has spent the past several days prodding key Syrian opposition figures to take part in the negotiations. But according to several senior State Department officials, some of Kerry's top advisors believe that the conference should be called off because the most important of those opposition leaders are unlikely to come.

“The only person who wants the Geneva conference to happen is the secretary,” a senior U.S. official told The Cable. “Who’s going to show up? Will they actually represent anyone? If not, why take the risk?”

The Geneva conference has been in the planning stages for months, and Western officials have long expressed hopes that it could help pave the way for a negotiated solution to the Syria crisis.

The Obama administration and its top allies believe that the fighting in Syria is largely at a stalemate, with forces loyal to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad unable to fully vanquish the country’s insurgents and the rebels looking to unseat Assad unable to conquer Damascus or oust him by force. Peace talks, Kerry argues, offer the only realistic chance of ending a civil war that has already claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Syrians and forced millions of others from their homes.

There’s just one catch: a growing number of key Syrian opposition leaders say they won’t attend the conference unless Assad promises to transfer power to a transitional government and then step aside. Assad has rejected both of those demands, and Kerry’s critics within the State Department believe that there is a good chance that the main opposition groups will either boycott the conference entirely or send a delegation that has little to no influence over the rebels who are actually fighting Assad’s forces. Some of the officials said the conference should be postponed or canceled to avoid an embarrassing public failure for the U.S.

Top State Department officials, including U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, have told Kerry that it would be hard to cobble together a broad coalition of Syrians by mid-November, the scheduled start date for the talks, and cautioned that many prominent opposition figures were likely to sit out the negotiations altogether.

“It’s possible we can get a delegation there,” a senior State Department official told The Cable. “It’s not impossible, but it will certainly require some work.”

The divisions within the State Department come at a delicate moment in the long U.S.-led effort to bring Assad and his enemies to the negotiating table. The leadership of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, or SOC, the umbrella group working most closely with the West, will gather in Istanbul on November 1 and 2 to vote on whether to send a delegation to the Geneva talks. The Syrian National Council, the largest bloc in the SOC, has already said it will boycott the negotiations, and the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition has set such stringent preconditions for participation in the talks that it appears his group is prepared to sit out the negotiations as well.

The senior State Department official told The Cable that Washington believed there was still a chance of persuading the Syrian National Council and the larger Syrian Opposition Coalition to to participate in the Geneva talks. It would be difficult for the talks to place without the umbrella group.

“Right now the participation of the SOC in Geneva is not assured, but it is still possible,” the official said.

Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, is in Istanbul this week as part of a last-ditch effort to convince the opposition leaders to change their minds and participate in the Geneva talks. Even if he succeeds, however, it’s far from clear that they will be speaking for the rebels fighting on the ground in Syria. Last week, 65 of the rebel militias, including several linked to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, said they no longer recognized the Syrian National Council and wouldn’t feel bound by any deals it struck.

The disarray among the Syrian opposition leaves Kerry in a bind. The Obama administration has decided not to intervene militarily in Syria or make much of an effort to train or equip the rebels. U.S. backing in the peace talks is about all Washington is willing to provide. The rebel groups have to decide whether that’s enough. Kerry will have to decide if he’s willing to gamble that they will say yes.

The Cable

Despite AIPAC Lobbying, Obama Admin Calms Congress on Iran Talks

On Wednesday, the Obama administration held its first classified briefing with Congress on its high-stakes nuclear talks with Iran. Despite deep skepticism of White House engagement with Iran -- and despite a fresh lobbying effort by AIPAC -- exiting lawmakers appeared mollified by the State Department's chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman, who led this month's talks with Iran in Geneva.

The talks between Iran and six world powers this month offer the Obama administration the chance to solve a key foreign policy goal: Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon without the use of military force. But many in Congress fear Iran's newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani could be using the talks as a stalling tactic to reach breakout nuclear capacity. Despite those concerns, lawmakers expressed a willingness to give the administration's diplomatic efforts a chance.

"All I know is that sanctions seem to be working and that's a positive," Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, told The Cable. "If they weren't working, Iran would not be reaching out at this point." 

"I appreciate the administration coming up and briefing us on what's going on with the talks," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who rarely misses a chance to attack the administration's Middle East policies. "I fully support efforts at applying pressure and making sure there is a viable military threat so that perhaps a diplomatic resolution can occur ... I remain concerned about the threat of Iran's actions in terms of pursuing its goal of nuclear capability and will remain involved in oversight of that issue."

The meeting was well-attended with members of various House committees, including Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Appropriations and Financial Services, participating. Several powerful lawmakers whisked out of the classified briefing without speaking to the press, including House Intel chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI), State and Foreign Ops Appropriations Subcommittee chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and House Foreign Affairs chairman Ed Royce (R-CA).

The consultations with Congress have coincided with an effort by AIPAC lobbyists to fire them up on the issue. Last week, the pro-Israel group sent a memo to lawmakers insisting that Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium. "The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) does not speak about the right of enrichment," reads the memo, obtained by The Cable from a Congressional aide. "Even if there were such a right, Iran's extensive decades-long violations of the NPT would have negated it."

The Rouhani government insists on the right to continue enriching uranium on its own soil, something the White House has hinted it might accept under stringent inspections, but hasn't officially accepted. Tehran has also yet to signal a clear willingness to shutter its underground, heavily-fortified nuclear plant at Qom, a source of particular concern for Israel because it is largely impervious to their air strikes, or to dismantle any of its centrifuges. An AIPAC official would not say how many lawmakers received the memo, but noted that it was also sent to media outlets.

In any event, hawks in Congress appear to be pulling their punches, for the most part. (The sole exceptions appear to be Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, who want to add sanctions on Iran immediately.)

Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a prominent critic of Iran's nuclear program, said he was "satisfied with the briefing."

"I thought it was laid out well," he said, noting that he remains adamant that the U.S. not relent on pressuring Iran until it dismantles its nuclear program. "We all have the same goal. We don't want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. There are various ways you can get there. They laid out some of their thoughts and ideas on it, which I can't share with you, but I certainly do think it's worthwhile talking to the Iranians and seeing if this is real."

The next round of Iran talks begin in Geneva on Nov. 7.