The Cable

Exclusive: Secret Talks to Save Syria Begin

The United States, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia and others held secret and informal discussions on Thursday to devise a strategy for improving the U.N.'s stalled relief effort in Syria, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the effort.

The meeting -- which was held at the French mission to the United Nations in Geneva -- was convened to lay the ground work for a more formal meeting scheduled for November 26 on the future of international relief efforts in Syria.

The participation of American and Iranian officials provides further evidence that the decades-long diplomatic freeze between the two countries is beginning to thaw, offering new areas beyond the ongoing round of nuclear diplomacy where the long-time enemies can cooperate.

The U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, organized the session to bring together regional and outside powers with influence on the warring parties. The goal: get both sides to allow international relief workers into the country, so they can help hundreds of thousands of civilians cut off from humanitarian aid. The United Nations is straining to deliver life-saving essentials, including food and medicine, to more than 2.5 million people, including more than 300,000 civilians who live in towns under siege by the Syrian army, some of them forced to survive on a diet of leaves.

"The humanitarian situation in Syria is deteriorating on a daily basis," according to a confidential note from Amos to the U.N. Security Council, obtained by The Cable. "Key humanitarian access has been cut off by fighting. The deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, and transportation by all parties to the conflict remains a daily reality. Kidnapping and abductions of humanitarian workers are growing, as is hijacking and seizure of aid trucks. Syrians have yet to lift bureaucratic impediments and other obstacles hindering humanitarian work."

Their plight has been worsened by Syrian government policies that impede the delivery of assistance to civilians in opposition strongholds; the Assad regime has routinely denied deliveries of medicine and thrown up bureaucratic hurdles when relief workers have filed for visas. Extremist opposition groups have also targeted Syrian and international relief workers, and laid siege to towns near the city of Aleppo.

On October 2, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement that condemns "all cases of denial of humanitarian access" and calls for the facilitation of the "safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance in the whole country." But the situation has improved little in the six weeks since.

Frustrated at the lack of progress, Australia and Luxembourg last month began drafting a more formal provisional Security Council resolution aimed at stepping up pressure on the parties to comply. But Russia fiercely opposed the measure, and Amos subsequently persuaded Australia and Luxembourg that that it would be better to hold off, and pursue a diplomatic route by organizing a group of influential countries to press the case.

The governments of the U.S., Britain, China, France Russia, Kuwait ,Qatar, Australia and Luxembourg have all formally accepted the U.N.'s invitation to meet in Geneva on Tuesday. Diplomats from Saudi Arabia told their counterparts in Geneva Thursday that the delegation was awaiting a formal decision from the capital. Diplomats have provided conflicting accounts as to whether Iran has accepted the invitation. On Friday, Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, was non-committal, but suggested Tehran looked favorably on Amos's effort. "Ms. Amos had discussed some humanitarian ideas on Syria during her visit to Tehran with Iranian officials," Miryousefi added. "The Iranian authorities welcomed the United Nations initiatives in order to help those in need [of] help." The U.S. and Iranian delegations at the United Nations did not respond today to a request for comment. 

One Western diplomat complained that Amos's original plan -- to organize a relatively small, nimble group of influential players -- was now giving way to a much larger, and potentially unwieldy group of countries.

Thursday's meeting also involved representatives from Germany, and officials from the U.N.'s chief relief agency, including the World Food Program and the U. N. Children's Fund and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Diplomats familiar with the talks said that France has insisted that Syria's neighbor, Turkey, be allowed to participate in Tuesday's talks, while Russia proposed that most of Syria's neighbors, including Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, be invited. Israel has not been invited.

"The group is getting bigger and bigger. What was supposed to be a small is now becoming a monster," said one diplomat, raising concern that Tuesday's session would degenerate into an oversized gathering of diplomats delivering political speeches. It's not clear, the official, said that this is "something workable."

The diplomat said that while the plan to put the Security Council resolution is "on ice" the council could quickly press for the adoption of the Australia and Luxembourg resolution if the Geneva talks fail to yield progress. Saudi Arabia has also been circulated language for a Security Council resolution on humanitarian access. Amos is scheduled to brief the 15-nation Security Council the first week of December, the official noted. If she says the government is not cooperating, the "resolution will come back to the table very quickly."

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The Cable

U.S. Intel Eyes New Threat: al Qaeda in Lebanon

BEIRUT — Lebanon celebrated the 70th anniversary of its independence today with a parade of marching soldiers, sword-wielding cavalrymen, and camouflage green tanks in downtown Beirut. But the scene a 15-minute drive away presented a stark reminder of the central government's limited power. The Iranian embassy remained pockmarked from the Nov. 19 double suicide bombing, which killed 25 people and wounded 147 more, while the façade of the adjacent building was torn to shreds.

The attack was likely the handiwork of al Qaeda-linked militants -- just one of the many radical Sunni groups that are viewed as an increasingly dangerous threat by American intelligence officials and mainstream Sunni Lebanese politicians alike. Bolstered by the raging violence in Syria, these jihadist groups pose a mounting danger to the tenuous peace that has prevailed in Lebanon since the beginning of the uprising next door.

Lebanon's mainstream Sunni leadership, while condemning the Iranian embassy attack, also deplored Hezbollah's decision to intervene militarily on the side of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which has led to an increase in Sunni-Shiite tensions and radicalization that made the bombing possible.

"I believe that if the situation will stay like this for another year, there will be no role for moderates" in either Syria or Lebanon, said Nohad Machnouk, a member of parliament aligned with the anti-Hezbollah Future Movement. "The radicals will be in the front because they are ready to die, they are ready to kill, they are ready to do anything."

The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al Qaeda-linked group that is active in Lebanon, Jordan, and the Arabian Peninsula, claimed responsibility for the bombings and promised further attacks until Hezbollah withdraws from Syria. According to McClatchy, a Western intelligence agency warned Lebanese government officials over the past two weeks that such an attack was in the works, passing along audio evidence of contact between a Saudi operative affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Abdullah Azzam Brigade's top leader.

A U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy that it was the U.S. assessment that the Abdullah Azzam Brigade's Lebanese wing, the Ziad al-Jarrah Battallion (ZJB), conducted the attacks. "Sunni extremists in Lebanon see Shiites in Lebanon backing up the Shiite Alawi regime in Syria, and they are taking [revenge] on Shiites and Alawi inside of Lebanon," the official said. "It will continue and possibly get worse as the [Syrian] insurgency drags on."

The Iranian embassy bombing would be by far the largest operation ever conducted by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Lebanon. Previously, they had only seemed capable of comparatively small-scale attacks: They launched rockets into Israel in 2009 and took credit for a roadside bomb attack on a Hezbollah convoy near the Lebanese-Syrian border in March.

"What really concerns us now is that the ZJB -- which is a relatively small, not an extremely well-known group -- was able to conduct this attack against such a hardened target inside of a Hezbollah stronghold," the intelligence official said. "So we can't rule out that if they had the opportunity to strike a U.S. diplomat or a U.S. facility, whether it's in Lebanon or outside ... these groups may decide to conduct that attack."

Nor is the Abdullah Azzam Brigades the only Sunni jihadist group that could try to bring the Syrian war to Lebanon. As the Wall Street Journal described earlier this week, Sunni groups in the northern city of Tripoli have been radicalized by months-long running clashes with the city's Alawite communities. In March, followers of Salafist Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir engaged in deadly clashes with the Lebanese army that left at least 17 soldiers dead.

A political vacuum in Lebanon has only heightened the power of these radical groups. The government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, which came to power from the support of Hezbollah and its allies, resigned eight months ago -- but the failure to form a new government has left it in power. Those opposed to the Syrian regime criticize it for not doing anything to oppose Hezbollah's military intervention in Syria. Meanwhile, anti-Assad forces feel that the Lebanese army is too weak to protect them.

"If you go now to talk to the Lebanese Armed Forces, they will tell you, ‘We don't talk to Hezbollah, we don't have connections with them,'" said a retired Lebanese general. "But this is not the truth."

In such an environment, jihadist groups have gained strength by making the case that Sunnis must protect their co-religionists -- by whatever means necessary.

"I'm a moderate, I believe in a political solution," said Machnouk. "[The Iranian embassy bombing] will not change my position -- I will not agree, and I will contest any time any radical reaction. But I cannot stop it."