The Cable

A Rare Bit of Good News About Syria: Peace Talks Will Continue

The on-again, off-again Syria peace talks are on again, again.

Syrian opposition leaders sat down in the same room as representatives of the government of Bashar al-Assad for the first time Wednesday, and the session went off the rails so quickly - with the two sides trading insults and completely ignoring United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon - that it seemed like they wouldn't gather in the same room again.

On Friday, though, Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria offered what amounts to good news: the two sides have agreed to sit down in the same room Saturday for actual negotiations over the country's political future. Though it remained unclear whether they would actually speak to one another or communicate through Brahimi.

"We have agreed that we will meet in the same room," Brahimi told reporters at a packed press conference. "The discussions that I had with the two parties were encouraging and we are looking forward to our meetings."

Speaking at a packed press conference, Brahimi also shot down reports that Syria's delegation, led by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, intended to walk out of the talks. Moualem had raised eyebrows Wednesday when he accused the Syrian opposition of selling their souls to the "highest bidder" and blew off Ban's pleas that he stop talking after his allotted time had passed

Brahimi, a U.N. troubleshooter who has led peace talks in Afghanistan and Iraq, provided few details on the substance of the ongoing talks, saying he didn't want to share his "secrets" with the press at such an early stage.

Still, Brahimi said that he expected the talks to continue through next week and that the Syrian parties would likely suspend the talks for a few days at some stage to brief allies and officials back in the region.

The "meat" of the discussions, he said, would address the implementation of the 2012 Geneva Communique, which obliges combatants on both sides of Syria's civil war to halt the fighting, and which calls for the creation of a transitional government with "full executive powers" led by an individual accepted by both sides.

There appeared virtually no prospect for movement on a political transition, with Syrian officials insisting that Assad would remain in power and the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group for the loose-knit set of Syrian opposition groups, saying they will not accept a deal that leaves Assad in power. U.S. officials have also said that Assad will have to give up power as part of the political transition process.

So far, the two parties have yet to discuss the "core" issues contained in the Geneva Communique, Brahimi said. But he suggested that he would start the talks with less controversial issues, seeking to build on ongoing U.N. efforts to ensure that humanitarian relief workers could reach communities trapped behind enemy lines.

"We are going to talk about [humanitarian] access," he said. "We are going to talk about ending violence."

The Syrian government and some armed opposition groups have laid siege to several towns, cutting off hundreds of thousands civilians from food, medicine or other relief supplies.

In advance of this week's talks, the Syrian government had proposed a plan for a ceasefire around Aleppo to enable some access to U.N. relief workers. Opposition sources say they would welcome any steps that would lead to the distribution of relief to civilians. But they say Syria is obliged to lift the siege on these towns, and that this weeks talks should focus on the need to establish a transitional government and force Assad from power.

Brahimi appeared irritated by a barrage of questions from pro-Syrian government reporters at the press conference, one of whom questioned Brahimi's commitment to address the threat posed by foreign extremists. 

"Nobody wants...terrorism to continue in Syria; nobody wants that except the terrorists themselves," Brahimi responded. "If we manage to save Syria, saving Syria will also mean saving it from terrorism."

The diplomat, a veteran of other seemingly hopeless talks, said it was too early to completely give up hope.

"We never expected it to be easy and I'm sure it's not going to be," he said. "The two parties understand what is at stake: their country is in very, very bad shape. So, the huge ambition of this process is to save Syria...Wish us luck."

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National Security

One of Congress’s Most Pro-Israel Lawmakers Isn’t Pro-Israel Enough for AIPAC

A recent letter attacking Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is causing an internal brouhaha at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, The Cable has learned. The powerful lobbying outfit, known for its disciplined non-partisan advocacy for Israel, recently issued an action alert about the Florida congresswoman's waffling on Iran sanctions legislation. The letter urged members to contact Wasserman Schultz and cited a disparaging article about her in a conservative website founded by a prominent Republican political operative.

That AIPAC was driving hard for new Iran sanctions legislation surprised no one. But its use of a right-wing blog to target a well-connected Jewish Democrat with a long history of support for Israel raised eyebrows among some current and former AIPAC officials. It also raised concerns that AIPAC's open revolt against the White House's Iran diplomacy could fray its relations with liberal Democrats on the Hill.

"In the 40 years I've been involved with AIPAC, this is the first time I've seen such a blatant departure from bipartisanship," said Doug Bloomfield, AIPAC's former chief lobbyist. Bloomfield was referring to an AIPAC letter scrutinizing Wasserman Schultz's silence on sanctions. The letter relied on the Washington Free Beacon's reporting, which (irony alert) happened to be the first news outlet to report on the existence of the letter.

"We are asking you, our leaders in the pro-Israel community, to reach out to Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz's office," read the letter. "The [Free Beacon] article included below about Debbie Wasserman Schultz blocking bipartisan Iran sanctions came out yesterday and, simply put, we need to know if the story is true." 

Bruce Levy, a member of AIPAC's National Council who supports new sanctions legislation, said the group made a mistake by using the partisan news site in its official alert to members. "It probably gave [The Beacon] credibility, which I'm not happy about," he said. "Every little schmuck can express his opinion on the Internet, and unfortunately, it gains credibility when you endorse it."

AIPAC declined to comment for this story.

The situation Wasserman Schultz finds herself in is a dilemma shared by many Democrats torn between their support for the White House and their longstanding ties to the pro-Israel community. But in her case, the politics are even more treacherous.

Wasserman Schultz, who refuses to declare her position on the bill, is taking more heat from pro-Israel groups than any other Democratic lawmaker, even though prominent members of the party like Michigan Sen. Carl Levin and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein openly oppose new sanctions at this time. It's not a mystery why.

Wasserman Schultz hails from a heavily Jewish congressional district in south Florida where many equate support for new sanctions with support for Israel. Given her high-profile status as chair of the DNC, a position given to her by President Obama, and her emphatic support of Israel, she's viewed as a bellwether for other fence-sitting Democrats in Congress.

The future of Iran sanctions legislation in the House of Representatives and Senate remains uncertain. In the Senate, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-Il) have corralled a near-filibuster-proof majority of senators in support of their Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act, despite the outspoken opposition by the White House. If passed, the bill would slap new sanctions on Iran if the current talks end without a long-term deal. The White House says Iran will walk away from the delicate talks if the legislation is passed, but 59 senators have already signed on in support, including 16 Democrats. Thus far, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to give the bill a vote, but new legislative efforts in the House mirroring the Kirk-Menendez legislation seek to pressure Reid into allowing one.

Needless to say, it hasn't been a great month for Wasserman Schultz. In the past several weeks, she's been hammered for her refusal to support the new sanctions legislation -- a dynamic accelerated by a Huffington Post report in January detailing her secret effort to press wavering Democrats to oppose the bill. After the AIPAC letter went out, her office was hit with phone calls from AIPAC members in Florida.

But that wasn't the end of it. The Emergency Committee for Israel, a side project of conservative pundit William Kristol, took out a bruising video ad attacking the congresswoman's pro-Israel credentials. "She says she's tough on Iran," intones the ad, "so why is she against bipartisan Iran sanctions?"

Pro-Israel advocates said they expected those kinds of partisan attacks from right wing political outfits like ECI, but not from AIPAC.

Michael Adler, an AIPAC activist and prominent Democratic donor, said targeting Wasserman Schultz for not supporting new sanctions legislation is misguided given her value to the pro-Israel community. "The bill is only a litmus test for the unsophisticated in the pro-Israel community," he said. "People can disagree on tactics, but Debbie is in a unique position as DNC chair and has the pro-Israel agenda deeply-rooted in her."

Bloomfield, who spent nine years as chief lobbyist and legislative director at AIPAC, said the AIPAC he knew wouldn't reproduce an article from such a blatantly partisan outlet. "We used to use the phrase over and over again: We wanted to be a bridge between the two parties," he said. "When Democrats would introduce legislation to embarrass Republicans and Republicans would return the favor, we wouldn't bite."

Levy, who has contributed money to Wasserman Schultz's campaigns, said few appreciate the difficult position the congresswoman is in. "Debbie can not poke a stick in the eye of the president," he said. "She's the head of the DNC for God's sake."

While he disagrees with the administration's "naivete" with regards to Tehran, Levy said the pro-Israel community must stand by her. "I don't envy her position," he said. "She's representing a large constituency in South Florida and the DNC at the same time. That can be a conflict."

AIPAC's campaign in South Florida has also triggered rare anger towards the group on Capitol Hill, where some feel it has gone way too far.

"AIPAC has really over-reached on this one and alienated key allies on the Hill over what really boils down to a small tactical difference over sanctions timing," said a congressional aide who has worked closely with AIPAC. "It's hard to come to any other conclusion that they aren't deliberately flaming the partisan flames for their own political benefit." 

Adler doubted that the letter represented the views of elite AIPAC operatives and said the organization would no doubt maintain its bipartisan sheen. "When you have an organization that depends on citizen lobbyists some of them aren't as nuanced," he said. 

Whatever the case, it's unlikely that Wasserman Schultz will be able to keep her silence on new sanctions given the passion of her constituents. As it stands, her spokesperson would not deny reports that she had brought other Democrats to the White House to lobby against the new sanctions bill. Statements she provided to The Cable, and other media outlets, cleverly dodge  the issue of new sanctions legislation. "Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been a strong supporter of sanctions against Iran and will continue to be," said spokeswoman Mara Sloan. With no vote pending in the House, she's under no obligation to declare a position. But whether that will pass muster with her South Florida constituents remains to be seen.


Update: Levy puts his money where his mouth is. In the last two years, he's given $3,500 to Wasserman Schultz's campaigns. The story has been updated to reflect that. 


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