Syria conflict ‘incubator of extremism,’ Burns tells Senators

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The Syrian civil war has become an “incubator of extremism” and a “magnet” for foreign fighters, and poses growing risks to U.S. interests and allies, U.S. officials told frustrated lawmakers Thursday. The three year old conflict is also likely to go on for a long time, they assessed, as it pulls in foreign fighters from both sides of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, and both Bashar al-Assad and his opponents believe they can win.

“The hard reality is that the grinding Syrian civil war is now an incubator of extremism, on both sides of the sectarian divide.” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, at a hearing on the Syrian civil war that led off with the deepening US-Russian rift over Ukraine.

“We face a number of serious risks to our interests as a result,” Burns said. “The risk to the homeland from global jihadist groups…the risk to the stability of our regional partners….and the risk to the Syrian people, whose suffering constitutes the greatest humanitarian crisis of this new century.”

That grim assessment may portend the U.S. deepening its support for Syrian opposition fighters now battling both Al Qaeda-linked groups and Assad, and stepped up U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, in coordination with regional partners and European allies alarmed by the threat posed by jihadi fighters returning from Syria.

Syria “has become the preeminent location for independent or al-Qaida-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom we assess may seek to conduct external attacks,” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), testified (.pdf).

US policy on Syria is to counter extremists, boost moderates, and shore up Syria’s embattled neighbors and population with aid to withstand the protracted conflict, Burns told lawmakers.

“First, we are working to isolate and degrade terrorist networks in Syria,” Burns said. “It also means stepping up efforts to strengthen the moderate opposition, without which progress toward a negotiated transition of leadership through the Geneva process or any other diplomatic effort is impossible.”

With the Syrian opposition battling a two-front war against Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), it has lost some ground, reducing pressure on Assad and his patrons to make concessions on a political transition at the Geneva talks, while  seemingly increasing US willingness to coordinate increased assistance to opposition forces.

“Strengthened moderate forces are critical both to accelerate the demise of the Asad regime, and to help Syrians build a counterweight to the extremists,” Burns said.

Lawmakers on the panel expressed frustration and exasperation that the situation in Syria has deteriorated so drastically over time, with some suggesting it was partly a result of over-cautiousness and inaction by the Obama administration.

“What does the administration expect to do to change the equation on the ground in Syria now that it’s become what it is,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), ranking Republican on the foreign relations panel, asked Burns. He said that Secretary of State John Kerry had suggested to him and other lawmakers at a meeting last month that the US was on the verge of announcing a more assertive US policy on Syria.

“We certainly are looking at a range of options, [some of which I] can’t discuss in this setting,” Burns said. “We are looking actively at other ways we can support the moderate opposition, [working in coordination with others]… All of us understand what’s at stake here, what we and our partners do.”

But administration statements that it is stepping up support to Syrian opposition fighters is something that some lawmakers said they had heard before, only for the conflict to intensify and the death toll to mount, while straining the fragile stability of neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.

“100,000 people ago we were hearing this,” an exasperated Corker said, referring to the mounting death toll in Syria’s three year conflict, now estimated to be as high as 140,000 people.

The conflict is unlikely to end soon, the NCTC’s Olsen said, as both sides are digging in for a protracted fight.

With hostilities “between Sunni and Shia…intensifying in Syria and spilling into neighboring countries,” it increases “the likelihood of a protracted conflict in Syria, as both seek military advantage,” Olsen said. “Both the Syrian regime and the opposition believe that they can achieve a military victory in the ongoing conflict.”

“As long as Assad exists, the civil war will get worse,” Burns said. “This is going to require an ‘all of the above’ effort.”

Congress likely to hold off on Iran sanctions, Senator proposes defining final deal


After top US officials testified Thursday on the Iran nuclear deal signed in Geneva last month, the chair of the Senate Banking panel appeared to speak for the majority of the body when he cautiously endorsed the Obama administration’s call that Congress hold off on new Iran sanctions for now, but warned that lawmakers would act swiftly if Iran and six world powers are unable to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement in negotiations over the next six months.

Even as the Obama administration got welcome signs Congress would likely hold off on new Iran sanctions legislation for the rest of the year, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) said that he would consider drafting a resolution on what the final agreement with Iran should include–potentially adding another complication to the already difficult diplomatic task at hand.

“I’m beginning to think… that maybe what the Senate needs to do is define the end game and at least what it finds as acceptable as the final status,’ Menendez (D-New Jersey) told the US officials who testified on the Iran deal at the Senate Banking committee hearing Thursday.  “Because I’m getting nervous about what I perceive will be acceptable to [the administration] as the final status versus what …the Congress might view as acceptable.”

While several Senators expressed skepticism about whether Iran could be trusted, they also expressed hope for a diplomatic resolution to the Iran nuclear dispute, and appeared inclined to acquiesce for now to the administration’s case that the current moment of productive engagement warranted a pause in new pressure that could shift the Iranian political dynamic back in favor of hardliners.

“If no final deal is reached [or] Iran fails to comply with the first step agreement, this committee will act swiftly to impose a new round of sanctions,” Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) said at the conclusion of the hearing, which featured as witnesses top US Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Under Secretary of Treasury David Cohen. “In the meantime, I agree with today’s witnesses that a pause on new sanctions legislation is justified to see if such a deal is possible.”

“I think all of us want to see a diplomatic solution to Iran and have been encouraged by the fact that the administration has been dealing with them in this way,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) told the hearing.

But, Corker added, the text of the six month, Phase 1 “Joint Plan of Action,” signed by Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva on November 24, had elements of concern to him.  Among them, he said, why Iran is able to still pursue physical construction to the still-uncompleted Arak heavy water facility during the Phase 1 deal, though it cannot build any elements that would fuel it; and will now provide International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors regular access to, as well as long sought design information on the site. Corker also asked whether the US had tacitly agreed that Iran would have enrichment in an end state deal.

“Do the officials in Iran think that we’ve agreed to allow them to enrich?” Corker asked Under Secretary Sherman. “I mean, every press statement they’ve made says that, how could there be such a big understanding over such an important issue?”

“What we have said to Iran… is that yes, we will talk with them about the potential for a very limited enrichment program, matched to practical needs, with staggering constraints, monitoring, and verification, if, if, if they agree to everything else that we want agreed to,” Sherman responded, going on to note the UN Security Council resolutions demand that Iran suspend, but not permanently end, enrichment. Continue reading

Russia urges Syria to surrender chemical arms to avert strikes

In a potentially dramatic turn of events, Russia on Monday announced that it would immediately urge Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to international control as a way to avert U.S.–led military strikes.

“We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at an emergency press conference in Moscow Monday, following meetings with Syria’s visiting foreign minister Walid al-Moallem.

Lavrov said he had “already handed over the proposal to al-Moallem and expects a quick, and, hopefully, positive answer,’” the Associated Press reported.

“If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus,” Lavrov said.

Moallem, speaking from Moscow on Syrian State TV shortly later Monday, said Syria welcomed the Russian initiative. But it was not immediately clear from his reported comments whether “welcoming” the proposal constituted acceptance of it.

“The Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership's concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression,” Moallem was quoted as saying by ITV News.

The surprise turn in developments followed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry telling reporters in London Monday that Syria could avert strikes only if it agreed to turn over all of its chemical weapons by next week.

“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” Kerry said at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague Monday. “Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.”

“But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” Kerry added.

Kerry's remark–subsequently downplayed by State Department spokespeople as merely “rhetorical” and “hypothetical,” and characterized by another unnamed U.S. official to CNN as a “goof”–was followed by a telephone conversation between Kerry and Russia’s Lavrov Monday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

The Russian proposal emerged just as the White House is ramping up its public outreach as it presses Congress to vote to authorize the President to conduct limited military strikes to deter chemical weapons use in Syria.

President Obama is scheduled to give a half dozen television news interviews on Monday, and to give a prime time address to the nation Tuesday night at 9pm ET.

U.S. officials reacted to the news out of Moscow with skepticism Monday, suggesting it may be a stalling tactic, but promising to give the Russian proposal a “hard” look.

“Any effort to put Assad's chemical weapons under international control would be a positive step,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said at the department press briefing Monday. But we have “serious, deep skepticism.”

It's “even more important” that the United States doesn't take the pressure off Syria now, White House spokesman Jay Carney said at the White House press briefing Monday. The Russian initiative is  “explicitly in reaction to [the] threat of retaliation” by the United States.

Notably, amid the official expressions of skepticism, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the White House Monday after a meeting with President Obama, reiterated the conditions under which such a deal might be feasible.

“Now, if the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step,” Clinton said. “But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction. And Russia has to support the international community's efforts sincerely, or be held to account.”

Initial reaction from the Hill ranged from cautious to skeptical—but did not entirely shut off openness to see if the Russian proposal pans out.

“While at this point I have healthy skepticism that this offer will change the situation and it will be several days before we can fully determine its credibility, I do know that it never would have been floated if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had not approved the authorization for the use of force last week,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, said in a statement Monday.

“We shouldn’t get our hopes up too high,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said.

(Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomes his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem, left, prior to talks in Moscow on Monday, Sept. 9, 2013. Photo: Ivan Sekretarev, Associated Press.)

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Obama tries to strike balance on Egypt after crackdown

20130815-122313.jpgPresident Obama interrupted his vacation Thursday to announce that the United States will cancel a planned joint military exercise with Egypt to protest the government crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters yesterday that killed over 500 people. But, Obama said, broader American interests mitigated against canceling the over billion dollars in US aid to Egypt at this time.

“Given the depths of our partnership with Egypt, our national security interests in this pivotal part of the world, and our belief that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically- elected civilian government, we’ve sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people,” Obama said in a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts Thursday.

“Our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama continued, saying the U.S. had notified the Egyptian government earlier Thursday that it was cancelling the military exercise, Bright Star, planned for next month. “The Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days. The cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop.”

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a phone call with Egypt’s defense minister and de facto military ruler Gen. Al-Sisi, “made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk,” he said in a statement Thursday.

Former US Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner deplored the violence, but said there were many warning signs that the protracted standoff between Egypt’s interim government and supporters of Egypt’s ousted president Morsi was heading towards confrontation.

“Without in any way leaving the impression that I think the bloodshed [is excused], this has been about the least surprising outcome,” Wisner, who served as Obama’s special envoy to Egypt in 2011, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“It has been warned for the longest time,” he continued. “These negotiations were not going to go anywhere, because [the Muslim] Brothers had a view about what they were trying to accomplish.”

“The Brothers thought they could defy the odds, and … drive a wedge between the international community and the government, and in that sense they have hardly succeeded,” Wisner said. “Second, they thought they could drive a wedge between” the Egyptian people and the military-led government. While they haven’t managed to do so to date, he assessed, “I can’t argue that they won’t eventually have some success.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood has reached a point where it sees this as the last battle — so, it’s either win it or die as a ‘martyr,’…victory or death,” Egyptian analyst Wael Nawara wrote for Al-Monitor Thursday, describing the expanding Muslim Brotherhood protests as “no longer a sit-in, but a sprawling town, even a city-state, with fortifications, internal police force…and border control officials.”

Wisner cautioned Washington against overreacting, stressing U.S. statements need to strike a balance, to keep ties with Cairo from further fraying and to try to urge the political transition back on track.

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