Sen. Kaine says Russia can do more to resolve Syria crisis

Share

Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat-Virginia), speaking to Al-Monitor Friday before he embarked on a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, said while there is cautious optimism about current U.S. efforts to advance a diplomatic resolution with Iran and an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement, U.S. Syria policy is not going well. And Russia is partly to blame, he said.

“I think Secretary [of State John] Kerry is pretty candid about it,” Kaine told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Feb. 14th, before traveling with Sen. Angus King (Independent, Maine) to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt. “Discussions, with all appropriate skepticism about Iran and [an] Israel Palestinian [peace agreement]– while elusive so far– those discussions are going well. Results will prove later if we can get there. But the Syrian situation is not going well. He’s been pretty candid about that. One of the main reasons is Russia continues to be an apologist for unacceptable behavior” by the Syrian regime.

“It’s one thing for Assad to do what he is doing to his people; we have known from the beginning what he is,” said Kaine, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 and became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East and South Asia subcommittee last summer. But Russia is a “country that pretends to aspire to world leadership, that it could get him to change his behavior when it wants to.”

The U.S. “was able to change Russia calculations with regard to Syria’s chemical weapons,” Kaine noted. But on stalled peace talks in Geneva it’s “not going well.“

What leverage, though, does the U.S. have to get Russia to put more pressure on the Syrian regime? After all, it took the prospect of imminent US military action last fall to get Russia to propose getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

Russia does “have pride,” the Virginia Democrat said. “They do want to be a global leader.” Last fall, it was both the prospect of U.S. military action in Syria, as well as the “global spotlight [on] Syria’s use of chemical weapons against women and kids,’ that affected Russia’s calculations on a chemical weapons deal, Kaine said. Continue reading

Iran FM Zarif outlines ideas to exit nuclear dispute

20131101-212921.jpg

Istanbul __ Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Friday he believes Iran and six world powers should accept each other’s chief objectives as their own in order to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

“On the nuclear issue, I believe the problem we have faced in the last ten years is we have both seen the nuclear issue as a zero sum game; we have articulated two seemingly opposing objectives, and each tried to make gains for one objective seemingly at the expense of the others,” Zarif told an audience of Middle East nonproliferation specialists convened in Istanbul Friday by the Pugwash conference on nuclear disarmament.

“The result has been that ten years ago, Iran had less than 160 centrifuges spinning, now it has over 18,000,” Zarif, speaking in English, said. While ten years ago, “Iran’s economy was prospering, now sanctions are hurting the wrong segment of the population. I hope we have come to understand that approach was wrong.”

Zarif said he proposed, at meetings with the P5+1 in New York and Geneva the past two months, a new approach: that Iran accepts the West’s objective that Iran never have a nuclear weapon, and that the West accept Iran’s objective that it have a peaceful nuclear energy program that includes domestic enrichment, with mechanisms to verify it not be used for military purposes.

Iran’s nuclear know-how and technology are now “homegrown,” Zarif said, to explain why he thinks it in the West’s interest to accept Iranian enrichment. You “cannot kill all our scientists and kill our program. …You cannot destroy the technology. How to ensure [the program] is peaceful: allow it operate in a transparent fashion; you cannot push it under the rug.”

Asked whether he believes President Obama would be able to sell Congress on an Iran nuclear deal that includes sanctions relief, Zarif said he would leave American domestic politics to the Americans to sort out: “I do not interfere in American domestic politics.” Both sides have public opinion on their side to pursue a negotiated settlement, he said he believes, but formidable hardline constituencies to contend with at home as well.

“I believe leaders need to show leadership,” Zarif said. “I think experience shows, once there is a good deal, the US president will be able to sell it, and I think we will be able to sell it too.”

Zarif spoke here, at a presidential palace overlooking the Bosporous on the Asian side of the city, on a panel with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, on his first official visit to Turkey since assuming the post of foreign minister in the Hassan Rouhani administration in August. While Zarif and Davutoglu had warm words for each other, the two nations’ differences on Syria were apparent. However, they agreed that the US-Russian agreement that led to Syria’s decision to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles and join the chemical weapons ban was a positive development, and urged that it be a first step towards a broader agreement towards ridding the entire Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

“I agree with my good friend and brother, Javad-bey,” Davutoglu said. “Something good happens with the Syria chemical weapons ban, at least the process has started.”

Zarif, whose back seemed much improved from when he appeared at a press conference in Geneva last month in a wheel chair, was due to travel on to Ankara Friday for meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu. He is slated to travel to Paris next week, ahead of leading the Iranian delegation to the next round of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, in Geneva on November 7-8th.

(Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif speaks at a press conference in Istanbul on Friday, November 1, 2013. Associated Press.)

Obama corresponds with Iran’s Rouhani, holds out hope for nuclear deal

President Obama, speaking to ABC in an interview taped Friday and broadcast Sunday, confirmed that he and Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani have exchanged letters, and said he holds out hope that the US and Iran can reach a nuclear deal. But he said that negotiating with Iran would not be easy, and stressed that Iran should not doubt his resolve to prevent it getting nuclear weapons, despite the US agreeing to a last-minute Russian bid to remove Syria’s chemical weapons to avoid possible U.S.-led air strikes.

“I have. And he’s reached out to me,” Obama said, when asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if he’d reached out to the new Iranian president.

“I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue,” Obama said, citing the risks to US “core interests” that a nuclear armed Iran would pose to Israel, and of a nuclear arms race in the region.

“My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck [Syria] to think we won’t strike Iran,” Obama said. “On the other hand, what…they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”

“Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult,” Obama said. “I think this new president is not gonna suddenly make it easy. But you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact you can you can strike a deal… and I hold out that hope.”

Obama–interviewed a day ahead of the announcement that the U.S. and Russia had reached a deal on removing Syria’s chemical weapons—also said that he would welcome efforts by Russia and even Iran to help end the civil war in Syria, despite considerable disagreements over the conflict and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“I think that if in fact not only Russia gets involved, but if potentially Iran gets involved as well in recognizing that what’s happening there is a train wreck that hurts not just Syrians but [is] destabilizing the entire region…we can do something [about] it,” he said.

The president’s confirmation of the correspondence with Rouhani comes as a former member of Rouhani’s nuclear negotiating team wrote that Iran’s Supreme Leader has given permission for US-Iran direct talks.

“Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued permission for President Hassan Rouhani’s new administration to enter into direct talks with the U.S.,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian wrote in an oped published by Japan Times Friday (Sept. 13). “No better opportunity to end decades of bilateral hostility is likely to come along. ”

Asked by Al-Monitor Sunday if Khamenei has given permission for direct talks on the nuclear issue or Syria, Mousavian replied: “both.”

Former State Department Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney described the letter exchange as part of a broader series of recent signs of a still fragile but potentially unprecedented shift in the Islamic Republic.

Continue reading

Framework text: U.S., Russia reach deal to remove Syria chemical arms

The United States and Russia have reached a deal on a framework for removing all of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced in Geneva Saturday.

Under the framework agreed after three days of negotiations in Geneva, Syria would declare all of its chemical weapons sites within seven days, allow inspectors on the ground and access to any site by November, and the removal of the weapons from Syria for destruction by mid-2014. (Full framework text, released by the State Department, below the jump).

“The world will now expect the Assad regime to live up to its public commitment,” Kerry told a packed news conference in the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva Saturday, the Associated Press reports. “There can be no games, no room for avoidance, or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime.”

“We have committed to a standard that says, verify and verify,” Kerry said.

The framework would mandate the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to report on Syrian compliance or noncompliance with the agreed measures to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions, under Chapter 7 of the UN charter.

“In the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter,” the framework states.

Arms control advocates hailed the deal as a breakthrough, although one whose implementation will be challenging.

“While there are many further, challenging steps ahead, the agreement is an unprecedented breakthrough that would deny the Assad regime access to this dangerous arsenal and significantly reduce the risk that the government can use chemical weapons again, either inside Syria or against neighboring states in the region,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, wrote Saturday.

The deal was reached ahead of the expected release on Monday of the UN chemical weapons inspectors’ report on the August 21 alleged chemical weapons attack on the Damascus outskirts that the U.S. said killed over 1,000 people.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that the report would show “overwhelming” evidence that a major chemical weapons attack had taken place. He also said, in remarks he reportedly did not realize were being broadcast on the UN in-house television station, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has committed many crimes against humanity,” and should be brought to justice after the war.

Continue reading

Ex IDF intel chief: Plan to remove Syria chemical arms 'important test'

Weeks before John Kerry or Russia's Sergei Lavrov, former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin proposed that Russia could force Syria to give up its chemical weapons, as an alternative to US-led military strikes in the wake of the alleged, large-scale nerve gas attack Aug. 21st outside Damascus.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to take Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons out of Syria, Yadlin, the former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) intelligence chief, told Israel's Channel 2 late last month, “that would be an offer that could stop the attack,” the Times of Israel reported August 31. “It would be a 'genuine achievement' for President Obama,” the Times cited Yadlin.

Yadlin, now head of Israel's leading think tank, the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), demurred in an interview Tuesday if he knew the origins of the chemical arms removal plan that he first raised publicly last month, but which US and Russian officials acknowledged only this week that Obama and Putin had previously discussed, including at the G-20 summit last week.

But as head of a think tank trying to come up with 'out of box' ideas to solve complex security problems, the solution made sense, Yadlin told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday, given both Washington's reluctance to become deeply enmeshed in Syria's civil war, and because of Putin's influence over Assad.

“When we thought about, since America is not willing to exercise excessive power or a long or decisive campaign against Assad, what will be an outcome that, on the one hand ,will eliminate the future exercise of chemical weapons, and on the other may not…escalate the Syrian civil war into a regional war,” Yadlin said.

“So, we thought that if Assad will be asked by Putin,” he said. “Putin is the key for the deal, because Putin is basically keeping Assad alive.”

“So if [Putin] says to himself, 'OK, I want to avoid an American attack,..and I don’t want to be identified with the chemical attack of Assad, my client, I can really achieve both of these goals by a deal that will end the chemical capabilities of Syria, by…taking [them] out of Syria and destroying” them, Yadlin said.

“And that will give enough diplomatic victory for the [U.S.] president [Obama], that he has done something directly correlated to the crossing of [his] red line,” he continued. “Win win.”

There is, however, “a loser here,” Yadlin said. “The loser is that Assad is not punished for what he has done. And maybe also saying that this allowed him to kill and continue to kill his people with conventional weapons. [But] I think this should be dealt with on another channel.”

The forthcoming United Nations chemical weapons inspector report is not likely to make Russia publicly admit the Syrian regime's alleged complicity in the Aug. 21 attack, Yadlin said.

“The only thing they care about is how to stop the Tomahawks and the B-2s from attacking Syria.” Yadlin said of the Russians.

“That's a very important lesson I think also for the Iranian issue,” he continued. “If you have a credible [threat of a] military attack, it is very likely that it will create a diplomatic solution.”

“If [the US] is serious with military threats, and your enemies and opponents really evaluate and analyze you are going to use it, then the chances you will not have to use it to reach some diplomatic solution is much higher.”

But in Obama projecting a credible threat of military force to punish and deter Syrian chemical weapons use that drove Russia at least to seek a last ditch diplomatic alternative, did the United States not indirectly demonstrate to Iran too its credibility on WMD proliferation?

“This is not enough,” Yadlin said, “especially because of the difficulties in exercising it”–an apparent reference to the political dysfunction and chaos that accompanied Obama's decision to put the decision on Syria strikes to a vote in Congress, which the White House appeared this week to be at risk of losing.

The details of any agreement to secure and remove Syria's chemical weapons also matter enormously, Yadlin said, and are both diplomatically and logistically daunting

“It should be a deal that is not camouflage, not an excuse not to do anything, but a real, performance based and highly legitimate deal,” Yadlin said. “Legitimacy should come from a UN Security Council resolution, which includes chapter 7, the article which says, if the Syrians are not living up to their obligations, force can be used.”

“Second, the timeline is important: don’t let the Syrians drag it [out] for years,” he said. “And then a very well defined mechanism: who is going to be on the ground to take care of it. UN forces, NATO forces, Russian forces…It must be a military force which is very professional, well protected, but with determination to complete the job.”

Asked about reports Russia had already Tuesday objected to a binding UN security council resolution and Putin saying the US must renounce its threat of force to secure the deal, Yadlin said such conditions would be, in his view, deal breakers. “Ok, if they prefer an American attack.”

“If you don't very much insist that the parameters are well defined, I think at the end of the day there will not be not a diplomatic solution, but a diplomatic failure.”

“This will be an important test,” Yadlin said, in international eyes, not just of Russia and Syria, but of Obama.

zp8497586rq

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.)

zp8497586rq

Iran's Rouhani wishes Jews blessed Rosh Hashanah

Iranian Jews pray at the Yousefabad Synagogue in Tehran November 23, 2006.

In stunning contrast to his Holocaust denying predecessor, Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday sent well wishes to the Jewish people on the occasion of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown.

“Not even under the monarchy do we remember such a message,” Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian-born scholar who heads the Middle East program at the Woodrow Willson International Center, said of the message.

Rouhani's well wishes to the Jewish people come as the Iranian mission at the United Nations confirmed to Al-Monitor that he will travel to New York later this month to address the United Nations General Assembly and participate in a disarmament meeting.

Rouhani is scheduled to address the General Assembly on the afternoon of September 24th, the same day that US President Obama will address the body in the morning.

It also comes as Rouhani and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif have sent multiple messages condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Iran's ally, while not saying explicitly they believe it was done by the Assad regime, and while urging against U.S.-led action. Former Iranian President Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, however, is reported to have accused the Syrian government of gassing its own people at a lecture last week, allegedly recorded on video, even as other reports say his office had denied the comment.

“We strongly condemn any use of chemical weapons anywhere, but must be careful not to jump to conclusions before[ the] facts [are] clear,” Rouhani wrote on Twitter August 29.

Obama's national security chiefs have been testifying on the Hill and intensively consulting with lawmakers this week as the Senate and House consider whether to grant Obama an authorization to use military force to deter the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

zp8497586rq

Kerry: World ‘watching to see if Syria can get away with it’

Syrian chemical weapons personnel under the chain of command of the Syrian Ministry of Defense prepared for three days before Syrian military units, instructed to don gas masks, fired rockets containing nerve gas into opposition-held villages in the Damascus suburbs on August 21st, killing over 1,400 people in the largest chemical weapons attack in a quarter century, the United States said Friday.

“The primary question is really no longer: What do we know?” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a powerful call to action from the State Department Friday, as the U.S. released a declassified, four-page intelligence assessment on the attack. “The question is: What are…we in the world going to do about it?”

“History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency,” Kerry warned.

The release of the U.S. intelligence case (map) and Kerry’s call for resolve came after President Obama met again with his national security cabinet Friday morning on Syria, amid daily intensified preparations for almost certain U.S.-led military strikes in Syria in the coming days. But the Obama administration suffered a blow when the British parliament voted early Friday against UK participation in any international Syria action. France, however said Friday, it would participate, and was sending two frigates to the area where the U.S. has already sent five warships.

2013-08-30_map_accompanying_usg_assessment_on_syria

President Obama said Friday he was still deliberating and consulting with lawmakers over potential military options. But he expressed wary resolve to conduct “limited” action in Syria that would not, he reiterated, involve boots on the ground, to deter chemical weapons use.

“We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale,” Obama said in remarks at the White House Friday, adding that “part of the challenge that we end up with here is that a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it.”

Kerry made a far more impassioned case for the necessity of international action to deter not just the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, but regimes around the world which he said are closely “watching” how the United States and others react.

“They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say,” Kerry warned, in what seemed a pointed rebuke of the UK parliamentary vote, which was hailed by Russia Friday. “They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.”

But Kerry, like Obama, also acknowledged American public weariness about another military intervention in the Middle East, and promised Syria intelligence and intervention would not be “a repeat” of Iraq.

“Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack, and I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience,” Kerry said, urging the public to read it for themselves. ‘We will not repeat that moment.”

The narrative Kerry and other administration and intelligence officials described in briefings Friday suggested that the Syrian regime was frustrated by a protracted fight with opposition-held and contested villages in the Damascus suburbs, and employed the chemical weapons so it could speed up the fight and surge military resources to Aleppo. The Syrian regime has increasingly employed chemical weapons since 2012 as a regular tool in its military arsenal, but never before on this scale, officials said.

“We know that the regime was specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition, and it was frustrated that it hadn’t succeeded in doing so,” Kerry said.

“Unfortunately,.. the regime considers the chemical weapons in its portfolio of military use,” a senior U.S. administration official said in the White House background call Friday. “It is not considered an extraordinary measure. It is not used only in particular cases. In this case, [they] chose to use it in a densely populated area, and it obviously had horrendous effects.”

In total, at least 1,429 Syrians, including 426 children, were killed in the nerve gas attack last week, Kerry said.

In the aftermath of the attack, among other intelligence collected from both secret and open sources, U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of a senior regime official referencing the use of chemical weapons, and expressing concern about the UN weapons inspectors detecting it, Kerry and senior U.S. Administration Officials said in a subsequent White House background telephone briefing Friday.

“We know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact, and actually was afraid that they would be discovered,” Kerry said Friday, adding, in a reference US officials later acknowledged was US signals intelligence of the communication, “We know this.”

As the Obama administration ramped up its preparations for likely action, the UN chemical weapons inspectors completed their work in Syria on Friday, and were all due to be out of the country by Saturday morning, the UN said. The UN’s disarmament chief Angela Kane departed Damascus and was en route to New York and will brief Secretary General Ban ki-Moon and then the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council on Saturday, the UN said. The Security Council has remained deadlocked on Syria for over two and a half years due to Russian support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and veto of any prospective measures against his regime.

The UN is due to hold a rare press conference on Saturday, but UN officials said they didn’t expect the inspection team to release its report until all of its lab testing of samples collected in Syria was completed, in what could take several days.

Kerry said Friday the United States would not wait for the UN report because the inspectors’ mandate does not permit it to attribute culpability, the U.S. already has the information it needs, and because the Syrian regime did not grant the inspectors access for five days while they intensified their shelling of the villages in what the U.S. has said was a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence of the chemical attack.

(Photo: President Barack Obama meets with his National Security Staff to discuss the situation in Syria, in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 30, 2013. From left at the table: National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice; Attorney General Eric Holder; Secretary of State John Kerry; and Vice President Joe Biden. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)

Obama makes case for ‘decisive’ but ‘limited’ action on Syria


President Obama said Wednesday that the military strike on Syria he is contemplating was for the limited purpose of preventing the further use chemical weapons, and was not intended to insert the U.S. into the bloody Syrian civil war. Even as he said he had not made a final decision, Obama’s precise explanation of the scope and purpose of prospective U.S. military action made clear that he has all but made up his mind.

“If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, ‘Stop doing this,’ this can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term,” Obama told PBS’s News Hour Wednesday.

The President’s comments came as the United Kingdom, facing demands from opposition lawmakers, signaled it wouldn’t be prepared to participate in any action for another week, following two votes by parliament and consideration of a UN inspectors’ report on Syria.

U.S. officials said while they were closely consulting with their British allies, they weren’t going to wait for the UN report to act. UN inspectors were expected to leave the country by the weekend, but do not have a mandate to determine accountability for any chemical weapons evidence they were able to obtain. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday the Syrian regime knowingly delayed UN inspectors’ access to the site of the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack for five days, and deliberately destroyed evidence by continuing to shell the area, in the Ghouta region outside Damascus.

“While we’re clearly consulting closely with the Brits, we are making decisions on our timeline,” a US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday evening.

While Washington will want UK participation, it “will be more concerned to get it done quickly,” a former senior U.S. administration official told Al-Monitor Wednesday, on condition of anonymity. The Obama administration “will accept that the UK needs a few days, but if [British Prime Minister David] Cameron doesn’t get [his ducks] in a row, they will not accept any more delays and not let it stop them.”

The emergency of British delay came after Russia on Wednesday once again blocked United Nations Security Council consideration of a UK-drafted resolution authorizing intervention against Syrian chemical weapons use.

The US said forcefully Wednesday that after two and a half years of Russia blocking any Council criticism of the Assad regime, it was done with pursuing the UN route on Syria.

“We see no avenue forward given continued Russian opposition to any meaningful council action on Syria,” Marie Harf, State Department spokesperson, said at the State Department press briefing Wednesday. “We cannot allow diplomatic paralysis to be a shield for the perpetrators of these crimes.”

Continue reading

Kerry says 'indiscriminate' Syria chemical attack 'undeniable'

Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday began laying out the US case for limited international military action in Syria, saying it is “undeniable” that chemical weapons were used in a mass casualty attack last week that he described as a “moral obscenity” that shocks “the conscience of the world.”

“Anyone who can claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass,” Kerry said at a news conference at the State Department on Monday. “What is before us today is real, and it is compelling.”

“Make no mistake:  President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people,” Kerry said.

Kerry’s unusually forceful comments came as a United Nations chemical weapons inspection team got its first access to the site of the alleged chemical attack, in the outskirts of Damascus, five days after it occurred.

Kerry said the fact that the Syrian government did not agree to grant access to the site before Sunday and carried on shelling and attacking the area was an attempt to destroy evidence.

“I spoke on Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister [Walid] Muallim and I made it very clear to him that if the regime, as he argued, had nothing to hide, then their response should be immediate – immediate transparency, immediate access – not shelling,” Kerry said.  “Failure to permit that, I told him, would tell its own story.”

“Instead, for five days, the Syrian regime refused to allow the UN investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them,” Kerry said.  “Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence.  That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide.”

“The regime’s belated decision to allow access is too late, and it’s too late to be credible,” Kerry said.

Kerry said the US has additional intelligence attributing the attack to Syrian forces including from partners that it was reviewing with allies and would start presenting to the public in the coming days.

Even as the U.S. began laying out its case for action, Moscow was ratcheting up arguments against any sort of Syria intervention, and casting doubt on western assessments of Syrian culpability. Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in a phone call with British Prime Minister David Cameron Monday, reportedly insisted that there had been no chemical weapons attack in Syria at all.

His Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a news conference Monday, expressed doubts about the veracity of amateur videos of the alleged attack in Ghouta, and railed against the U.S.-led interventions in Iraq and Libya.

But Lavrov also signaled Moscow wasn’t planning to become involved in hostilities against western action in Syria. “Of course, we're not going to war with anyone,” Lavrov told the news conference. Continue reading