White House to step up aid to Syria rebels, after US confirms Assad chemical use

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President Obama has decided to provide military support to the Syrian rebels after the U.S. intelligence community concluded with high confidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale numerous times, the White House announced Thursday.

“The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said in a statement Thursday.

“Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC,” the Syrian rebel Supreme Military Council, the White House statement continued. “These efforts will increase going forward.”

The US assistance provided to the Syrian rebels “is going to be substantively different than what we were providing before our initial chemical weapons assessment in April,” Rhodes told journalists in a press call Thursday evening.

While declining to provide a full inventory of the assistance the US might provide to the rebels, Rhodes said the U.S. aim “is to be responsive to the needs of the SMC on the ground…There will be an increase in support to both the political and military side.”

Among the types of assistance the US was looking to provide, in coordination with allies, Rhodes said, was aid to enhance the Syrian rebels’ cohesion and effectiveness. “Communications equipment, transport, … medical assistance” [such as ambulances] “relevant to their effectiveness…to allow them to cohere as a unit that can challenge the regime.” The US would also provide small arms and ammunition, and would consider supplying anti-tank weapons, the New York Times reported late Thursday.

Representatives of the US, UK and France are expected to meet SMC military commander Gen. Salim Idriss in Turkey on Saturday, wire reports said Thursday.

The US announcement was made during a week of intensive, high level White House consultations on Syria, including a meeting Wednesday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and visiting UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. It also comes ahead of the first meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in the United Kingdom next week.

Notably, the United States has briefed Russia on its latest Syria chemical weapons assessment, Rhodes said in the call Thursday. It has also provided the information to the United Nations, which Rhodes said had been unable to get its Syria chemical weapons investigation team on the ground in Syria due to Assad’s obstruction.

The announcement came as the United Nations said Thursday that it assesses 93,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict to date.

“We’re at a tipping point” in Syria, Martin Indyk, Bill Clinton’s former top Middle East diplomat told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday.

Recent gains by Assad forces, backed by Hizbollah, on the ground have thrown plans for transition talks in Geneva into doubt.

“There can’t be any political solution on an agreement on a post-Assad transition if Assad thinks he is going to see victory,” Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution, said.“What happens on the battlefield determines what happens in the conference room.”

Full White House statement below the jump:

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Former CIA officer: ‘Absurd’ to link uncle of Boston suspects, Agency

20130427-162019.jpgRetired CIA officer Graham Fuller confirmed to Al-Monitor Saturday that his daughter was previously married to an uncle of the suspects in the Boston Marathon attacks, but called rumors of any links between the uncle and the Agency “absurd.”

Graham Fuller’s daughter, Samantha A. Fuller, was married to Ruslan Tsarnaev (now Tsarni) in the mid-1990s, and divorced in 1999, according to North Carolina public records. The elder Fuller had retired from the agency almost a decade before the brief marriage.

“Samantha was married to Ruslan Tsarnaev (Tsarni) for 3-4 years, and they lived in Bishkek for one year where Samantha was working for Price Waterhouse on privatization projects,” Fulller, a former CIA officer in Turkey and vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, told Al-Monitor by email Saturday. “They also lived in our house in [Maryland] for a year or so and they were divorced in 1999, I believe.”

“I, of course, retired from CIA in 1987 and had moved on to working as a senior political scientist for RAND,” Fuller continued.

Fuller said his former son in law was interesting but homesick, and moved back to Central Asia after the divorce.

“Like all Chechens, Ruslan was very concerned about his native land, but I saw no particular involvement in politics, [although] he did try to contact other Chechens around,” Fuller continued. “He also felt homesick and eventually went back to Central Asia after the divorce. His English was shaky. (We always spoke Russian together).”

A story on the Internet implying “possible connections between Ruslan and the Agency through me are absurd,” Fuller said.

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Roundup: Obama to dine with Miss Israel; Iran's man in Iraq

US intelligence: Iran decision on nuclear weapon matter of 'political will'


The United States believes Iran has the technical capability to make nuclear weapons, but does not know if Iran will decide to do so, saying it's ultimately a matter of Iranian political will, the US intelligence community said in a worldwide threat assessment delivered to the Senate Tuesday. The United States would know in time if Iran attempted to break out to produce highly enriched uranium for a bomb, the assessment also said.

“We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” the US intelligence community’s annual worldwide threat assessment, delivered by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate intelligence community Tuesday, states.

Given that Tehran “has developed technical expertise in a number of areas—including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles—from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable  nuclear weapons,” the assessment states, “this makes the central issue its political will to do so.”

Sanctions have had an impact on Iran's economy, but have so far not caused the Iranian leadership to change its course on the nuclear program, Clapper told the Senate panel during questioning.

“Sanctions have had a profound impact on Iran’s economy and the situation is getting worse,” Clapper said. “At the same time, at least publicly, overtly, it has not prompted a change in the Iranian leadership's decision, the Supreme Leader's approach,” to the nuclear program.

While the sanctions and the prospect of increased social unrest “do concern” the Iranian leadership, Clapper said, “at the same time, the Supreme Leader's standard is a level of privation that Iran suffered during the Iran-Iraq war. And I don’t think, he doesn’t believe they have reached that point yet.”

“Of course, as the Supreme Leader looks westward, at us, he can argue we are on decline, our influence in that part of the world,” is waning, Clapper continued. “And so, his view of the world may not necessarily be fact-based even when it comes to internal conditions in his country.”

Clapper said he would wait until closed briefing with the panel to discuss any classified intelligence on the leadership's thinking, as well as to address questions on alleged cooperation between Iran and North Korea. Continue reading

Roundup: Brennan confirmed, Obama: Iran needs way to climb down

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama salutes as he steps off Marine One at the White House in Washington after visiting wounded military personnel at the Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Maryland, March 5, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing.)

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Obama to name John Brennan for CIA, Chuck Hagel for Defense


President Obama on Monday will nominate White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan to head the CIA, and former Senator Chuck Hagel to be his Secretary of Defense.

Brennan, a 25 year CIA veteran who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has served as Obama’s top terrorism and intelligence advisor going back to the 2008 campaign.  He is very close with the President and extremely well-liked by the White House and National Security Council staff.

“When I was in [the White House], I slept better at night knowing that John Brennan never did,” former Obama White House political advisor David Axelrod wrote on Twitter Monday. “He worked 24/7 to keep Americans safe. Extraordinary guy.”

Brennan however withdrew his name from consideration for CIA chief in 2008 amid concerns about whether he had endorsed Bush-era CIA use of waterboarding and other controversial harsh interrogation techniques. More recently, Brennan has reportedly been among the figures arguing inside the administration for more restraint in the use of targeted drone strikes to kill militants.

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran who served two terms as Republican Senator from Nebraska, has been co-chairman of Obama’s President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

The nominations are expected to be announced at 1pm EDT.

The administration is gearing up for a tough confirmation battle over Hagel.

Neoconservatives and some right-leaning pro-Israel and gay rights groups have already signaled their opposition to Hagel, while several former diplomats, military officers, and Israel envoys have endorsed him. Among Hagel’s supporters, former National Security advisors Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Israel Tom Pickering, former Defense Secretary  Frank Carlucci, and World Bank President James Wolfensohn.

The administration may have been taking aback by the early opposition to the Hagel nomination, given his distinguished record of service and compelling personal story.  The White House also may have thought the worst was behind it after Obama’s first choice for Secretary of State, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, bowed out amid Republican sniping over her comments on the Benghazi attacks. Obama last month nominated Sen. John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State.

Regarding the preemptive campaign against Hagel, it has been “like picking up a rock and discovering all the nasties underneath,” one Democratic source said. The Obama administration “may not have wanted to have a fight at the outset, but I think at least some want to have this fight now to shine a light on some really awful, blackmail-style politics. They are sick of these groups boxing them in and want a public fight to expose them and hopefully put them in their place.”

“If they win, it may expand space for actual ‘moderate’ voices,” the source continued. “The stakes are really high — so they better go all in and win.”

Hagel’s positions on national security policy are considered similar to those of President Obama, who defended him as a “patriot” in an interview last month.

“I’ve served with Chuck Hagel,” Obama told NBC’s David Gregory last month. “I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate. Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who’s currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job.”

Hagel “is not anti-Israeli and he is not an anti-Semite,” former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas wrote in an article for Al-Monitor Dec. 23.

Describing several meetings he witnessed between Israeli Defense Minister Barak and Hagel, Pinkas asserted that “Barak was thoroughly impressed not only by Hagel’s military background, but by his analysis, knowledge of the Middle East, and his understanding of Israel’s security issues and predicaments.”

“Senator Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the President’s prerogative,” Abe Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, reportedly said Monday.

(Photo: White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan briefs President Obama on Dec. 14, 2012 on the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The President later said this was the worst day of his Presidency. Pete Souza, White House.)

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Obama defends Hagel as ‘patriot’

President Barack Obama on Sunday strongly defended former Senator Chuck Hagel as a patriot and outstanding intelligence advisor, but said he had still not decided who he would nominate to serve as his next Defense Secretary.

Obama, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday for the first time since 2009, was asked by host David Gregory, “Is there anything about Chuck Hagel's record or statements that’s disqualifying to you, should you nominate him to run the Defense Department?”

“Not that I see,” Obama responded, after saying he had not made up his mind yet about his pick for Pentagon chief.

“I've served with Chuck Hagel,” the president continued. “I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate. Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who's currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job.”

“So I haven’t made a decision on this,” Obama said.

Hagel, who served two terms as a Republican Senator from Nebraska, apologized earlier this month for comments he made in 1998 regarding an ambassador nominee who was gay. Former US ambassador to Luxembourg James Hormel subsequently wrote on Facebook that he accepts Hagel's apology.

“Senator Hagel's apology is significant–I can't remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything,” Hormel reportedly wrote on Facebook Dec. 22, noting that over the past “fourteen years…public attitudes have shifted–perhaps Senator Hagel has progressed with the times, too.”

Obama made the same point to Gregory. “With respect to the particular comment that you quoted, he apologized for it. And I think it's a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people's attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country.  And that's something that I'm very proud to have led.”

Obama’s comments on the Sunday show gave no indication of when he might announce further cabinet nominations for his second term. To date since his reelection last month, Obama has nominated only Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The longtime chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel and former Democratic presidential candidate is expected to be easily confirmed. Kerry and Hagel are both Vietnam veterans. Continue reading

Latest appointment chatter

The Back Channel hears that Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter may be tapped for Secretary of Defense. Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, a top foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign, may not be interested in the top Defense job at this time, sources close to the administration, speaking not for attribution, suggested. They also expected that UN envoy Susan Rice would probably be tapped for Secretary of State, but were not certain of it.

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Crocker defends Petraeus, urges US approach Syria opposition with caution

My colleague Barbara Slavin reports:

One of America’s most distinguished diplomats warned Tuesday against giving military support to Syrian rebels and said the US should have better knowledge of who the fighters are before providing more than humanitarian aid.

Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to six nations – Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan – told NPR’s Steve Inskeep at the annual dinner of the Middle East Institute in Washington, “Be careful what you get into… Who are these guys? What do they stand for? Who’s against them?”

Crocker, whose residence was besieged by a mob when he was ambassador to Syria in the late 1990s, suggested that the US lacks sufficient information about the opposition even after a conference in Qatar brought together various factions to form a new group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

“You have to be on the ground as we were in Libya, influencing and analyzing” the rebel forces, he said. “I’m not sure we have a clear address to pursue a policy of coordinated … assistance.”

“I would like to find more ways to get [US] diplomats into Syria,” Crocker said. Continue reading

Why John Kerry may have to cool his heels on Secretary of State

Conventional wisdom has rapidly taken hold in the wake of President Obama’s reelection victory that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is first in line of candidates to succeed Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State.

But Obama administration officials tell the Back Channel that there are several reasons Kerry may have to cool his heels a while–having nothing to do with Kerry not being held in high esteem by the White House. Among them:

1) Secretary Clinton, who met with Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House Friday, feels an obligation to see the Benghazi investigation through and not leave any taint from that investigation to be faced by her successor. This could have her staying on til February or March, one administration source, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor Friday.

2) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has told the White House that he will be “furious” if he loses Kerry from the Senate, to leave the Massachusetts Democratic Senate seat vulnerable in a special election race against Republican Scott Brown, who has millions of dollars in the bank left over from his unsuccessful Senate run against Democrat Elizabeth Warren. The White House may feel especially obliged to listen to Reid, because he is a key reason the Democrats held onto their Senate majority, and because “they have to keep Reid happy as a clam” on the fiscal cliff negotiations, the official said. (Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and his wife are due to have a ‘social’ dinner with President and Michelle Obama at the White House Friday night. But while some thought Patrick might be in position to run against Brown if a Kerry nomination leaves the Senate seat open, other sources say Patrick has his eye on the AG job.)

3) While there are important constituencies in and out of his administration pushing for Kerry, including reportedly Vice President Biden, Kerry’s predecessor as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, “Obama loves” Susan Rice, his US Ambassador to the United Nations, the official noted. If Clinton stays on through the Benghazi investigation, that may blunt and defuse Congressional Republican wrath (and political opportunism) over the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attacks that has heretofore targeted Rice, among others, and that has raised concerns about whether a Rice confirmation hearing would become a huge, ugly partisan food fight. (There are also reports of CIA Director David Petraeus being at the White House Friday, and murmurs that some Hill Republicans believe the CIA has not been forthcoming about the CIA role in Benghazi. Update: Petraeus offered his resignation, citing an affair, which Obama accepted Friday. The affair, with his biographer Paula Broadwell, was uncovered by an FBI investigation, apparently of emails sent by Broadwell to a female friend of Petraeus‘ whom Broadwell perceived as a romantic rival.)

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