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.”

Elissa Slotkin named top advisor to Pentagon’s Derek Chollet

Iraq expert Elissa Slotkin has been named Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, effective immediately, defense sources tell Al-Monitor. Slotkin, most recently chief of staff for the Defense Department International Security Affairs bureau, will become the top advisor to Assistant Secretary of Defense for ISA Derek Chollet, in the team reporting to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller.

Colleagues describe Slotkin as a very strong choice, who brings substantial on the ground experience in Iraq and the Middle East to the Defense policy team. Slotkin spent nearly 20 months on the ground in Iraq over several deployments, both as an intelligence analyst and NSC staffer.

She was a key member of the status of forces agreement (SOFA) negotiating team in 2008 while working on the NSC staff. She stayed on in the Obama NSC for the first several months to help run the president’s strategic review on Iraq. Continue reading

Clinton in Israel: Iran nuclear proposals “non-starters”

Iran’s proposals to date in three rounds of nuclear talks with the P5+1 are “non-starters,” and suggest Iran’s leadership has not yet made the decision to compromise on its nuclear program, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday in Israel.

“I made very clear that the proposals that we have seen from Iran thus far within the P5+1 negotiations are non-starters,” Clinton told reporters after a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday, CNN reported.

“Despite three rounds of talks, Iran has yet to make a strategic decision to address the international community’s concerns and fulfill their obligations under the IAEA and the UN Security Council,” Clinton said. “The choice is ultimately Iran’s to make.”

Iran is willing to discuss halting its 20% enrichment, but has balked to date at doing so without getting upfront recognition of its right to enrich for energy purposes.

“The issue of the 20% enrichment …is an issue that could be discussed and decided,” Iran’s UN envoy Mohammad Khazaee told Al Monitor in an interview July 12. “It is not off the table. … It is possible to close the gap.”

Clinton conducted the most high-profile visit of a recent “cavalcade” of high-ranking American officials traveling to Israel to huddle on Iran. Among the parade of senior US visitors: National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Chollet, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in the coming weeks.

The intense US-Israel consultations are aimed, from Washington’s perspective, at trying to reassure Israel’s leadership not to conduct strikes on Iran, likely in the fall. Despite Clinton’s assertion Monday that the United States and Israel are currently “on the same page” on Iran, Israeli leaders have apparently not eased American concerns about their intentions.

“For the first time on the agenda are serious crippling sanctions,” former Israeli Knesset Defense and Security Committee member Ephraim Sneh said at a July 12th round-table hosted by the Israel Policy Forum in New York, referring to tough new European Union sanctions on the import of Iranian oil, which went into effect July 1. “We have hardly two months to implement them. I advise those who can implement them, ‘Don’t put Israel in a corner.'”

Asked what specifically is in two months–i.e., September, Sneh said that Israel’s more limited military capabilities constrain its timetable and calendar for action. Continue reading