U.S. suspends Syria embassy operations

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The United States announced Tuesday that it has ordered the Syrian government to immediately cease all operations at its embassy in Washington, D.C. and two honorary consulates in Houston, Texas and Troy, Michigan.

Personnel at the facilities who are not U.S. citizens or legal US residents have been ordered to depart the country.

“For three years, Bashar al-Asad has refused to heed the call of the Syrian people to step aside…and created a humanitarian catastrophe,” Daniel Rubinstein, the new US Special Envoy for Syria, said in a press statement.

“Following the announcement that the Syrian Embassy has suspended its provision of consular services, and in consideration of the atrocities the Asad regime has committed against the Syrian people, we have determined it is unacceptable for individuals appointed by that regime to conduct diplomatic or consular operations in the United States,”  Rubinstein said.

There are just two Syrian diplomats left at its embassy in Washington, a Syrian contact told Al-Monitor Tuesday, as well as 8 or 9 local employees. The Syrian diplomats in Washington do not have US residency and will have to leave, the contact said. The State Department gave them til the end of the month to depart..

Ayman Midani serves as the honorary consul general of Syria in Houston, Texas. The last Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, departed in December 2011, to become Syria’s envoy to China.

“The United States will continue to assist those seeking change in Syria, to help end the slaughter, and to resolve the crisis through negotiations,” Rubinstein said.

The chair and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee welcomed the expulsions of the Syrian government personnel, and urged the Obama administration to withdraw diplomatic recognition of, and increase pressure on, the Assad regime.

“I welcome this overdue action,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-California), said in a joint statement.  “But it would be withdrawal of our diplomatic recognition of the regime that would signal strong American support for the Syrian people.”

“After three years of brutality by Assad against his people, including the horrifying use of chemical weapons on civilians, it is crucial that we increase the pressure on his regime,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) said. “The longer this war goes on, the more dangerous and unstable the region will become.”

We feel that the illegitimacy of the Assad regime is overwhelming — 10,000 children killed, millions of refugees,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a State Department chat with university students on Tuesday.

Meantime, the Assad regime this week signaled that it “plans to hold presidential elections this summer in all areas under government control and President Bashar al-Assad will likely be one of several candidates to run,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing Syria’s minister of information.

AIPAC expected to lobby for Iran sanctions bill that Obama has vowed to veto


As Senate Democrats and Republicans traded blame Thursday over blocked veterans’ benefits legislation to which Republicans had tried to attach an Iran sanctions amendment, the pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) faced questions about its position on the matter just days before its big annual policy conference here.

“The Republicans are trying to mislead the American public by saying that a bipartisan majority supports moving forward with new sanctions right now,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said in a statement Thursday. “In fact, many Senators….as well as Israel’s strongest supporter, AIPAC…agree that now is not the right time to bring a sanctions package to the floor.”

“AIPAC was unequivocal in its request for a delay on additional sanctions,” Reid’s statement continued. “This is what AIPAC said: ‘Stopping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support and… there should not be a vote at this time on the measure.’”

An AIPAC official, speaking to reporters at a lunch at Morton’s restaurant Thursday, said AIPAC members would next week lobby for more Senate co-sponsors for the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill (S1881), sources at the lunch told Al-Monitor on condition they not be identified since the lunch was off the record. President Obama has vowed to veto the measure, which was shelved last month after gaining 59 co-sponsors, short of the 67 needed to override a presidential veto. (The House passed a version of the measure overwhelmingly last summer [.pdf], before an interim Iran nuclear deal was reached in November; a separate House Iran sanctions push was shelved in January.)

AIPAC lobbyists may urge Democrats to co-sponsor the bill by arguing, “We don’t support a vote, but why not cosponsor?” a Hill staffer, speaking not for attribution, suggested Thursday.

“They burned their fingers very badly on S1881,” Douglas Bloomfield, a former AIPAC official and columnist told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, referring to AIPAC. “And I think they are trying now to put some balm on it. But they still haven’t given up on pushing it.”

AIPAC officials, writing in the New York Times last week, were “vague” about when they would push to bring the bill to a vote, Bloomfield noted.

“We support the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, sponsored by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and by Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois,” AIPAC officials Michael Kassen and Lee Rosenberg write in a February 22, 2014 New York Times op-ed. “Earlier this month, we agreed with Mr. Menendez on delaying a vote in the Senate, but we remain committed to the bill’s passage.”

“I think they are torn,” Bloomfield said, by the desire to maintain bipartisan appeal in Congress and among its membership, while at the same time, he said, “they are under pressure from what has become their Republican base on the Hill and they also have big money people.”

Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Executive Director Matthew Brooks agreed that AIPAC may be “shackled” by having to maintain bipartisan appeal, a constraint that he, as head of a Republican-aligned group, said he was glad not to suffer.

It’s a “luxury for me, I am not shackled by the handcuffs of bipartisanship,” Brooks said in a telephone interview from Dallas Thursday, where he Tweeted he was successfully fundraising over GOP support and Democratic opposition to moving forward now with the Iran sanctions bill. “AIPAC is in a much more difficult and challenging box, to maneuver to balance policy and practical considerations.”

An AIPAC spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Hill sources said that for now, an alternative resolution that would seek to define what should be the terms of a final Iran nuclear deal appeared to be off the table.

U.S. negotiator to brief Congress on Iran talks

Lead U.S. Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is expected to brief Congressional leaders and relevant committee chiefs in classified session this week on the talks between six world powers and Iran held in Geneva last week.

In a brief conversation last week that did not delve into the details of the Iranian proposal, Sherman told House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel “that the Iranians appeared serious,” but cautioned that the “devil’s in the details and made clear that the US negotiators will remain clear eyed as they seek to negotiate a deal to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” Engel said in a statement.

“Ranking Member Engel was pleased that the P5+1 reportedly had a productive first round of negotiations with the Iranians in Geneva,” spokesman Daniel Harsha told Al-Monitor Monday.  “But a change in tone is hardly sufficient. He believes pressure brought Iran to the table, and that pressure must be maintained until Iran has verifiably dismantled its nuclear weapons program.“

“The Iranians are masters at negotiation for the sake of buying time,” Harsha said.  “Given that, Ranking Member Engel would only be open to freezing further legislative action on the new sanctions bill if Iran quickly takes a number of concrete and fully verifiable steps to freeze enrichment and other elements of its nuclear weapons program. And he won’t even consider easing sanctions already on the books until Iran verifiably dismantles their program, leaving absolutely no possibility of a rapid ‘breakout.’”

Diplomats from the six world powers and Iran have agreed not to publicize the details of the Iranian proposal presented in two days of talks in Geneva last week (Oct. 15-16).

The new Iranian proposal “appears to have addressed some of our concerns, while leaving others unaddressed,” a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday. “That is what the upcoming talks will further flesh out. …[The process] has begun and now we need to see what the coming weeks will bring.”

Iran's deputy nuclear negotiators for the first time met with their US counterparts one on one for an hour in Geneva, and conducted the negotiations with their P5+1 counterparts in English, facilitating the pace and candor of the negotiations, western diplomats said.

But western diplomats were cautious in characterizing their reaction to the undisclosed Iranian proposal, describing a deal as still likely some ways off.

“We learned more about their program and their concerns,” a senior western diplomat told journalists in Brussels last week, Reuters reported. “However, it doesn't mean we are close to a solution and that we will have an agreement next month.”

We “got more today than we have ever gotten before, but there’s still a whole lot more we have to get,” a senior US administration official told journalists in Geneva last week, calling the process a “beginning.”

Regarding the seemingly lukewarm reaction, the US official said Monday to keep in mind that it’s not in the P5+1’s interest to sound overly enthusiastic about what the Iranians put on the table, “either from a negotiating perspective….or our own domestic politics.”

The administration would be “concerned about not looking gullible to Congress,” agreed Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official now with the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, in an interview Monday. Continue reading

White House: UN needs immediate access to Syria site

The White House on Wednesday demanded that United Nations inspectors be given immediate access to a site near Damascus where Syrian opposition activists claimed hundreds were killed in an overnight nerve gas attack.

“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the UN team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are working urgently to gather additional information,” Earnest said.

The allegations of a new chemical attack in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, came just two days after a UN chemical weapons inspection team arrived in Syria, after months of protracted negotiations. The White House on Wednesday joined the United Kingdom, France and Saudi Arabia in demanding that the inspectors be allowed immesiate, unfettered access to the site.

The United Nations Security Council was also expected to hold an emergency session on the new Syrian chemical claims on Wednesday.

The latest grim allegations came as the top US military officer said Syria’s divided rebels are not ready for U.S. military intervention to hasten the fall of Bashar al-Assad.

“Syria today is not about choosing between sides, but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a letter (.pdf) to House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Elliot Engel.

“It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor,” Dempsey continued in the letter, which is dated August 19th. “Today, they are not. … Violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.”

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HFAC staff moves


Several recent changes and promotions underway among the House Foreign Affairs Committee minority staff.

Daniel Silverberg, formerly deputy general counsel and a former Pentagon official, has been named general counsel of the committee minority staff, following the departure of Shanna Winters for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Janice Kaguyutan was promoted to chief counsel from deputy chief counsel.

Long time HFAC top Middle East advisor Alan Makovsky has left the committee staff, with plans to go teach in Turkey, according to two Hill staffers. His deputy Robert Marcus is expected to succeed him as top Middle East advisor upon his return from paternity leave, staffers say.

Daniel Harsha, recently back from paternity leave, has been made communications director.

Jason Steinbaum was named as staff director in January, after former Rep. Howard Berman’s staff director went over to Senate Homeland Security.

Meantime, two HFAC staffers have joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) staff: arms sales and non proliferation advisor David Fite, and former communications director Adam Sharon.

Staffers are overall upbeat about the committee, and say relations between chair Ed Royce (R-California) and ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-New York), are relatively smooth and professional.

Engel, in a letter Monday, critiqued the military options for Syria presented by top army officer Gen. Martin Dempsey, suggesting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may have overstated the costs and risks of limited air strikes.

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