UN urges Russia, US to resume Syria peace talks

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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, on the third anniversary of Syria’s civil war, appealed to the US and Russia to get the Syrian parties back to the peace table.

“The Secretary-General appeals to the region and the international community and in particular to the Russian Federation and the United States, as the initiating States of the Geneva Conference on Syria, to take clear steps to re-energize the Geneva process,” a spokesman for Ban Ki-Moon said in a statement Wednesday.

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is due to brief the UN Security Council in New York on Thursday and the full UN General Assembly on the Syria diplomatic track on Friday, a UN spokesperson told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

As to officials saying Brahimi had recently threatened to the Russians to quit if they wouldn’t press the Assad regime to discuss political transition, there were few signs in Ban’s statement Wednesday that the veteran Algerian diplomat is planning an abrupt exit. “Working with Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, the Syrian sides and regional and international actors must act now to bring the tragedy in Syria to an end,” Ban’s statement said.

The situation, however, is still “unclear,” a western diplomat said Wednesday.

It’s “still a work in progress as to how we would get to round three, but efforts continue,” the western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. The “key is to get [the] regime to commit to discuss not only terrorism, but [the Transitional Governing Body] TGB as well.”

France on Wednesday circulated a draft UN Security Council press statement that would call for fully backing Brahimi’s efforts, including holding simultaneous discussions on both political transition and ending terrorism and violence. Continue reading

P5+1 turns focus to implementing Iran nuclear deal

Western diplomats expressed confidence about Iran sticking to the terms of an interim nuclear accord signed in Geneva last month as they met to discuss implementing the agreement and the process going forward for negotiating an end state deal.

The diplomatic consultations come ahead of a technical meeting between diplomats from Iran and six world powers in Vienna next week that will focus on implementing the November 24th accord.

“I think it will hold, because it’s in Iran’s interest for it to hold,” Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the PBS News Hour Wednesday (Dec. 4). “Iran is looking for some economic relief. There’s very little in this agreement, but it is the first step to a comprehensive agreement which will give them the economic relief they are looking for.”

“We are discussing 6 or 7 parameters that have to be crystallized into the common position of the P5+1,” a senior western official, speaking not for attribution, said Thursday, of the diplomatic consultations among the six world powers. The current priority is “implementation of the Nov. 24 agreement and deciding on a process.”

In terms of implementing the Phase 1 deal, “there are obvious facts to be confirmed by the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA – stopping 20 percent, converting half the stockpile… enhanced monitoring,” the senior western official said.

Secretary of State John Kerry and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton discussed that process for implementing the Iran deal when they met in Brussels earlier this week. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Under Secretary Sherman were scheduled to meet with French political director Jacques Audibert  on Thursday, the State Department schedule indicated. The British non-resident charge to Iran Ajay Sharma, until recently the UK’s deputy political director, was also in Washington for consultations Thursday, after traveling to Iran earlier this week, diplomatic sources said.

Burns has been leading a bilateral channel with Iran that gained momentum after the August inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani,  Al-Monitor first reported last month (November 24). Sherman leads the US negotiations between the P5+1 and  Iran. The bilateral discussions between Iran and the United States have focused almost exclusively on the nuclear issue and fed back into the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, US officials stressed, though the issue of Americans held in Iran has also been raised.

“All of the issues that arose in that private bilateral conversation also arose in the P5+1,” Sherman told PBS. “And I think very effectively the P5+1 used our bilateral channel and other bilateral discussions that were going on with other partners to get to this agreement.”

European Union foreign ministers are scheduled to meet on December 16 to discuss possibly suspending some EU sanctions against Iran for a period of six months as part of the first phase agreement reached in Geneva on November 24th.

The US administration has urged Congress to hold off on passing new sanctions on Iran–even if the sanctions would not come into effect until after six months if an end state deal is not reached. Continue reading

Deal could double Iran breakout time: ex-US official

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Washington, D.C.__ A former senior Obama Administration official told the House Foreign Affairs Committee today that the deal proposed to Iran by the P5+1 countries in Geneva last weekend would “double Iran’s breakout time.”

“That means it would take Iran twice as long” to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl told the committee. “That is meaningful. The deal puts firm restrictions on Iran building fuel assemblies for the Arak fuel reactor.” It would “increase the inspections regime. [It] serves US and Israeli interests.”

Kahl testified that under the deal presented by six world powers to Iran at the end of a three day meeting in Geneva last weekend, Iran would suspend 20% enrichment, neutralize its 20% stockpile, refrain from building fuel assemblies at the Arak reactor and from installing new centrifuges, allow more inspections of nuclear facilities, as well as restrict the growth of its 3.5% stockpile.

In return for Iran suspending those activities for 6 months as part of the first phase of a two-part deal, Iran would receive under $10 billion in sanctions relief, including on the auto, gold and petrochemical industries, and access to approximately $3 billion in hard currency assets frozen in banks abroad.

The sanctions relief envisaged in the first phase of the deal involves “nothing permanent if the Iranians reverse course,” Kahl, now associate professor at Georgetown University, said. “Nothing [in it] guts the oil and banking sanctions,” which would be subject to reaching a comprehensive agreement that the parties aim to negotiate during the six month first phase.

“The bigger risk is to escalate the sanctions at a sensitive moment of diplomacy and watch diplomacy careening off the cliff,” Kahl warned.

An Israeli official said Wednesday, however, that the Israeli government assessed that the measures proposed in the phase 1 deal would lengthen Iran’s breakout time by only a few weeks, and would potentially offer Iran many billions of dollars more in sanctions relief.

But an analysis by former weapons inspector David Albright shared with Kahl calculated that removing Iran’s 20% enriched uranium increases the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons grade uranium for one weapon from 1.3-2.3 months to 3.1-3.5 months, Kahl said.

The House Iran hearing came as the Obama administration mounted a full court press to lobby Congress against moving new Iran sanctions legislation now as negotiations with Iran make headway.

American, European and Iranian negotiators said significant progress was made at three days of talks in Geneva November 9-11th, but it would take at least another meeting to close an agreement. A new meeting between the P5+1 and Iran, at the political director level, is scheduled for next week, November 21-22.

Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with members of the Senate Banking committee behind closed doors Wednesday to press for a delay in legislation under consideration by the panel to tighten loopholes in existing Iran sanctions.

Advocates of increasing the sanctions now say they would increase western negotiators’ leverage and keep psychological pressure on Iran’s leadership, as well as deter foreign companies looking for a wink to resume business with Iran. But US negotiators insist new sanctions now, when Iran is trying to negotiate a deal, would backfire, and risk Iran retreating from the policy of engagement promoted by the new Hassan Rouhani administration and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

New sanctions now could “wind up setting us back in dialogue that has taken 30 years to be able to achieve,” Kerry said as he arrived at the Senate Banking committee Wednesday. “What we are asking everybody to do, is calm down. Look hard at what can be achieved, what the realities are.”

Western officials say that the six powers achieved consensus on a draft proposal that was presented to Iran’s Zarif only in the last hours of the meeting in Geneva. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius raised objections to the text Kerry had been negotiating with Zarif at a meeting hosted by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Geneva Friday.

Though US President Obama and French President Francois Hollande, in a phone call Wednesday, stressed their joint support for the unified P5+1 proposal,
French ambassador to Israel Patrick Maisonneuve told a press conference in Tel Aviv Wednesday that “all of the world powers that negotiated with Iran in Geneva fell in line with the French position,” Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reported.

American diplomats–excited about the first sustained, direct US-Iran negotiations in thirty years, and concerned about opposition to a deal from Congress, Israel and Sunni Gulf allies–may have underestimated the ambivalence and even resentment some P5+1 partners may have felt about the five hour Kerry-Zarif-Ashton meeting on a draft accord in Geneva Friday in which other P5+1 powers were not included. Some European allies, led by France, may have sought to slow down what they saw as an overly hasty deal, some sources suggested.

“We are negotiating for more than 10 years,” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “I think this complex, sensitive question can afford ten more days of negotiations.”

“We made fantastic progress in Geneva,” he added. “We are not far from an agreement.”

Progress, but no deal yet, as Iran talks conclude

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Geneva__ Talks between Iran and six world powers made progress in narrowing differences but did not yield an agreement, despite raised hopes after US Secretary of State John Kerry and other P5+1 foreign ministers flew in over the past two days, in seeming anticipation of a breakthrough.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at a first-ever joint press conference at the conclusion of talks, put an upbeat spin on the past three days’ proceedings, saying significant progress had been made and announcing they would meet again in Geneva on Nov. 20-21, this time at the political director level.

But France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius preempted their press conference, breaking protocol to announce, ahead of Ashton, that they had not reached an agreement.

Earlier Saturday, Fabius announced that he did not accept the draft nuclear accord, abandoning the usual efforts by the P5+1 to project unity and keep details of their internal discussions and disagreements behind closed doors.

“There is an initial text that we do not accept,” Fabius told France’s Inter radio Saturday morning, according to a translation provided by a French reporter here. “There are several points that we are not satisfied with.. If those questions will no be addressed it will not be possible [to reach agreement]. I want a deal but we have to be careful not to be played for fools.”

France’s concerns were reported to center on wanting Iran to halt work on the Arak heavy water facility during the negotiations, as well as on Iran’s stockpile of 20% uranium.

Kerry, speaking after the talks early Sunday, did not explain why a deal couldn’t be closed here, but said he thought an agreement is within reach.

“We came to Geneva to narrow differences, and I can tell you without any exaggeration we not only narrowed differences and clarified those that remain, but we made significant progress,” Kerry said at a press conference after the talks. “There’s no question in my mind that we are closer now, as we leave Geneva, than we were when we came, and that with good work and good faith over the course of the next weeks, we can in fact secure our goal.”

He said the negotiations had been “conducted with mutual respect, in a very serious and civil way.”

Kerry did not mention his unprecedented over eight hours of meetings with Iran’s Zarif over the past two days. But there were signs of a growing sense of ease and normalcy to US-Iran interactions at the talks that did not exist before he and Zarif met on the sidelines of the UN in New York in September.

Iranian diplomats said the meetings between Zarif, Kerry, and Ashton and their top deputies had been good and productive, and expressed optimism about prospects to finalize a nuclear accord in the upcoming weeks.

“I think it was natural, when we start dealing with the details, that there will be differences in views,” Zarif, speaking in English, said at the press conference with Ashton. “I am not disappointed at all, it was a good meeting.”

Western diplomats did not deny frustration over Fabius’ behavior at the talks, but did not disparage the concerns he raised, but rather that he raised them publicly–thus giving the impression that it was the western powers that were divided over the text, and doing so in a way that diminished prospects for a deal here.

France believes that Iran should halt construction of the Arak heavy water reactor during the first phase of a nuclear agreement, which is envisioned to last for six months, during which a comprehensive deal would, in theory, be hammered out. Some other powers believe that Arak could be part of an end state deal, since it is not due to come on line until late 2014.

A former western diplomat said over the past year, France’s political director Jacques Audibert “has repeatedly assured the U.S. side that, if there is a deal in the offing, the French will not stand in the way, their hard-line posturing in past months notwithstanding,” he said, calling it “very surprising…the French are the holdup at this moment.”

But western diplomats privately did not dispute the basic narrative that was the case, and their disappointment.

Kerry, asked at the press conference if the P5+1 had been blindsided by the French position here, answered indirectly, saying the delegations had arrived with a draft document that had some bracketed text that the parties expected to further negotiate on here.

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Diplomat says P5+1 divided over draft Iran accord

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Geneva__ Iran and world powers were supposed to resume ministerial level talks here Saturday morning but the western powers in the P5+1 are divided and were meeting among themselves, a senior diplomat involved in the talks told al-Monitor in an interview Saturday.

“It is obvious, there are serious differences” among the P5+1, the senior diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said. “We were supposed to restart negotiations at 8:30am, but the western side is divided.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry was supposed to resume meetings with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Saturday morning after a five hour meeting Friday that diplomats described as productive. But instead, the State Department said Saturday that Kerry would first meet with Ashton and three European counterparts, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Ashton was then scheduled to meet with Fabius and Zarif.

“In fact, the French are the big upset in the way of an agreement,” the senior diplomat said, on condition his name or nationality not be named.

He said there is a joint P5+1 draft text of a framework agreement the parties have been working on. Good progress was being made, including in the five hour trilateral meeting between Kerry, Zarif and Ashton Friday.

But the French say it is not our text, the diplomat said, a point which Fabius himself subsequently confirmed.

“There is an initial text that we do not accept,” Fabius told France’s Inter radio Saturday morning, according to a translation provided by a French reporter here. “There are several points that we are not satisfied with,” concerning the Arak heavy water facility and Iran’s stockpiles of 20% uranium. “How can we go down to 5% enrichment that is less dangerous. If those questions will no be addressed it will not be possible [to reach agreement]. I wants a deal but we have to be careful not to be played for fools.”

“The question of the Iranian nuclear issue is very important for international security,” Fabius told journalists here Saturday after leaving a meeting with Ashton, Kerry and his European counterparts. “But there are still the important points on which we have to work. I still hope there will be an agreement, but there are still things we have to” resolve.

France’s concerns were reported to center on wanting Iran to halt work on the Arak heavy water facility during the negotiations, as well as on Iran’s stockpile of 20% uranium.

Another P5+1 diplomat told Al-Monitor Saturday that no one is telling the diplomats here what is going on, describing the situation as ‘outrageous.’

Asked about the complaints of a chaotic situation, a spokesperson for Ashton said all of the parties here are working very hard and are making progress.

“The E3+3 continues to work together intensively to make progress on the Iranian nuclear file,” Michael Mann said. “There are a number of meetings going on. And regular debriefings. ”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived here Saturday around 11am to join the talks. He decided to come only late Friday, concerned about an unspecified hitch that had developed in the talks in the afternoon, another diplomat said late Friday.

The Chinese foreign minister is also expected to arrive later Saturday afternoon, reports citing Chinese state radio said.

After talks with Kerry and the Europeans Saturday morning, Kerry, Zarif and Ashton were to resume trilateral talks. It’s still unclear if an agreement will be reached here at this meeting which has extended into a third day, or if talks to sign a possible framework deal will require a subsequent meeting or meetings.

(Photo of US Secretary of State John Kerry, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and his deputies Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht-Ravanchi, by Fars News. Also pictured, US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and nonproliferation James Timbie; and Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid.)

Iran FM Zarif outlines ideas to exit nuclear dispute

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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.)

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.

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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.”

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Appointments: Econ, Syria, NEA

Who will oversee US Syria diplomacy, if Robert Ford, as we first reported, is tapped to succeed Anne Patterson as US Ambassador to Cairo?

US officials told us, as far as they know, the decision on that has not yet been finalized. Ford, in any case, “will do Syria for a few more months,” as he prepares to go to Egypt, one official, speaking not for attribution, said Tuesday.

“I think serious thought should be given to moving the position out of the Department and to the field, along with 'team Syria' currently cloistered in NEA”–the State Department Near East Affairs bureau, one former senior U.S. official told us. “A difference can be made in Turkey and Jordan with the opposition and in interacting with partners. Hard to do anything useful in Washington from inside the NEA bureaucracy.”

Syria needs a US government point of contact, who can “manage the whole inter-agency Syria process,” another current official said. That, in addition to “a seasoned diplomat who speaks Arabic and knows the region and could engage the Syrians.”

Meantime, US officials told the Back Channel that former Clinton White House Middle East advisor Rob Malley has been offered the job of National Security Staff Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs, but as yet has not agreed to take it. (The Back Channel previously reported that the current NSS Senior Director for Iran/Iraq and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar may be nominated to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.)

One possibility is that Malley may instead become a senior advisor on Syria to Secretary of State John Kerry, working out of the front office, a US diplomatic source told the Back Channel. Malley did not respond to numerous queries. He is said to be very close with Frank Lowenstein, Kerry’s deputy Middle East envoy.

Meantime, the Back Channel has learned of several other diplomatic appointments in the works:

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs (NEA) Elizabeth Jones may move to become the deputy to US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) James Dobbins, after her successor Patterson is in place, officials, speaking not for attribution, said. Secretary of State John Kerry last week named deputy SRAP James Warlick, a former US ambassador to Bulgaria, the next US envoy to the OSCE Minsk Group.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for NEA Elizabeth Dibble will become Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in London, US officials tell us. (She didn’t respond to a query.)

US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein is expected to become the next PDAS in the NEA bureau, officials said. Feierstein, who met with Yemen’s president in Sanaa on Tuesday, the State Department said, is expected to serve a few more months there before returning to Washington.

US Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin is expected to be nominated Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment, succeeding Robert Hormats, officials tell the Back Channel. “It’s a done deal,” one official said Tuesday, adding the nomination is expected to be announced the first week of September.

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G-8 urges Syria peace conference, France says Iran's Rouhani could attend


G-8 leaders pressed Tuesday for Syria transition talks to get underway in Geneva “as soon as possible,” but Russia and western powers remain divided on other key issues.

Meantime, in a shift, France said Tuesday it would be willing to have Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani attend the Geneva II Syria peace conference, following the moderate’s surprise victory in Iran presidential elections last week.

“My position is that if he [Rouhani] can be useful, yes, he would be welcome” at the Geneva conference, French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, Agence France Press reported. France previously opposed Iran's attendance at the Geneva conference, while Russia has argued that Iran should be at the table.

A joint communique issued Tuesday by the G-8 powers-—the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia—”strongly” endorsed plans for the Syria peace conference to be held “as soon as possible,” to “implement fully the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012, which sets out a number of key steps beginning with agreement on a transitional governing body with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent,” the document states.

“We remain committed to achieving a political solution to the crisis based on a vision for a united, inclusive and democratic Syria,” it says.

The document calls for the al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front to leave Syria, but does not call on the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from Syria. It also does not mention Bashar al-Assad even once.

American officials pointed to its call for a transition body with full executive authority to be established out of the Geneva meeting as an important area of Russian-western consensus, as well as its demand that Syria give the United Nations access to investigate alleged chemical weapons use.

“There’s agreement with the Russians that there needs to be a path to political transition, that the status quo is unacceptable, and what needs to be focused on is stability for the Syrian people,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department press briefing Tuesday.

“Our position… is there is no role for Assad in Syria,” Psaki said. “However, there is a [place] for those in the regime who are willing to accept the end of Assad’s reign and work for a better future for Syria.”

Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones are due to hold another preparatory meeting with Russian and UN officials next week in Geneva, the State Department said Tuesday. It wasn't clear if the conference would be held in July, or would be pushed back. Continue reading