Kerry meets Syria opposition

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Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking ahead of a meeting with Syrian opposition leaders Thursday, said the United States and Russia remain committed to holding a Syria peace conference “as soon as possible.”

“There is no military solution to Syria,” Kerry said in remarks with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on the Great Lakes region Thursday. “There is only a political solution, and that will require leadership in order to bring people to the table.”

Kerry said he spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Wednesday, and they reaffirmed their agreement to bring Syrian regime and opposition representatives together for transition talks in Geneva when feasible. “We remain committed to the effort to bring the parties to a Geneva 2 to implement Geneva 1, and we will try our hardest to make that happen as soon as is possible.”

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Monday that divisions in the Syrian opposition are delaying the Geneva conference, as well as differences between Washington and Moscow including over who should attend.

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Morsi ousted: Egypt army suspends constitution, calls early elections

Egypt's military chief announced Wednesday that it was stepping in to transfer power from Egypt's Islamist President Mohammad Morsi to a technocratic government ahead of early parliamentary and presidential polls.

“President Mohammad Morsi has failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people,” Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sissi said in a televised address to the nation Wednesday, al-Arabiya reported.

Flanked by Muslim and Christian clerics and opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei, al-Sissi vowed “not to exclude anyone or any movement” from Egypt's political process.

He said Egypt's military did not plan to become involved in politics, but was responding to the demands of the people, as witnessed in some of the largest protests ever seen. But shortly after he spoke, to fireworks and ecstatic cheers of anti-Morsi protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Sqaure, the Muslim Brotherhood's television station “went blank,” the Associated Press reported.

Morsi was reported to have been taken to an undisclosed location. A statement on his Facebook page said “that the measures announced by the Armed Forces' General Command, are considered a 'military coup,' …and this is rejected,” Al-Arabiya reported.

“What we are seeing now is a major change in the dynamics in the region,” an Egyptian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The idea that you need a secular dictator to protect you from religious autocracy is falling apart.”

The “lively forces of the population are the ones who will oust the dictatorship–secular or religious,” the Egyptian official continued.

Egyptians did not accept that they have to choose between an autocratic Muslim Brotherhood government or military rule, he said. If they didn't like the next government, he said, Egyptians would take to the streets again and bring it down, too.

Morsi's ouster came as the United States had steadily distanced itself from him over the past 48 hours, while insisting that it wasn't taking sides.

President Morsi, in a speech Tuesday, “had an opportunity to lay out some specific steps” to show responsiveness to the demands of the protesters, “and he did not take the opportunity to do that,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at a press conference Wednesday. Meantime, the State Department on Wednesday also ordered non-emergency U.S. personnel and diplomats' family members to leave Egypt, and urged American citizens to defer travel to Egypt due to the unrest.

The Saudi King and UAE Foreign Minister both sent congratulations to the Egyptian caretaker government and its appointed head, Supreme Court Justice Adli Mansour.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton spoke with ElBaradei Wednesday, and “urged all sides in Egypt to return rapidly to the democratic process,” her spokesperson Michael Mann said.

(Top Photo: Protesters, who are against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, react in Tahrir Square in Cairo July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem. Second photo: Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi addressing the nation on Egyptian State Television Wednesday, July 3, 2013. AP Photo/Egyptian State Television.)

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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

Top US Syria envoy expected to step down


The top US diplomat on Syria Robert Ford plans to step down this summer, several US officials tell the Back Channel.

Ford, who was confirmed as US Ambassador to Syria in 2011 after serving there since 2010 under a recess appointment, saw his job transformed by the unrest that has long since escalated into a full scale civil war. Earlier this month Ford traveled into Syria from Turkey with a convoy of US food aid, to meet with Syrian rebel commanders and urge them to support transition talks planned to be held in Geneva next month.

Ford was again in Turkey Wednesday trying, along with his French, Arab and Turkish diplomatic colleagues, to push Syria’s opposition to agree to expand and diversify its leadership ranks.

He is said by multiple officials to be exhausted, including from his efforts trying to unify the fractious Syrian opposition. The Back Channel was unable to reach Ford Wednesday.

Ford is expected to stay on for the Syria peace conference in Geneva next month, and possibly step aside in July. (One source thought Ford might next take a job at the State Department Inspector General office, but that couldn’t be confirmed.) It is still unclear who will succeed him in the Syria job, or if the role might be revamped to create a special US envoy to the Syrian opposition, State Department sources said.

(The Back Channel previously reported that US Middle East peace envoy David Hale will be nominated to be the next US Ambassador to Lebanon. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East senior advisor Frank Lowenstein is expected to succeed Hale working the Middle East peace portfolio that Kerry has personally spearheaded. US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson will be nominated to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for the Near Eastern Affairs.)

Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones will travel to Geneva next week to meet Russian counterparts to prepare for the Geneva 2 conference, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki announced Wednesday.

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Appointments: Philip Gordon to White House, Jake Sullivan to OVP

As the Back Channel first reported, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Philip Gordon will be taking over the former Dennis Ross “Central Region” portfolio on Obama’s National Security Staff, the Back Channel has confirmed.

Gordon will have the title of NSS senior director for the Central Region–roughly but not entirely parallel to the military's Central Command region–with senior directors for the Middle East/North Africa, Persian Gulf, and part of South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, but not India) reporting to him.

Still unclear is if NSS Senior Director for Europe and Eurasia Liz Sherwood-Randall will be named to succeed Gary Samore as the White House coordinator for WMD, or if the post will go to Samore’s deputy Laura Holgate. Sources had previously suggested the post may shift in Obama's second term from a “czar”/coordinator role to that of a deputy national security advisor.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, a former US ambassador to NATO, may succeed Gordon as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, officials told the Back Channel. Jen Psaki is heading to State as spokeswoman, Al Kamen reported.

Hillary Clinton’s State Department policy planning director Jake Sullivan will succeed Antony Blinken as national security advisor to Vice President Biden, multiple officials said. (H/T @NatSecWonk.) Blinken was made the new principal deputy National Security Advisor, succeeding Denis McDonough, who President Obama last month named his new White House chief of staff.
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Dave McKeon, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chief of staff, will head State Policy Planning, a former State Department official told the Back Channel Friday.

Under Secretary of State for Policy Wendy Sherman is staying on, as is Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, officials told the Back Channel this week. Continue reading