Ex envoy Ford says could not defend US Syria policy

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Recently retired US Syria envoy Robert Ford told CNN Tuesday that he resigned because he could not defend US policy on Syria.

“I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend American policy,” former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Tuesday.

“We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting…and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat,” said Ford, who resigned in March from the State Department after a three decade diplomatic career.

There is “nothing we can point to that has been very successful to in our policy except the removal of about 93% of some of Assad’s chemicals, but now he is using chlorine gas against his opponents,” Ford said. “The regime simply has no credibility, and our policy is not addressing the Syrian crisis as it needs to.”

Of the growing extremism threat from Syria, Ford said that he and unspecified colleagues had warned more than two years ago that Syria would prove fertile ground for terrorists.

“We warned even as long as two years ago that terrorist groups would go into that vacuum, as we had seen in places like Afghanistan and Somalia and Yemen and Mali,” Ford said. “This is not rocket science.”

Ford said Tuesday that increased US support earlier on in the conflict to moderate Syrian opposition forces could have helped prevent extremists from getting such a big foothold in Syria. And he cast doubt on whether the increased efforts President Obama seemed to be considering ahead of his foreign policy speech at West Point last week would be enough.

“It’s not clear to me yet if they are prepared to ramp up (assistance) in a such a way that would be meaningful on the ground and that’s what matters,” Ford told PBS’s Margaret Warner in a separate interview Tuesday.

Ford, until his retirement one of the State Department’s top Arabists who previously served as US Ambassador to Algeria and deputy US Ambassador to Iraq, is slated to join the Middle East Institute as a senior fellow. He could not immediately be reached Tuesday.

Ford is hardly the first Syria mediator to quit in frustration. UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi resigned last month, as did his predecessor Kofi Annan before him. Former US envoy on Syria transition issues Frederic Hof, who quit in 2012, has also become an outspoken critic of US Syria policy.

As to why Ford had not previously voiced such criticisms in the three months since he resigned, Hof noted in March that Ford was still on the government payroll and required to adhere to official policy and talking points. Ford “will likely speak out when he is free to do so,” Hof, now at the Atlantic Council, wrote.

“For quite some time, the only things keeping Robert in harness were Secretary Kerry’s pleas and Robert’s hope that Kerry could change the policy,” a former diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Tuesday. “In the end he concluded he could no longer serve as apologist-in-chief for a rhetoric-based policy fundamentally unaligned with ground truth in Syria.”

Meantime, in Syria Tuesday, Bashar al-Assad was expected to be declared the winner in presidential polls being run in government-held parts of the country, in elections that the US and western nations have condemned as farcical and illegitimate. Iran, Russia and North Korea have reportedly sent observers to the polls to try to bolster the appearance of legitimacy.

UN Syria envoy Brahimi said to consider resigning


UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with the Russians last week and threatened to resign if they did not get the Syrian regime to seriously negotiate.

Russian diplomats in the meeting said they would like to have another round of Syria peace talks in Geneva, a western official told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

Brahimi responded, what’s the point, if the Syrian regime delegation is only going to insult the opposition delegation, as it did at the last two rounds of talks, the western official, speaking not for attribution, said. The Russians said they did not have as much influence over the Syrian regime as some observers think, and Brahimi said that he thought they did have some, and that they should use it, the official described.

“I would not hold my breath for Geneva,” the western official said, referring to another round of Syria peace talks anytime soon.

The deadlocked Syria diplomatic process comes amid a deepening rift between its chief cosponsors, the US and Russia, over Russia’s de facto occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Brahimi met with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Wednesday. But Brahimi did not speak to reporters after the meeting, and the State Department said it did not yet have information on what was said. Update: Kerry and Brahimi discussed the status of the Geneva talks at their meeting Wednesday, a State Department official told Al-Monitor Thursday. “The talks are still on recess,” the official said. “We look forward to JSR Brahimi’s briefing to the Security Council in closed consultations on March 13.”

Kerry also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, and they were due to meet again in Rome on Thursday.

“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with the Ukrainians, in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it, and overcome the crisis,” Kerry told reporters after his day of meetings in Paris.

“All parties agreed today that it is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue,” Kerry said. “I don’t believe..any of us are served by greater or further confrontation.  And also, we met today to discuss these issues because we cannot and will not allow the integrity of the sovereignty of the country of Ukraine to be violated and for those violations to go unanswered.”

If Brahimi quits as the UN/Arab League special envoy, a possible candidate to succeed him is former Kuwaiti foreign minister Shaikh Mohammad Al Sabah, Gulf News reported Wednesday.

Brahimi is already the second joint UN/Arab League special Syria envoy to consider resigning. His predecessor Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, quit in frustration in the summer of 2012, shortly after the first round of Geneva talks was held.

“Yes, he has threatened to resign, but that isn’t new,” a U.S. official told Al-Monitor Wednesday of Brahimi. “But I suspect he will persist.”

“I don’t want to speak to what his intentions may or may not be,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department Wednesday about whether Brahimi is resigning.  “Obviously, we have confidence in him and he has done a great job convening the beginning of the Geneva process.  There are many paths and many routes that we are pursuing at the same time as it relates to diplomacy in Syria.”

Separately, the United States informed Syria’s mission to the United Nations last month that Syrian diplomats posted there will be confined to within 25 miles of New York, the State Department said Wednesday. A U.S. official said the decision to restrict Syrian diplomats’ movement to the New York area had been in the works for several months, and was not related to the breakdown in talks in recent weeks.

Meantime, Brahimi’s deputy in Damascus, Mokhtar Lamani, resigned on Monday, Al-Arabiya reported.

US Syria envoy Robert Ford also retired last week after serving thirty years as a US diplomat, the State Department announced last Friday (February 28). Daniel Rubenstein, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan and US Consul General in Jerusalem will be tapped to succeed him as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor previously reported.

“I am very, very sorry and I apologize to the Syrian people,” Brahimi told journalists in Geneva last month after the second round of Syria peace talks concluded with no future meeting set, as the Syrian regime side refused to discuss a political transition. The Syrian peoples’ “hopes .. were very, very high here, that something will happen here.”

(Photo of UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva in January by Reuters.)

Kofi Annan faults West for breakdown in Syria mediation efforts


Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on Thursday faulted western countries’ insistence on seeking a UN Security Council Chapter 7 resolution opposed by Russia and China in part for the breakdown of Syria mediation efforts he pursued as joint UN/Arab League Syria envoy earlier this year.

Annan, speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington Thursday, said he was able to broker agreement among the major powers on a six-step Syria transition plan, at a meeting in Geneva in June attended by both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

But immediately after the meeting, the US and European nations went to the UN Security Council to try to get a Chapter 7 resolution that Russia had made clear it opposed because such a resolution had been used to authorize NATO military intervention in Libya. Russia and China vetoed the measure, Annan quit a month later, and the Syria conflict has grown more militarized even as in recent weeks it has seemed to settle into a stalemate.

The Syrian conflict is “not winner take all,” Annan said. “Neither side [is going to] give up, unless presented with a [political] alternative.”

Military intervention is not the answer in every situation, Annan said, adding that in the case of Syria, he believes it would make things worse.

Syria will not implode, Annan said, it will explode, spreading instability and sectarian strife across the region, as increasingly witnessed. An estimated 30,000 Syrians have been killed in the 19 month conflict, that has sent large and potentially destabilizing refugee flows into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and beyond.

“Some governments made the calculation that the fastest way to end the Syria conflict is to arm one side or other,” Annan said, warning, “that is only going to get more people killed.”

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Kofi Annan quits: “I can’t want peace more than protagonists”

UN envoy Kofi Annan has quit his hapless Syria mediation efforts, with a parting memo in the Financial Times blaming a divided international community and Syrian parties’ unwillingness to compromise for the deepening conflict:

There are clear common interests among the regional and international powers in a managed political transition. A conflagration threatens an explosion in the region that could affect the rest of the world. […]

For Russia, China and Iran this means they must take concerted efforts to persuade Syria’s leadership to change course and embrace a political transition, realising the current government has lost all legitimacy. […]

For the US, UK, France, Turkey Saudi Arabia and Qatar this means pressing the opposition to embrace a fully inclusive political process – that will include communities and institutions currently associated with the government. This also means recognising that the future of Syria rises and falls on more than the fate of just one man.

“Thank you Kofi Annan for your dedication, service and determined efforts to promote a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Syria,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said on Twitter.

 (Photo Joint Special Envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan looks out of a window from his office before a meeting with Major-General Robert Mood of Norway at the United Nations in Geneva July 20, 2012. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.)

Syria: ‘The next 24 hours are crucial’

By Barbara Slavin and Laura Rozen

The assassination Wednesday (July 18) of key members of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle marked a dramatic turning point in the Syrian rebellion, but the growing prospect of regime collapse seemed to offer no near-term reprieve from the bloodshed and chaos that have engulfed one of the Middle East’s most pivotal nations.

“The next 24 hours are crucial,” Aram Nerguizian, a military expert and Levant specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Al-Monitor after the deaths of Assad’s brother in law, defense minister and other key officials were announced by Syrian state television.

“Either the regime and the security services hang together and try to recalibrate from this … or we move on to next phase of the crisis: decay and truly sectarian strife with the potential for even deeper cantonization,” Nerguizian said.

“It could go either way at this point, either triggering rapid regime collapse or massive regime assaults,” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University who consults the Obama administration on the region, told Al Monitor by email Wednesday. “Either way I think, as I have for months, that Assad is doomed.  But his choices today will have a serious effect on the amount of bloodshed and pain Syrians will have to suffer.”

“Let’s hope that the momentum sustains itself and Assad flees,” Lynch said.  “We’re not there yet. …. Even if he goes there’s a lot of post-Assad issues for which nobody really prepared — the price of the fragmented opposition and power of armed groups.”

Indeed, Nerguizian last week predicted a “protracted civil war like in Lebanon or Algeria” even if Assad steps down. Tensions between majority Sunnis and Assad’s Alawite clan, as well as regional and economic inequities in Syria, ensure continuing bloodshed, he told an audience at CSIS.

The Syrian opposition remains divided, with no transitional government groomed to take Assad’s place as was the case in Libya.

The international community is also divided, with Russia and Iran clinging to the Assad regime despite its horrific crackdown on Syrians over the past 17 months. A UN mission whose main achievement has been to investigate some of the human rights atrocities that have taken place in the country is about to see its mandate expire unless a divided Security Council can agree on new terms for extending it. UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan called Wednesday for the UN Security Council to postpone a planned vote Wednesday on a new Syria resolution as diplomats consulted at the highest level on the unfolding situation.

In Washington, official reaction to developments was mixed. “There is real momentum against Assad, with increasing defections, and a strengthened and more united opposition that is operating across the country,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement, adding “it’s time for the Syrian people and the international community to focus on what comes next.” US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking Wednesday at the Pentagon with his British counterpart, had a more cautious take, saying events on the ground appeared to be “rapidly spinning out of control.” British Defense Secretary Phillip Hammond warned Assad that use of Syria’s substantial chemical weapons stockpile “would not be tolerated.”

Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov said a “decisive battle” was underway in Damascus, but reiterated Moscow’s opposition to any UN resolution that would authorize international intervention in the country. “Adopting a resolution against this backdrop would amount to a direct support for the revolutionary movement,” Lavrov told reporters at a news conference in Moscow Wednesday, Reuters reported

Randa Slim, a Syria expert at the New America Foundation, noted that the Syrian regime “still has a lot of firepower.” While she called the semi-decapitation of the government the “beginning of the end of the regime,” she said that it was possible that both Iran and Hezbollah would intervene more forcefully to try to rescue Assad. Continue reading

Draft UN resolution calls for sanctions if Syria troops don't stop killing in 10 days

The Back Channel is posting a draft UN Security Council resolution circulating on Syria, dated July 12, 2012. The draft resolution, written by British diplomats in close consultation with the US, France, and Germany, calls for sanctions to be imposed if Syrian forces do not stop their assault on population centers within ten days.

It also calls for full implementation of envoy Kofi Annan's 6-point plan, and for the UN monitoring mission to be renewed for 45 days.

The Security Council, “acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations” calls on Syrian authorities to “cease troop movements towards population centres, …use of heavy weapons in such centres, …and to withdraw its troops and heavy weapons from population centres to their barracks.”

It further “decides that, if the Syrian authorities have not fully complied with [the] … above within ten days, then it shall impose immediately measures under Article 41 of the UN Charter,” the draft resolution states.

The resolution “includes a clear threat of sanctions if the regime fails in its first step of stopping the use of heavy weapons with a fixed timeline,” Mark Lyall Grant, the U.K.’s UN envoy in New York, said Tuesday, Bloomberg News' Flavia Krause-Jackson reported Thursday.  “We’ve heard a lot of commitments in the past. They have not been followed through.” Continue reading

Human Rights Watch report identifies 27 Syrian torture centers

Human Rights Watch has identified 27 facilities throughout Syria where Syrian intelligence agents have tortured tens of thousands of people detained since the start of the uprising in March 2011, the rights group said in a report released Tuesday.

Based on more than 200 interviews with former detainees, including women and children, and defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies, this report focuses on 27 of these detention facilities. For each facility, most of them with cells and torture chambers and one or several underground floors, we provide the exact location, identify the agencies responsible for operating them, document the type of ill-treatment and torture used, and name, to the extent possible, the individuals running them. The facilities included in this report are those for which multiple witnesses have indicated the same location and provided detailed descriptions about the use of torture. The actual number of such facilities is likely much higher.

In charge of Syria’s network of detention facilities are the country’s four main intelligence agencies, commonly referred to collectively as the mukhabarat.

The 12-page report also identifies the commanders of a dozen of the facilities. (Those identified with command responsibility for torture in the report are likely to become the targets of legal cases in the United States and Europe, an expert from the region suggests.) Continue reading

Hillary Clinton: China, Russia must “show Assad the writing on the wall”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday downplayed changes made to the text of a joint statement on what should be done in Syria that was issued by major powers meeting in Geneva.

Russia continued to oppose language in the statement calling for a political transition under which Bashar al-Assad would be required to leave power. But Clinton insisted the edits agreed at the meeting convened by UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan Saturday did not alter that key demand.

“Assad will still have to go,” Clinton told reporters in Geneva Saturday.  “He will never pass the mutual consent test, given the blood on his hands.”

The plan agreed at the Action Group on Syria meeting calls “for the Assad regime to give way to a new transitional governing body that will have full governance powers,” Clinton said.

Indeed, Clinton continued, “we and our partners made absolutely clear to Russia and China that it is now incumbent upon them to show Assad the writing on the wall.”

“The unity government should be formed on the basis of ‘mutual consent,'” Annan stressed Saturday, Russia Today reported, which noted that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “also pointed out the new document does not command a political process for Syria.”

A draft Action Group communique dated June 28 and obtained by Al Monitor called for “..an immediate cessation of violence in all its forms; …guidelines’ and principles for a political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people; and … actions …[to] support [Annan’s] …efforts to facilitate a Syrian- led political process.”

But an Annan-proposed “non-paper,” dated a day earlier (June 27), called explicitly for the formation of a transitional government in Syria that would exclude certain actors. Continue reading

Kofi Annan calls for Syria national unity government; UN plans for 200,000 refugees

UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan is calling for a national unity government in Syria as a way out of the escalating conflict that has seen Syria’s refugee population more than double since March to almost 100,000 people.

Annan’s proposal, contained in a diplomatic ‘non-paper,’ comes as he convenes a meeting of the newly-formed Action Group on Syria–the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, Turkey and the Arab League–in Geneva on Saturday. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will represent Washington at the gathering.

“The conflict in Syria will only end when all sides are assured that there is a peaceful way towards a common future for all in Syria,” Annan’s diplomatic memo– entitled ‘Non-paper, guidelines and principles for a Syria-led transition,’ and posted by the UN-Report blog, states:

It is therefore essential that any settlement provides for clear and irreversible steps in transition according to a fixed time frame. The key steps in any transition include: – The establishment of a Transitional Government of National Unity which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place

The national unity government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups,” the non-paper says, “but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation”–namely, Bashar al-Assad.

Annan, announcing the Action Group Wednesday, defined its objectives as to forge international consensus on “concrete actions” to lead to a cessation of violence, that has claimed almost 15,000 lives. Clinton and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov are due to meet in St. Petersburg, Russia Friday, ahead of attending the Geneva forum.  Iran and Saudi Arabia were both denied invitations to the Action Group meeting, as a compromise based on the U.S.’ insistence Iran be excluded.

The meeting comes as the Independent Commission of Inquiry for Syria this week delivered an interim report that found that militarization of the Syria conflict is intensifying, as arms flow to anti-regime groups.”The main thing we identified is an intensification of military conflict as anti-government armed groups have acquired more weapons, more people and they are able to do their own kind of damage against the Syrian army, and acquire some territory–at least temporarily,” Karen AbuZayd, a member of the Commission, told Al-Monitor in an interview Wednesday from Geneva.

“This is an armed insurrection, not just a little guerrilla warfare … and it is much worse for the people,” AbuZayd said. Meantime, Assad regime forces continue their full fledged assault on Syrian population centers, based on patterns they have employed over the past year: prolonged shelling of the town, entering the city and targeting populations with unlawful killings, torture, etc., “moving from one place to the other,” AbuZayd said. Continue reading

Robert Ford: Russia, Iran aiding Assad regime

Russia and Iran continue to arm and supply Syria’s Assad regime, U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford wrote Friday. Ford, who was pulled from Damascus late last year over security concerns, also posted satellite images of Haoula, Syria, taken May 18 and May 28th, 2012. The more recent image (above right) “shows that the ground had been recently disturbed,” Ford wrote, suggesting possible digging of a mass grave:

To echo what Secretary Clinton said yesterday, the violent situation in Syria is a destabilizing force in the region. Russia continues to supply the Syrian military with arms. We all know that the Iranian regime’s interests are deeply embedded in the Assad regime’s survival – it is directly supporting the Syrian government through lethal and non-lethal means, and its revolutionary guard corps (IRGC) and intelligence services are coaching the Syrian military. The IRGC’s Qods force, which takes explicit instruction from the Iranian regime, appears to be helping set up the sectarian government-affiliated militias in Syria commonly referred to as the Shabiha. On the other hand, Syria’s neighbors like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon are concerned about the role this conflict will play in their countries. Therefore, we call on the Syrian regime implement all other elements of Annan’s six-point plan so that a political process can begin to address the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.