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.

Iran chides criticism of Syria elections plan

The Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, meeting with UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, criticized international objections to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad running in new elections, and suggested that the UN role in Syria is less than neutral.

Ali Shamkhani, in a two-hour meeting with Brahimi in Tehran Sunday, “expressed strong worry” that the UN was being influenced by the “will of certain countries that are opposed to the restoration of stability in Syria,” the Islamic Republic News Agency reported. “The SNSC secretary said he was surprised that some countries are worried lest democracy would prevail and the peopleˈs choice would be respected in Syria.”

Brahimi, speaking to reporters at the UN last week, warned if Assad ran in new elections, the Syrian opposition would likely refuse to return to reconciliation talks.

But Syria–and its Iranian patron–seen intent on pressing ahead. “Syria 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.

Shamkhani, an ethnic Arab who served as Minister of Defense in the Khatami administration, was expected to play a key role in Iran’s handling of the Syria crisis, Ali Hashem reported at Al-Monitor in September.

Brahimi, on a two-day visit to Iran, also met with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Afffairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian Monday.

“Illusions have cost 150k lives in Syria,” Zarif wrote on Twitter Monday after meeting Brahimi, before he traveled to Vienna for talks with the P5+1. “Reality check=progress.”

Amir-Abdollahian, according to IRNA, said that Iran has proposed a four-point plan for resolving the Syrian crisis. “The details of the plan have not been publicly announced but we are following up on it through negotiations and diplomatic consultations,” IRNA cited Amir-Abdollahian, who published an article on the plan at Al-Monitor (March 5).

Separately, the State Department on Monday announced that Daniel Rubenstein will succeed Robert Ford as the US Special Envoy for Syria, as Al-Monitor previously reported.

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UN urges Russia, US to resume Syria peace talks


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

‘A good beginning,’ Brahimi says of first day of Syria peace talks

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Geneva, Switzerland __ UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said representatives from Syria’s two warring sides met in the same room for about three hours on Saturday for the first time.

“They have talked to each other this afternoon,” Brahimi told journalists at a Geneva press conference at the conclusion of the first day of joint talks Saturday. Describing the set up in the room where the parties met in the UN’s Palais des Nations, he said, “One delegation was at a table on the left, the other on the right, facing each other. They talk through me, to one another. ”

“This is what happens in civilized discussions, ” Brahimi said. “i think it is a good beginning.”

“We have not achieved much, but we are continuing,” Brahimi said.

In the afternoon, the two sides discussed a UN proposal to send an aid convoy into the besieged Syrian city of Homs. But the Syrian government negotiator, Syrian UN envoy Bashar Jaafari, claimed to be unaware of it, in spite of the fact that Russia had previously presented the proposal to the Syrian regime, diplomats said. The proposal is currently under review by the Syrian government for possible approval Sunday, Brahimi said.

The two sides plan to discuss prisoner releases on Sunday, Brahimi said, with a push first for the release of women and children held by the regime, Syrian opposition delegates said.

The Syrian opposition praised what they called the preparatory talks on confidence building measures, and said talks would turn to the more politically sensitive issue of the formation of the transitional governing body beginning on Monday.

“The most important element discussed today was on humanitarian corridors for Homs, which has been besieged for the past 19 months without food,” Louay Safi, a spokesman for the Syrian Opposition Coalition negotiating team, told journalists at a press conference Saturday evening.

“Now we are going through the preparatory phase of securing the release of detainees,” Safi said.

Safi, notably, took several questions from Syrian state media, and made a point of thanking the reporters for their questions and striking a calm, civil tone.

“Why do you not accept elections?” a reporter from a Syrian state radio outlet asked. “What balance do you have among your people inside Syria? Can you give guarantees to kidnapped civilians, ….why speak only of [a humanitarian corridor for the] small area of Homs.”

“Thank you very much,’ Safi said before answering her question. “These are very important questions.”

“We want humanitarian corridors in all areas, but Homs is like a test balloon,” Safi said. “We want to see if the regime is willing to provide food to people who are starving, not hungry, but starving.”

When a Syrian state news agency SANA reporter asked the opposition spokesman, aren’t all the people left in the old city of Homs terrorists, Safi remained calm as he disagreed. There are 500 civilian families in Homs, men, women, children, without running water for over 8 months, digging wells and eating animals on the street to survive, he said.

Another reporter asked what the opposition might offer in exchange for concessions by the Syrian regime.

“Actually we are offering to save Syria from destruction,” Safi said.

“Many people in Syria would like to know about where we stand,” Safi said, noting Syrian state media propaganda pursuing a campaign to portray the Syrian opposition as terrorists. “We think the people need to hear from us.”

Syria parties to meet in same room, ‘understand what is at stake’: Brahimi

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Geneva, Switzerland__ The United Nations’ Syria envoy announced that Syria’s two bitterly divided parties have agreed to sit down together in the same room Saturday for the first time, after refusing to do so today, and that he was cautiously encouraged by the discussions he had with the two sides separately over the past two days.

“Tomorrow, [the two sides] have agreed to meet in the same room,” Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat who serves as the joint UN/Arab League envoy for Syria, told journalists at a press conference at the Palais des Nations Friday.

“We never expected it to be easy, but I think the two parties understand what is at stake,” Brahimi said. “Their country is in very bad shape.”

Brahimi said both the Syrian government and opposition delegations had agreed to endorse an effort to seek a UN Security Council resolution, that would call for the international community to support the implementation of the Geneva 1 communique. The consenses document, reached at a July 2012 meeting of world powers, called for the formation of a transitional governing body to be formed, by mutual consent between the Syrian parties, and which would have full executive authority.

Brahimi downplayed, however, the daunting task of clarifying ‘ambiguities’, as he put it, in the parties’ differing interpretations of provisions of the Geneva 1 document. But he made no pretense of what a long, tough road it will be to try to bring the parties to a political resolution of the conflict that has killed over 100,000 people.

“We knew it would be difficult, …. complicated,” he said. “In our business, certainty is a very rare commodity. ”

He said the negotiators will discuss humanitarian issues such as localized ceasefires and detainee releases, but in parallel, not in place of, the thornier issue of a political transition and formation of a transition governing body, Brahimi stressed.

Western diplomats later said the two sides are expected to discuss as early as Saturday a possible agreement that would allow for rapid humanitarian access to the besieged Syrian city of Homs. “We are going for a quick win, ” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution Friday, said. Talk about a transitional body could be on the agenda in as soon as two days time. Brahimi is mindful that he had to move on the transition, a diplomat said.

Brahimi, speaking to journalists Friday, said he envisioned that the parties might continue talking here in Geneva through the end of next week, before returning to the region for consultations, and hopefully later resuming negotiations in the weeks ahead.

The United States said it welcomed Brahimi’s announcement that the two sides will meet Saturday in the same room. “Such a meeting is a positive step forward in what we expect will be a long and complicated process, ” a senior US official said, adding “you should not perceive every obstacle or challenge that arises throughout the process as a deal-breaker or a collapse.”

Beyond US strikes, signs of intensifying UN diplomacy on Syria

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Even amid mounting signs the U.S. will soon conduct strikes in Syria, the White House made clear Tuesday that the purpose of the intervention would be limited and narrow, to uphold the universal prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. There were also signs of intensifying UN diplomacy behind the scenes to make way for a Syria peace conference in Geneva this fall.

“I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists at a White House press conference Tuesday. “They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.”

While “it is our firm conviction that Syria’s future cannot include Assad in power,” Carney continued, “this deliberation and the actions that we are contemplating are not about regime change.”

“We believe…that resolution of this conflict has to come through political negotiation and settlement,” Carney said.

Indeed, even as the U.S. advanced its public case for a limited air campaign in Syria, there were signs of intensifying United Nations preparations for a Geneva 2 Syria transition talks conference.

UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former top US diplomat, met with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif Monday on Syria, and reportedly urged Iran to be calm if there is US-led action on Syria.

“Mr. Feltman shared the U.N. position that Iran, given its influence and leadership in the region, has an important role to play and a responsibility in helping to bring the Syrian parties to the negotiating table,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said Tuesday, Reuters reported.

Feltman, in his meetings in Iran, discussed “the worsening situation on the ground in Syria, including the U.N.'s grave concerns about the potential use of chemical weapons and how the U.N. can work together with Iran and other states to end the bloodshed and suffering of the Syrian people,” Haq said.

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, meantime, is scheduled to give a news conference from Geneva on Wednesday. (Brahimi has reportedly reportedly moved his base to Geneva to prepare for the conference.)

Following Feltman's visit, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, notably, issued a strong call for the international community to uphold the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.

“Iran gives notice to international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in Syria,” Rouhani wrote on his official Twitter account Tuesday, after noting, twice, that it is his only official English language Twitter feed, and that Iran has itself been the victim of chemical weapons attack, by Iraq in the 1980s.

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Kerry meets Syria opposition

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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Brahimi on Syria: 'We need to get out of this vicious circle'

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Monday that divisions in the Syrian opposition are a key factor delaying a planned peace conference, as well as remaining differences between Washington and Moscow over who should attend.

“The opposition is divided, that is no secret,” Brahimi, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Monday, in response to a question from Al-Monitor about why the Geneva II conference has been pushed back until at least the fall.

“They are trying to get their act together, [and] work their way to a truly representative delegation,” he said. “So that is one of the problems.”

Praising the May 7th agreement reached by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to hold a peace conference as a “huge step,” Brahimi however acknowledged that the two powers still have disagreements, including over whether Iran should be invited.

“No doubt there are differences about who should come,” Brahimi said. “That is not worked out yet.” Kerry and Lavrov are expected to meet in the next couple weeks, when Lavrov travels to New York and Washington, Brahimi said.

“The UN has made very clear that [it thinks]… all countries with interests and/or influence [in Syria] should attend Geneva,” he said.

Brahimi was in Washington Monday as a member of a group of retired world leaders involved in peace-making work called the Elders, that includes former US President Jimmy Carter, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Finnish Nobel Laureate Martti Ahtisaari, Ireland’s Mary Robinson, and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who preceded Brahimi as the joint UN/Arab League special envoy on Syria. Brahimi, Carter, Ahtisaari and Robinson met Monday with US Secretary of State John Kerry and US National Security Advisor Susan Rice to discuss Kerry’s Middle East peace efforts and Syria.

“There is no military solution,” Brahimi, 79, said. “We are still working [out] accumulated differences amongst ourselves. But I think we’re moving forward. The opposition is working its way slowly… If it gets [its representation worked out], it’s not time wasted, but time gained.”

He responded obliquely to a question about whether he believes Syrian President Bashar Assad will have to leave power – a key demand of the Syrian opposition. The 30 June 2012 Geneva declaration, approved by both Washington and Moscow, calls for the creation of a governing body that would have full executive power, and that would govern the country until elections take place, he said. Continue reading

Friday links: Abbas not seeking right of return, US Syria plan faces resistance

France seeks to toughen UN statement on Syria ceasefire


France has proposed revisions to a draft UN Security Council press statement on Syria, as UN/Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi seeks the body’s support for a cease-fire for the Eid Al Adha holiday on October 26.

In particular, France is seeking revisions to the text that would single out the Syrian regime for greater responsibility for the violence that has killed an estimated 30,000 people, over the armed opposition to Bashar al-Assad, according to a copy of the proposed revised draft provided to Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“The Council must stress that the responsabilty [sic] lies first on the Syrian authorities to stop the killings,” the memo from France’s UN diplomats to other UN Security Council members proposing their revisions states. “This has been a consistent principle of the UNSC since the start of the crisis. We thus retained the formulation of the [Secretary General’s] SG statement “in particular on the Government of the Syrian Arab republic as the stronger party.'”

Former UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan last week faulted great power divisions and western insistence on seeking a UN “Chapter 7” resolution for the breakdown of a fragile accord he hammered out in Geneva in June. Russia, which vields a veto in the body, has opposed a Chapter 7 resolution on Syria, complaining such a measure was used to authorize NATO-led military intervention against Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

Meantime, some Syria scholars previously on the fence about deeper US entanglement in the conflict have shifted their positions, as spillover from the Syria conflict increasingly threatens to destabilize in particular Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

“The US government should tell Assad that he must launch serious negotiations for a transition government,” Syria scholar Joshua Landis wrote at his blog Monday. “If he does not, Western governments should supply opposition militias with ground to air missiles in sufficient numbers to bring down the Syrian air-force.”

The French mark-up of the draft UN Security Council press statement on the Syria ceasefire, identified as version 3, below.

Security Council Draft Press Statement on Ceasefire in Syria

The members of the Security Council welcomed the important and timely initiative of the Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States, Lakhdar Brahimi, for a ceasefire and a cessation of violence in all its forms during the period of Eid Al Adha, and echoed the joint appeal of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations and the League of Arab States to all regional and international actors to support it. Continue reading