Israel's Ehud Barak heads to Washington

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Israel's outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak departed for Washington on Monday, ahead of the arrival later this week of a high-level Israeli delegation coming to Washington for consultations, apparently as part of the US-Israel strategic dialogue.

Barak “departed this morning for a working visit to the US,” the Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement sent to the Back Channel Monday. “During his visit he will meet with senior administration officials and the heads of the intelligence and defense establishments.”

Later in the week an Israeli delegation led by Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror and including Yitzhak Molho is due to arrive in Washington for consultations with their American counterparts, Haaretz reported. Israeli and American officials did not immediately confirm to the Back Channel if the consultations are part of the semi-annual US-Israel strategic dialogue, co-led by Amidror and US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

The visits come ahead of planned trips to the region by Secretary of State John Kerry later this month and President Obama’s first presidential trip to Israel next month, and amid a steady tempo of high-level Israeli-American security consultations.
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Israeli military jets struck an alleged weapons convoy near Syria’s border with Lebanon late last month.

The visits also come as reports suggest Iran may be slowing down growth of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defined as a key Israeli “red line.” Continue reading

Israeli jets said to have struck target near Syria border

The Lebanese Army reported the heavy presence of Israeli jets over its airspace on Wednesday, as sources in the region said Israeli Air Force jets had struck a target, possibly anti-aircraft systems, near Syria's border with Lebanon overnight.

Israeli officials would not comment on the reports.

“There was definitely a hit in the border area,” an unnamed regional security source told Reuters.

“The Israeli air force blew up a convoy which had just crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon,” an unnamed security source told Agence France Press.

A source in the region told Al-Monitor the alleged target was anti-aircraft systems, or a convoy of components for such systems, but that could not be confirmed. The Associated Press reported that the target was SA-17 anti-aircraft missile defenses.

Syria possesses advanced anti-aircraft defense systems, including the Russian-made SA-17 (and, Israel believes, Russian made S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles). Israel would consider it a “game changer” if Hezbollah acquired such advanced systems, that would “change the balance of power” between Israel and Hezbollah, and interfere with Israel's ability to overfly Lebanon and deter Hezbollah, an Israeli security expert told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity Wednesday.

Israeli sources told McClatchy that what was targeted was electronic radar equipment, that targets the GPS system of drones, such as the U.S. unmanned aerial surveillance vehicle that went down over Iran in 2011.

“The entire world has said more than once that it takes developments in Syria very seriously, developments which can be in negative directions,” Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio Wednesday.

A Hezbollah spokesperson told Lebanon's Daily Star he had no knowledge of the alleged Israeli strike, the paper reported. Regional sources suggested it might be in the interests of the parties involved, including Syria, Hezbollah and Israel, not to acknowledge a strike if one occurred.

Earlier Wednesday, a Lebanese army statement said a total of twelve Israeli planes had entered Lebanese air space in three waves overnight, beginning at 4:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. ET) on Tuesday, and leaving on Wednesday at 7:55 a.m (12:55 a.m. ET), Reuters reported.

Israeli media, circumscribed by military censorship, cited Lebanese and other foreign media reports on the developments, which came after days of intense and secretive security consultations in Israel and with foreign capitals.

IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi traveled to Washington for closed-door consultations with American officials Tuesday, Al-Monitor exclusively reportedTuesday. Israeli officials would not comment on the focus of his consultations.

Among those Kochavi met at the Pentagon Tuesday was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, defense sources told Al-Monitor.

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Official: US proposed map to Israel and Lebanon to advance maritime gas exploration

The United States has presented Lebanon and Israel with a map proposing how they might bypass their border disputes in order to advance exploration for natural gas buried under their territorial waters, a senior State Department official publicly revealed for the first time last week.

“The ideas we have presented for boundaries were addressed by the highest standards of cartography and science–not politics,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Diplomacy Amos Hochstein told an Aspen Institute meeting on Eastern Mediterranean energy issues last week (November 29). “We believe they are the right boundaries.”

“This is not a matter of changing the borders. Let’s not confuse those,” Hochstein cautioned. However, he continued, “addressing these boundaries would remove at least one area of potential conflict between [Eastern Mediterranean] countries and give confidence to investors.”

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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

A visit to the blast scene in Beirut

My colleague Ben Gilbert, Al-Monitor’s news editor, reports from the scene of Friday’s blast in Beirut, that reportedly killed Maj. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, head of intelligence of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, and seven others.

A car bomb tore through a predominantly Christian neighborhood of Beirut on Friday, killing at least eight people — including Wissam Hassan, a senior intelligence officer in Lebanon’s National Police Force — and wounding more than 70.

A visit to the scene shows that the explosion, which occurred at 2:50pm local time, tore at least one car in half and gutted many others. It ripped balconies from buildings, scattered glass and metal several blocks away from the blast site, and even tore leaves from trees.
Bloodied civilians could be seen being dragged from the area as ambulances attempted to evacuate the wounded to nearby hospitals. One small girl, carried away from the rubble, was bleeding heavily from deep gashes on her head and upper arms.

“It broke all the windows and shook the house,” Ghassan Baroudi, who was at home in the building next to the bomb when the blast struck, told Al-Monitor. “I saw a screaming woman get out of her car and a man running across the street carrying an infant. The child was okay, but the man was covered in blood.”

“We feared another explosion so we left and went around the back,” Baroudi, 28, added.
The bomb attack was the worst of its kind to hit Lebanon for more than four years, when a wave of political assassinations killed dozens of civilians and several officials between 2004 and 2007.

The explosion occurred just off Beirut’s Sassine Square, a major traffic junction in the capital’s eastern Ashrafieh district lined with several shops, cafes and restaurants.
Nour Kassab, a ninth-grade student living on the street where the bomb exploded, was visiting her cousin in a nearby restaurant when the blast hit.

“I came to my house and there was fire in the street,” she told Al-Monitor. “Cars were on fire and my neighbors were coming down from the buildings covered in blood. I was so scared I couldn’t move. ‘Oh my God,’ I thought. ‘The house is gone. There is nothing left.'”

Nour’s uncle, Toni Haddad, expressed the fear of many residents that the conflict in neighboring Syria was spreading to Lebanon. “The Shiites and Sunnis, the Russians and Americans and Qataris and Syrians, now they are bringing their war to Lebanon.”

The reported target of Friday’s blast, Lebanese police intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan, was a close ally of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a foe of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Saad Hariri on Friday accused Assad of the killing.

At a watch repair shop around the corner from where the bomb went off, owner Jimmy, who didn’t want to give his last name, swept the glass shards of what was once the store’s glass façade into the sidewalk.

“I had forgotten what a bomb sounds like, said Jimmy, who showed Al-Monitor scars on his leg he said was from one of the bombs that exploded 100 feet away from this one in 1978. “It’s funny how you can forget it, and I did.”

Ben Gilbert, Al-Monitor’s news editor, tweets @benrgilbert

(Photo: Firefighters try to extinguish a fire as a car burns at the scene of an explosion in Ashafriyeh, central Beirut, October 19, 2012. REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban)

Syria’s Moallem to lead delegation to UN in New York

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem will lead the country’s delegation traveling to New York next week for events surrounding the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Moallem is expected to arrive in New York around September 24, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

His visit comes as the international community remains divided over how to contain the civil war that has engulfed the country over the past 18 months, killing over 20,000 people and spurring a refugee exodus to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Western countries remain reluctant to intervene in the conflict, and the prospect looms of a protracted civil war, that could potentially destabilize Syria’s neighbors.

On Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Mnister Ali Akbar Salehi arrived in Damascus for talks with Moallem and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about how to resolve the conflict.

Salehi’s Damascus trip followed consultations in Cairo the past two days on the Syrian crisis, involving Turkey, Egypt, Iran and the new UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Salehi will also travel to New York next week as part of the Iranian delegation attending the UNGA activities.

Former top US diplomat Jeff Feltman meets with Iran’s Supreme Leader


Jeff Feltman, the UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs who until May served as a top US diplomat, on Wednesday became the most senior current or former American official known to meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in decades.

Feltman, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, met with Iran’s Supreme Leader as part of the entourage accompanying UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for meetings in Tehran. Ban traveled to Iran against the wishes of the US and Israel to attend the non-aligned movement summit.

American officials downplayed the rare meeting between even an ex-US official and Iran’s vehemently anti-American Supreme Leader, pointing out that Feltman doesn’t work for the US government anymore.

Feltman “is doin’ his new job,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told Al-Monitor Wednesday when asked about the meeting.

Asked if Ban or Feltman conveyed any message from the United States to Iran’s leadership, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told Al-Monitor: “Nope.”

“Not sure that it means much in reality,” former senior Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross told Al-Monitor by email Wednesday.

Feltman “is a UN official and he works for Ban,” Ross, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, continued. “The Iranians may be seeking to play up any imagery hoping it may support their desire to show how they are not isolated and make some of their neighbors wonder about what is going on.”

But former American diplomat Jim Dobbins told Al-Monitor that Feltman likely would have given the US government at least a courtesy ‘heads up’ about his trip, even if he would not take guidance from them. The meeting “is interesting,” Dobbins, now at the Rand Corporation, said.

And another former senior US official who asked not to be named acknowledged she was “shocked” to learn of the meeting, mostly because the Obama administration had publicly pressed Ban to forgo the trip. Feltman, who served as ambassador to Lebanon during the 2006 war, is thought to be fairly hardline on Iran.

The tone of the UN chief’s meeting with Iranian leaders Wednesday was reportedly fairly testy and combative, reports said, though the Supreme Leader’s website acknowledged Ban requesting that Iran take “concrete” steps to cooperate with the IAEA and P5+1 negotiating over its nuclear program. Continue reading

Obama defines his Syria red line

President Barack Obama said Monday that his “red line” for direct military intervention in the widening Syria conflict would be the use of chemical or biological weapons.

“The red line for us is if we start seeing a bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama, speaking in a surprise appearance at the White House press conference Monday, said. “That would change my calculus.”

Obama said the United States is increasing humanitarian aid to help Syria’s exploding refugee population, as well as political and financial support to the Syrian opposition, in consultation with other countries. But he had not “at this point” ordered U.S. military engagement in the conflict.

“We are monitoring the situation very carefully, and have put together a range of contiengency plans and communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in  the region that is a red line for us,” Obama said.

He spoke as a US delegation is headed to Turkey for consultations on the widening crisis, amid growing US concerns about spill over from the Syrian conflict potentially destabilizing other countries in the region, including Lebanon and Iraq..

As Al Monitor  previously reported, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Beth Jones is headed to Turkey this week to confer on Syria.

Jones will be part of an inter-agency team that includes senior officials from the Pentagon and intelligence community who will meet Wednesday with their Turkish counterparts, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists Monday. Continue reading

State’s Beth Jones to Turkey to consult on Syria

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Beth Jones will travel to Turkey next week for consultations on Syria.

The United States is becoming increasingly concerned about potential spillover from the Syrian conflict in Lebanon, Iraq, etc.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added a stop to Turkey last minute to her trip this past month to Africa to consult on the Syria crisis. Jones traveled to Turkey to meet here there.

A State Department official told Al Monitor Friday that the US government is currently “seized” with the Syria conflict, even more so than on Iran, and speculation over the potential for Israeli action against Iran this fall.

US allows financial support for armed Syrian rebels


The U.S. government has authorized a U.S. group to provide financial and logistical support to the armed Syrian resistance, I report on the front page.

The waiver was received from the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) last week, Brian Sayers, of the Syrian Support Group, told Al- Monitor in an interview Friday.

“The OFAC decision is huge,” Sayers said. “It gets us the leeway to support the Free Syrian Army in broad terms.”

A photograph of the OFAC letter seen by Al Monitor showed that it was signed by a Treasury Department official on July 23. (The document has since been removed from the Internet.)

Sayers, an American who previously worked for six years in NATO operations in Brussels, was hired last spring by the Syrian Support Group to work Washington to “support the Free Syrian Army in different ways.”

But one Syrian source, speaking anonymously, suggested the Syrian Support Group’s mission is not only about lobbying the US government to provide support to the FSA, but also the reverse: to help turn the FSA into a more organized entity that could receive intelligence and other assistance from Western security agencies.

To that end, all nine members of the FSA’s military command this week signed on to a previously unpublished “Declaration of Principles” pledging their commitment to pluralism and democracy. “We believe in a pluralistic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society that honors and upholds freedom of expression, thought and conscience,” the document states. Continue reading