France seeks to toughen UN statement on Syria ceasefire

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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

Obama, Romney face off at foreign policy debate

The last debate of the 2012 US presidential campaign, on foreign policy, gets underway in a few minutes in Boca Raton, Florida, and Middle East issues–Iran, Libya, Syria, Israel–look set to predominate.

I’ll be joining the folks at NPR affiliate KCRW and friends for a live-blog of the debate, which you can follow here. What questions do you hope get asked? Continue reading

Hillary Clinton: ‘I take responsibility’ for Benghazi security lapse

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CNN Monday that she accepts responsibility for the security lapse that led to the death of four State Department personnel in Libya last month.

“I take responsibility” for what happened in Benghazi, Clinton told CNN‘s Elise Labott. “I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha.”

Clinton spoke from Lima, Peru Monday, as Republicans have accused the Obama administrating of giving conflicting accounts of what it knew in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack on the US Benghazi outpost.

Clinton has widely signaled her plans to step down from the job of Secretary of State at the end of Obama’s first term, even if he is reelected. In her role as Obama’s top envoy, she has become the most popular figure by far in the Obama cabinet, one who is widely eyed as a prospective Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.

UPDATE: The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reports Tuesday that Clinton made a similar statement of responsibility in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last Wednesday (Oct. 10), but the paper did not publish it:

On Monday night, the Journal’s Monica Langley reported that Clinton made a similar comment to her in a recent interview. That comment had not previously been published.

“I take responsibility,” Clinton told the Journal. “I’m the Secretary of State with 60,000-plus employees around the world. This is like a big family … It’s painful, absolutely painful.”

Clinton sat for an interview with the Journal last Wednesday and there was no embargo preventing the paper from publishing any part of it, a State Department spokesman told The Huffington Post

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives a speech to the media at the government palace in Lima, October 15, 2012. Clinton is on a two-day official visit to Peru.  REUTERS/Jorge Luis Baca.)

Appeals for more security help in Libya frustrated, agents tell House panel

Two American diplomatic security agents told a House panel Wednesday of their frustrated attempts to get the State Department to assign more security agents to protect diplomats in Libya.

House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) presided at the often contentious, four hour hearing investigating the attacks that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three US diplomatic personnel in Libya last month. Several of the panel’s GOP members insisted US officials should have known immediately that the Sept. 11 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and not the result of spontaneous protests over a 15 minute anti-Islam video trailer posted to YouTube.

Were initial Obama administration statements that suggested the Benghazi attack was connected to protests over the video the result “of negligence … or something more nefarious?” asked South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy.

The committee also sought to probe why State Department diplomatic security officer Charlene Lamb allegedly discouraged requests from two security agents on the ground for more armed American security agents to be posted to Libya amid a deteriorating security situation that led the British to close their Benghazi mission. But it wasn’t always clear the congress members were so interested to hear the witnesses’ answers in favor of delivering their talking points.

At one point, for instance, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), even scolded one of the Republicans’ star witness for not agreeing with him that the Libyan militia suspected in the attack was affiliated with Al Qaeda.

“Just say it is a terrorist group,” Burton cut off the witness, Col. Andrew Wood, after the Utah national guardsman formerly posted to Libya described the militia, Ansar al-Sharia, as being aligned with the Libyan government. “The Libyan government doesn’t consider them a terrorist group,” Wood said.

Wood and former US Regional Security Officer for Libya Eric Nordstrom repeatedly conveyed their frustration at their sense that State Department bureaucrats were fighting their efforts to keep a team of 16 armed US security officers in Libya.

Continue reading

Obama to UN: World must reject intolerance

President Barack Obama said the world faces a choice between tolerance and extremism, in a speech to the United Nations Tuesday that vowed the United States will not retreat from the world despite the recent killing of US diplomats in Libya amid protests at US embassies in the Muslim world sparked by an anti-Islam video trailer posted to YouTube.

“We face a choice between the forces that would drive us apart, and the hopes we hold in common,”  Obama told world leaders gathered at the United Nations General Assembly 67th Opening Session Tuesday. “Today, we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations.”

“Understand, America will never retreat from the world,” Obama vowed. “We will bring justice to those who harm our citizens and our friends, and we will stand with our allies.”

On Iran’s nuclear program, Obama restated that he wants to solve the issue through diplomacy, but recommitted the United States to do “what’s needed” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so,” Obama said. “But that time is not unlimited.”

More highlights: Continue reading

Video-maker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula questioned in probation probe

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, one of the people behind a crude video that has set off a storm of protests across the Middle East, has been taken by Los Angeles police for questioning over whether he violated the terms of his probation.

Shortly after midnight, “Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies escorted a man believed to be Nakoula Basseley Nakoula to an awaiting car,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “The man declined to answer questions on his way out and wore a hat and a towel over his face.”

A sheriff’s office spokesman Steve Whitmore “told the (LA )Times that Nakoula was taken in for a voluntary interview with probation officials and has not been arrested or detained”

Nakoula was sentenced to 21 months in prison in 2010 for federal bank fraud.

Reports Friday indicated that Nakoula was also a federal informant. He appeared to receive reduced sentences on several earlier drug and fraud related convictions.

A defense attorney arguing for a shorter sentence for Nakoula in the 2010 bank fraud case told the court that the defendant’s cooperation should be taken into consideration. “He’s undergone extensive debriefings. … He has implicated [Eiad] Salamey.”

“I decided to cooperate with the government to retrieve some of these mistakes or damage,” Nakoula told the judge, according to the court transcript obtained by The Smoking Gun. “I want to cooperate with the government that they can catch with this other criminals who is their involvement.” Continue reading

Clinton: Middle East “did not trade tyranny of dictator for tyranny of mob”


A somber Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the transfer of remains ceremony for four US diplomatic personnel killed in Libya Friday, called on the people and leaders of the Middle East to reject mob violence.

“The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob,” Clinton said at the solemn ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland Friday, flanked by President Obama.

“Reasonable people and responsible leaders in these countries need to do everything they can to restore security and hold accountable those behind these violent acts,” she continued.

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns accompanied the remains of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith, and US diplomatic security officers Tyrone “Rone” Woods and Glen Doherty on the flight from the region to Andrews Air Force Base.

“We will bring to justice those who took them from us,” President Obama vowed at the ceremony.

Clinton, clearly grieving, recounted the great affection and genuine respect she, State Department colleagues and the Libyan people had for Stevens. “People loved to work with Chris, and as he rose through the ranks they loved to work for Chris,” Clinton said. “He was known not only for his courage but for his smile.”

She cited as but one example of the affection with which Stevens was held by Libyans the hand-written sign carried by one veiled woman in Benghazi: “Thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi nor Islam.”

“We will wipe away our tears, stiffen our spines, and move forward undaunted,” Clinton vowed.

Protests, sometimes violent, against American and Western targets spread to several countries Friday, including Tunisia, the West Bank, Sinai and Sudan. This Google map captures the extent of the protests. The demonstrations have been spurred in part by anger over a crude anti-Islamic video trailer posted to YouTube by an Egyptian American convicted felon, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.

A cameraman for Al-Monitor filming a mob of thousands protesting at the US Embassy in Tunisia Friday was surrounded and assaulted by a group of bearded Salafi men.

Black smoke rose from the US Embassy north of the capital Tunis after an explosion. The angry mob also pillaged the American school next door, he recounted in a dispatch.

Continue reading

Was video director Nakoula an informant?

Much about the case of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the alleged director of the anti-Islam video, doesn’t add up.

For instance, federal prison records show that Nakoula was released from prison for bank fraud in late June 2011. Yet he was shooting the film that was made into the video that has provoked violent protests across the Middle East just one month later, in July 2011, according to a Craigslist casting call and reported interviews with actors who worked on the low-budget film.

Law enforcement officials, speaking anonymously, also seemed suspiciously quick to ID Nakoula as the filmmaker behind the video, when so many aspects of the video’s provenance are murky.

Criminal records also show that Nakoula had served two other prison sentences, one following his arrest in 1997 for intent to make methamphetamine, and a later one in 2002 for violating the terms of his probation. But much about how those cases remains murky.

Journalists Christine Pelisek and Michael Daly, writing at The Daily Beast, raise the theory, was Nakoula an informant?

Nakoula’s lawyer is not returning phone calls or responding to emails, but it seems reasonable to wonder if Nakoula’s case was not part of this investigation. One question that bears asking is whether Nakoula helped persuade the feds that the drug money was going to Muslim extremists. He is a Coptic Christian. […]

In the court file for the second case, Indictment CR09-00617, the records regarding the plea deal are sealed. That can be construed as another indication that Nakoula had previously been an informant. His lawyer is not responding to calls or emails regarding this, either.

In a case where so little of the official story adds up, this theory seems plausible.

Queries to Thom Mrozak, spokesman for the US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles about the Nakoula case by Al-Monitor were not answered.

President Obama condemns the killing of US diplomats in Libya


President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed heartbreak and outrage over the killing of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other US diplomatic personnel in a mob attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya Tuesday.

Stevens was the first US ambassador killed in the line of duty since 1979.

The violent protests in Benghazi and Cairo were reportedly spurred by the 15-minute trailer of an anti-Islam film posted to YouTube that was produced by someone claiming to be an Israeli real estate developer based in California, who called Islam “a cancer.” But it’s not clear the filmmaker is who he says.

“I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens,” President Obama said in a statement early Wednesday.

“Make no mistake: Justice will be done,” Obama said at a Rose Garden ceremony flanked by Clinton Wednesday.

After the ceremony, Obama was to join Clinton for a closed-press visit to the State Department to console State Department colleagues of those killed. In addition to Stevens, they included Foreign Service officer Sean Smith, a husband and father of two who had previously served in Iraq, South Africa, Canada and the Hague.

Stevens was a deeply admired US diplomat who had spearheaded US efforts to support Libya’s democratic transition after the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, the Arabic-speaking Stevens, a native of California, had worked as a trade lawyer before joining the Foreign Service in 1991. Among his foreign service postings were Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Iran desk, before he was confirmed as US ambassador to post-Gadhafi Libya earlier this year. (See the welcome video Stevens made to introduce himself to Libyans).

“Like Chris, Sean was one of our best,” Clinton said in a statement.

Two other US personnel killed in Libya were not yet being identified publicly pending notification of their next of kin, Clinton said.

Stevens died of smoke inhalation from a fire set by RPG attacks on the consulate. He had gone to Benghazi to assist the evacuation of US consular staff under attack, reports said.

Meantime, the man who claimed to have written, produced and directed the $5 million film that reportedly sparked the protests said he blamed lax security at the US government facilities and the protesters for the deaths of the US diplomats.

“I feel the security system (at the embassies) is no good,” the man who identified himself as “Sam Bacile” told the Associated Press in an interview from an undisclosed location Wednesday. “America should do something to change it.”

“Bacile, a California real estate developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew, said he believes the movie will help his native land by exposing Islam’s flaws to the world,” the AP report said.

But it’s not clear that Bacile is who he claims. Israeli officials said they would not confirm or deny that he is an Israeli citizen, under that or other names.

And there were some hints that Bacile may be a pseudonym, possibly for someone affiliated with the Egyptian Coptic diaspora. Continue reading

Joshua Landis: Why Syria’s Alawis can’t have rump state

Barbara Slavin writes:

As Syria descends into chaos, Joshua Landis, the well-known Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, writes that the minority Alawis will not be able to establish a rump state in their ancestral mountain redoubt once the Assad regime loses control of Damascus.

Writing on his blog, Syria Comment, Saturday (July 21), Landis notes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has “done nothing to lay the groundwork for an Alawite state. There is no national infrastructure in the coastal region to sustain a state: no international airport, no electric power plans, no industry of importance, and nothing on which to build a national economy.” In addition, Landis says, “no country would recognize the Alawite state” and such a state would be “indefensible.”

In the blog post, Five Reasons Why There Will Not Be an Alawite State, Landis also noted the evolution of the Alawite sect after France assumed control of Syria in 1920:

The segregation that characterized the country under Ottoman rule gradually disappeared, Landis says, as the Alawis came down from the mountains into the Sunni/Christian coastal cities of Latakia, Jeble, Tartus and Banyas. Similarly, Alawis also migrated to Damascus, where there were only 400 of their sect registered in 1945. Continue reading