Obama: Syria chemical attack would cross U.S. 'core national interests'

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President Obama said Friday the United States was consulting with allies and considering how to respond if an investigation determines that Syria used chemical weapons in an alleged attack on rebel-held villages in the eastern Damascus suburbs of Ghouta this week.

“Although the situation in Syria is very difficult…there is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale… then that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region,” Obama told CNN’s Chris Cuomo in an interview aired Friday.

“We are right now gathering information about this particular event,” Obama continued, “but I can say that, unlike some of the evidence that we were trying to get earlier that led to a U.N. investigator going into Syria, what we've seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern.”

While the U.S., Europeans and Russia have called on the Syrian government to allow UN inspectors access to the site, “we don’t expect cooperation, given their past history,” Obama said.

But Obama also expressed caution about another military entanglement, and justified the more limited U.S. response to past events in the Syrian conflict that has killed over 100,000 people.

“That does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately,” he told CNN. “We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.”

His comments came a day after US military, intelligence and diplomatic officials met for over three hours at the White House Thursday “to deliberate over options, which officials say could range from a cruise missile strike to a more sustained air campaign against Syria,” the New York Times reported. But the meeting concluded with no decision, the paper said, amid continued divisions in Obama's national security team about the consequences of deepening U.S. intervention in Syria.

The U.S. military “can destroy the Syrian Air Force,” top US military officer Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote in a letter to House Foreign Affairs committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY) Monday (Aug 19), two days before the alleged attack in Ghouta. “The loss of Assad’s Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict,” while not being “militarily decisive.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Friday on both the Syrian government and the rebels to grant access to Ghouta to a UN chemical weapons inspection team currently in Damascus. Moscow has suggested that the August 21st attack in eastern Ghouta may have been staged by the opposition as a “pre-planned provocation.”

But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday that the chances that the rebels conspired to stage the attack are “vanishingly small,” and questioned why the Syrian regime had so far refused permission to the UN team to visit the area.

“It seems the Assad regime has something to hide,” Hague told the BBC Friday. “Why else have they not allowed the UN team to go there?”

The attack is “not something that a humane or civilized world can ignore,” Hague said.

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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

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

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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Israel criticizes Clinton no Iran ‘deadlines’ remark

Unnamed Israeli officials on Monday complained about US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent statement that the United States is “not setting deadlines” for negotiations with Iran.

“We’re not setting deadlines” on Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Bloomberg News’ Indira Lakshmanan in an interview in Vladivostock, Russia Sunday.

“We have always said every option was on the table, but we believe in the negotiation, the diplomatic effort through the P-5+1, but also pressure …[are] by far, the best approach to take at this time,” Clinton said, according to a full transcript of the interview released by the State Department.

Clinton’s comments came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Canada’s CBC that the United States and Israel are jointly discussing “red lines” on Iran.

“We’re discussing it right now with the United States,” Netanyahu told the CBC Sunday, Reuters reported.

Unnamed Israeli officials were quick to blast Clinton’s disavowal of a rapidly closing timetable for Iran diplomatic efforts.

“These kinds of statements won’t stop Iran’s centrifuges, and could have the opposite effect,” one unnamed top Israeli state official told Ynet’s Attila Somfalvi Monday. “Without a clear red line, Iran won’t stop its race towards a nuclear weapon,” the Israeli official added.

But the State Department did not back away from the remarks Monday despite the grumbling from Jerusalem. Continue reading

US-Israel war game scaled back (Updated)


Update: The Defense Department belatedly issued a statement Friday noting the exercise still remains the largest ballistic missile defense exercise ever undertaken by the US and Israel.

The Pentagon has scaled back a joint US-Israeli military exercise scheduled to take place this fall,  Time‘s Karl  Vick and Aaron Klein exclusively report:

…Well-placed sources in both countries have told TIME that Washington has greatly reduced the scale of U.S. participation, slashing by more than two-thirds the number of American troops going to Israel and reducing both the number and potency of missile interception systems at the core of the joint exercise.

“Basically what the Americans are saying is, ‘We don’t trust you,’” a senior Israeli military official tells TIME.

The reductions are striking. Instead of the approximately 5,000 U.S. troops originally trumpeted for Austere Challenge 12, as the annual exercise is called, the Pentagon will send only 1,500 service members, and perhaps as few as 1,200.  Patriot anti-missile systems will arrive in Israel as planned, but the crews to operate them will not.  [...]

U.S. commanders privately revealed the scaling back to their Israeli counterparts more than two months ago.  The official explanation was budget restrictions.  But the American retreat coincided with growing tensions between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations on Israel’s persistent threats to launch an airstrike on Iran. ….

The back story: Late last year, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak asked US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to cancel the exercise, which was originally scheduled to take place this past spring, defense sources previously told Al-Monitor. Panetta agreed to the request only if the exercise was rescheduled, not canceled entirely. So the Pentagon was deeply annoyed when Israeli officials left the false impression that the US was responsible for the war game being postponed. “It was Barak,” a US official told me.

Update: The Pentagon disputed the interpretation offered by Time for the scaled back exercise in a statement late Friday afternoon, noting Austere Challenge-12 will still represent “the largest ever ballistic missile defense exercise” between the United States and Israel.

“The exercise was originally scheduled for May, however at the request of the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Israeli Defense Forces, the exercise was moved to late Fall of this year,” Ltn. Col. Wesley P. Miller IV, a Defense Department spokesman, told journalists in a statement sent out late Friday afternoon, several hours after guidance had been sought on the Time report.

“When the exercise was moved, the United States notified Israel that due to
concurrent operations, the United States would provide a smaller number of
personnel and equipment than originally planned. Israel reiterated its
request to postpone until late Fall,” Miller continued.

However, “Austere Challenge-12 remains the largest ever ballistic missile defense exercise between our nations and a significant increase from the previous event in 2009,” Miller continued. “The exercise has not changed in scope and will include the same types of systems as planned.”

“As Israel Minister of Defense Ehud Barak has repeatedly said, the US-Israel
defense relationship is stronger than it has ever been,” Miller said. “The United States
agrees. Austere Challenge is a tangible sign of our mutual trust and our
shared commitment to the defense of our nations.”

(H/T Zvika Krieger)

(Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (2nd R) and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak pose with Israeli soldiers after a joint news conference during a visit to the Iron Dome defense system launch site in Ashkelon August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool.)