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Several moves afoot among President Obama's top European security advisors and close allies of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. Together, sources suggested, they reflect Donilon's increased discretion to make senior National Security Staff appointments in Obama's second term after the move of Denis McDonough to become White House chief of staff, and that he seems inclined to pick trusted associates to oversee some of the most sensitive portfolios.

After four years in Brussels, US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder will be named President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Back Channel has learned. The announcement is expected to come as early as this week. Daalder, a former Clinton NSC Europe director and Brookings senior fellow, will head to Chicago in July, when ambassador posts usually rotate.

Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, will join Obama's National Security Staff, administration and diplomatic sources tell the Back Channel, in a senior role overseeing the broader Middle East, at a rank similar to that previously held by Dennis Ross.

Gordon, who has headed the State Department EUR bureau throughout Obama’s first term, will take on a senior NSS coordinator role overseeing the wider Middle East, with senior directors for the Middle East/North Africa and Persian Gulf reporting to him, sources said. Gordon did not immediately respond to a request for guidance from the Back Channel.

Much of Gordon's work handling the State Department Europe portfolio the past four years has been focused on coordinating joint US-European efforts towards the Middle East writ large, including Iran.

(Still to be named: the NSS Senior Director for the Middle East/North Africa previously held by Steve Simon, who has left the White House to head the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US. Sources continue to hear CSIS's Jon Alterman may be in the running, but that could not be confirmed.)

Administration sources have described Daalder and Gordon (also a Brookings alum) as among a group of trusted allies of NSA Donilon, along with NSS Senior Director for Europe Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall.

And one diplomatic source said Monday that he had heard that Sherwood-Randall would be tapped to succeed Gary Samore as the White House coordinator on WMD.  (Neither Sherwood-Randall nor a White House spokesperson responded to requests for guidance.) Continue reading

Ahead of new Iran nuclear talks, six powers debate updating package


Diplomats, stressing no date or location has yet been set, tentatively expect six world powers to hold a new round of nuclear talks with Iran in January.

Part of the hold-up is jammed-up calendars—NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels this week, several dozen countries’ top diplomats are due to meet in Morocco on Syria next week (December 12); the IAEA is due to visit Iran next week (December 13).

But a larger reason for the delay and current sense of uncertainty on when nuclear talks will resume is that the six powers that make up the so-called “P5+1” have still not agreed amongst themselves whether and how to refresh the package presented to Iran at the next meeting, diplomats speaking not for attribution told Al-Monitor in interviews in recent days.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alluded to intense consultations on the matter last week.

“We are deeply engaged in consultations right now with our P-5+1 colleagues, looking to put together a presentation for the Iranians at the next meeting that does make it clear we’re running out of time, we’ve got to get serious, here are issues we are willing to discuss with you, but we expect reciprocity,” Clinton said at the Saban Forum of US and Israeli diplomats and Middle East experts last week (November 30th).

Britain’s political director Mark Sedwill and some of his team were in Washington last week for consultations with their American counterparts about that and other matters.

Some diplomatic sources thought that the United States and EU3—the UK, France and Germany–were expecting to reach consensus on the matter among themselves by the end of last week, but there were signs that the issue was still being discussed among the six as of Tuesday.

Clinton repeatedly stressed that the United States believes a bilateral conversation between the Americans and Iranians could help advance prospects for a nuclear deal.

“We have, from the very beginning, made it clear to the Iranians we are open to a bilateral discussion,” Clinton, speaking to the same Saban Forum, continued. “So far there has not yet been any meeting of the minds on that. But we remain open. … But we understand that it may take pushing through that obstacle to really get them fully responsive to whatever the P-5+1 offer might be.”

Al-Monitor has previously reported that the Americans were inclined to urge expanding the offer to “more for more”—while the Europeans had not reached consensus on that as of the meeting of P5+1 political directors held in Brussels on November 21st.

The “more for more” offer, as one US source explained it to Al-Monitor last month, would envision updating the “stop, ship, and shut” offer regarding 20% uranium enrichment to get more verifiable limits on the rest of Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for greater international concessions, including some form of sanctions relief.

“’Refreshing the package’ is the language being used,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor in an interview last week (November 3oth). “Consultations are continuing on how to refresh it.”

“But I am not impressed with” the diplomatic preparations to date, Clawson said. “The conversations are extremely timid.” The argument that there are only a “few windows” before Christmas to hold a meeting struck him as implausible, he said.

However, some diplomatic sources suggested international negotiators may be hoping to use the delay and distractions of the season to hold a couple quiet, technical meetings with the Iranians before the next round of high-level political talks. Such technical talks, held with minimal publicity, could be a way to try to narrow differences ahead of getting to the political directors’ meetings with Iran, where little progress to date has been made.

American and Iranian nuclear experts had “several” conversations at P5+1 “technical” meetings with Iran held in Istanbul July 3rd, diplomats told Al-Monitor, leaving unclear if subsequent conversations or contacts amongst those involved occurred after that date.

A spokesperson told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no information about any further contacts between the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton or her deputy Helga Schmid and Tehran.

Meantime, several sources told Al-Monitor they expected the US Iran team to undergo some changes as national security appointments shake out in Obama’s second term. Some sources thought chief US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman, the Undersecretary of State for Policy, would likely leave when Clinton’s successor gets her or his team in place. Several sources also said State Department arms control envoy Robert J. Einhorn is likely to depart, for a chair waiting for him at the Brookings Institution. White House WMD czar Gary Samore may stay on for now, administration sources suggested.

Despite possible changes in the US Iran negotiating team, “the administration is determined that the transition will not be a problem in moving forward,” Clawson said.

(Photo: Political directors from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China met in Brussels November 21st, at a meeting on resuming Iran nuclear talks hosted by European Union foreign policy chief and chief international negotiator Catherine Ashton. Photo posted by the European External Action Service.)

Turkey authorizes military operations after Syria attack

Turkish border units shelled targets in Syria for a second consecutive day Thursday, a day after Syrian mortar shells hit a Turkish border town, killing five civilians.

The tit-for-tat retaliation came as Turkey’s parliament voted to give Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan authority to conduct military operations abroad, although Turkish analysts expected Turkish military intervention to be limited.

“Turkey has no interest in a war with Syria,” Ibrahim Kalın, a top foreign policy advisor to Erdogan, wrote on Twitter.”But Turkey is capable of protecting its borders and will retaliate when necessary.”

“The aggressive actions targeting our national lands are at the threshold of armed attacks,” Erdogan said in the bill submitted to parliament, the Wall Street Journal reported. Continue reading

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

NATO offers solidarity with Turkey but muted on response over downed plane

NATO ambassadors, meeting in Brussels Tuesday, expressed strong solidarity with member nation Turkey over Syria’s downing of a Turkish military reconnaissance plane last week (June 22). But the 28-member military alliance remained muted on the looming question of what further action it may be willing to contemplate, vowing only to “remain seized” of developments.

“Let me make this clear: The security of the Alliance is indivisible,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a press briefing following the meeting of the North Atlantic Council Tuesday.  “We stand together with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity.”

“I would certainly expect that such an incident won’t happen again,” Rasmussen said. “Should anything happen Allies will remain seized of development, we closely monitor the situation and if necessary we will consult and discuss what else could be done.”

The White House, echoing the expressions of solidarity from Brussels, also praised Ankara’s “measured response” so far.

“The United States and NATO stand in solidarity with Turkey,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists on Air Force One Tuesday.  “We will work with Turkey and other partners to hold the Assad regime accountable and to continue to push forward for Syria’s needed political transition.”

“We commend Turkey for its measured response thus far,” Carney added.

The meeting in Brussels came as reports emerged Tuesday suggesting the downed Turkish aircraft–an unarmed RF-4E Phantom reconnaissance fighter jet–may have been conducting a spying mission over Syria. But Turkey’s deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc, while acknowledging in comments Monday the craft was outfitted for espionage, “strongly denied it was doing so on this particular mission,” the New York Times reported, in an article noting that the downed 2-seat aircraft “has the ability to gather high-resolution imagery about 60 miles from the target, aviation experts said.”

Syria says the plane was shot down in self-defense after straying into Syrian airspace and that it did not know it was a Turkish plane. Ankara vehemently denies this, hinting it has some  technological evidence–such as intercepted radar communications–to prove it.

Back in Brussels Tuesday, the military alliance did not discuss possibly declaring the plane downing an attack on the entire alliance, Rasmussen indicated. Such an invocation of NATO’s Article 5 has only once occurred—after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Continue reading

Turkey: NATO to consider Syria’s downing of Turkish jet

A senior Turkish official said Monday that Ankara has asked NATO to consider Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish military reconnaissance plane last week an attack on the entire alliance.

“There is no doubt that Syrians deliberately targeted our plane in international airspace,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Monday, the Associated Press reported. “It was an extremely hostile action.”

NATO’s governing board, the North Atlantic Council, is due to meet Tuesday to discuss the incident. Turkey says Syria on Friday (June 22) shot down with no warning an unarmed Turkish RF Phantom reconnaissance jet, whose pilots have yet to be found. Syria later fired on a Turkish rescue plane sent to try to recover the pilots, Turkey said Monday.

(Syria claims it was acting in self-defense and that it did not know the plane’s national origins–charges Turkish officials bitterly refute.)

“No doubt, Turkey has made necessary applications with NATO regarding Article 4 and Article 5,” Turkey’s deputy premier Arinc said Monday, according to the AP. Continue reading

The matzo meter: Signs Israel and Turkey are getting friendlier

Elif Batuman reports in the New Yorker this week on Istanbul’s “phantom matzo factory” that operated in the city’s Galata neighborhood for thirty years, before being closed in 2007 and turned into an arts space:

A lot of people don’t know that, for nearly thirty years, Istanbul had its own working matzo factory, or that Istanbul still has its own non-working matzo factory. Known in Turkish as the “doughless oven,” located in Galata, on the northern bank of the Golden Horn, it has been given over to the arts. …

The machine had stopped running in 2007, after visiting rabbis found that some batches of matzo didn’t meet the regulations to be kosher. Maintaining the aging Turkish apparatus, with its frequent need of repairs and replacement parts, turned out to be more costly than importing matzo from Israel ….It might seem ironic to mass-produce and export a kind of bread that derives its importance from the fact that it was made on the run. Nonetheless, Israel now supplies all of Turkey’s matzo.

In Istanbul last month to cover the international Iran nuclear talks, I snapped the photo above of some of those Israeli matzohs for sale at a grocery store in Istanbul’s Nistantisi neighborhood.

While Israel and Turkey have been at odds in recent years in particular since the 2010 Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla violence, there are several recent signs that relations between the two countries are quietly improving. Israel this week downgraded its March warning to citizens about travel to Turkey to its lowest level–that of “continuing potential threat.”

Among other signs: Turkish authorities reportedly halted some “flytilla” activists at Turkish airports last month. Meantime, flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul were expanded to three a day last month, and Turkish budget airlines Pegasus reportedly added Tel Aviv to its routes. And commercial trade between the two nations rose to almost $4 billion in 2011–notably, with more of it consisting of consumer goods–software, foodstuffs, etc., rather than high-price-tag defense items.

Turkey’s Ambassador to the United States Namik Tan–who previously served as Ankara’s envoy to Israel–attended Israel’s Independence Day celebrations in Washington this week, where his presence was warmly welcomed by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.

“We very pleased to see [Turkish Amb ] @NamikTan here tonight,” Amb. Oren told Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir, he noted on twitter, in a post retweeted by the Israeli envoy. “We missed him a lot.” Continue reading