Sen. Kaine says Russia can do more to resolve Syria crisis

Share

Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat-Virginia), speaking to Al-Monitor Friday before he embarked on a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, said while there is cautious optimism about current U.S. efforts to advance a diplomatic resolution with Iran and an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement, U.S. Syria policy is not going well. And Russia is partly to blame, he said.

“I think Secretary [of State John] Kerry is pretty candid about it,” Kaine told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Feb. 14th, before traveling with Sen. Angus King (Independent, Maine) to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt. “Discussions, with all appropriate skepticism about Iran and [an] Israel Palestinian [peace agreement]– while elusive so far– those discussions are going well. Results will prove later if we can get there. But the Syrian situation is not going well. He’s been pretty candid about that. One of the main reasons is Russia continues to be an apologist for unacceptable behavior” by the Syrian regime.

“It’s one thing for Assad to do what he is doing to his people; we have known from the beginning what he is,” said Kaine, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 and became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East and South Asia subcommittee last summer. But Russia is a “country that pretends to aspire to world leadership, that it could get him to change his behavior when it wants to.”

The U.S. “was able to change Russia calculations with regard to Syria’s chemical weapons,” Kaine noted. But on stalled peace talks in Geneva it’s “not going well.“

What leverage, though, does the U.S. have to get Russia to put more pressure on the Syrian regime? After all, it took the prospect of imminent US military action last fall to get Russia to propose getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

Russia does “have pride,” the Virginia Democrat said. “They do want to be a global leader.” Last fall, it was both the prospect of U.S. military action in Syria, as well as the “global spotlight [on] Syria’s use of chemical weapons against women and kids,’ that affected Russia’s calculations on a chemical weapons deal, Kaine said. Continue reading

Obama corresponds with Iran’s Rouhani, holds out hope for nuclear deal

President Obama, speaking to ABC in an interview taped Friday and broadcast Sunday, confirmed that he and Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani have exchanged letters, and said he holds out hope that the US and Iran can reach a nuclear deal. But he said that negotiating with Iran would not be easy, and stressed that Iran should not doubt his resolve to prevent it getting nuclear weapons, despite the US agreeing to a last-minute Russian bid to remove Syria’s chemical weapons to avoid possible U.S.-led air strikes.

“I have. And he’s reached out to me,” Obama said, when asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if he’d reached out to the new Iranian president.

“I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue,” Obama said, citing the risks to US “core interests” that a nuclear armed Iran would pose to Israel, and of a nuclear arms race in the region.

“My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck [Syria] to think we won’t strike Iran,” Obama said. “On the other hand, what…they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”

“Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult,” Obama said. “I think this new president is not gonna suddenly make it easy. But you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact you can you can strike a deal… and I hold out that hope.”

Obama–interviewed a day ahead of the announcement that the U.S. and Russia had reached a deal on removing Syria’s chemical weapons—also said that he would welcome efforts by Russia and even Iran to help end the civil war in Syria, despite considerable disagreements over the conflict and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“I think that if in fact not only Russia gets involved, but if potentially Iran gets involved as well in recognizing that what’s happening there is a train wreck that hurts not just Syrians but [is] destabilizing the entire region…we can do something [about] it,” he said.

The president’s confirmation of the correspondence with Rouhani comes as a former member of Rouhani’s nuclear negotiating team wrote that Iran’s Supreme Leader has given permission for US-Iran direct talks.

“Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued permission for President Hassan Rouhani’s new administration to enter into direct talks with the U.S.,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian wrote in an oped published by Japan Times Friday (Sept. 13). “No better opportunity to end decades of bilateral hostility is likely to come along. ”

Asked by Al-Monitor Sunday if Khamenei has given permission for direct talks on the nuclear issue or Syria, Mousavian replied: “both.”

Former State Department Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney described the letter exchange as part of a broader series of recent signs of a still fragile but potentially unprecedented shift in the Islamic Republic.

Continue reading

Ex IDF intel chief: Plan to remove Syria chemical arms 'important test'

Weeks before John Kerry or Russia's Sergei Lavrov, former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin proposed that Russia could force Syria to give up its chemical weapons, as an alternative to US-led military strikes in the wake of the alleged, large-scale nerve gas attack Aug. 21st outside Damascus.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to take Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons out of Syria, Yadlin, the former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) intelligence chief, told Israel's Channel 2 late last month, “that would be an offer that could stop the attack,” the Times of Israel reported August 31. “It would be a 'genuine achievement' for President Obama,” the Times cited Yadlin.

Yadlin, now head of Israel's leading think tank, the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), demurred in an interview Tuesday if he knew the origins of the chemical arms removal plan that he first raised publicly last month, but which US and Russian officials acknowledged only this week that Obama and Putin had previously discussed, including at the G-20 summit last week.

But as head of a think tank trying to come up with 'out of box' ideas to solve complex security problems, the solution made sense, Yadlin told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday, given both Washington's reluctance to become deeply enmeshed in Syria's civil war, and because of Putin's influence over Assad.

“When we thought about, since America is not willing to exercise excessive power or a long or decisive campaign against Assad, what will be an outcome that, on the one hand ,will eliminate the future exercise of chemical weapons, and on the other may not…escalate the Syrian civil war into a regional war,” Yadlin said.

“So, we thought that if Assad will be asked by Putin,” he said. “Putin is the key for the deal, because Putin is basically keeping Assad alive.”

“So if [Putin] says to himself, 'OK, I want to avoid an American attack,..and I don’t want to be identified with the chemical attack of Assad, my client, I can really achieve both of these goals by a deal that will end the chemical capabilities of Syria, by…taking [them] out of Syria and destroying” them, Yadlin said.

“And that will give enough diplomatic victory for the [U.S.] president [Obama], that he has done something directly correlated to the crossing of [his] red line,” he continued. “Win win.”

There is, however, “a loser here,” Yadlin said. “The loser is that Assad is not punished for what he has done. And maybe also saying that this allowed him to kill and continue to kill his people with conventional weapons. [But] I think this should be dealt with on another channel.”

The forthcoming United Nations chemical weapons inspector report is not likely to make Russia publicly admit the Syrian regime's alleged complicity in the Aug. 21 attack, Yadlin said.

“The only thing they care about is how to stop the Tomahawks and the B-2s from attacking Syria.” Yadlin said of the Russians.

“That's a very important lesson I think also for the Iranian issue,” he continued. “If you have a credible [threat of a] military attack, it is very likely that it will create a diplomatic solution.”

“If [the US] is serious with military threats, and your enemies and opponents really evaluate and analyze you are going to use it, then the chances you will not have to use it to reach some diplomatic solution is much higher.”

But in Obama projecting a credible threat of military force to punish and deter Syrian chemical weapons use that drove Russia at least to seek a last ditch diplomatic alternative, did the United States not indirectly demonstrate to Iran too its credibility on WMD proliferation?

“This is not enough,” Yadlin said, “especially because of the difficulties in exercising it”–an apparent reference to the political dysfunction and chaos that accompanied Obama's decision to put the decision on Syria strikes to a vote in Congress, which the White House appeared this week to be at risk of losing.

The details of any agreement to secure and remove Syria's chemical weapons also matter enormously, Yadlin said, and are both diplomatically and logistically daunting

“It should be a deal that is not camouflage, not an excuse not to do anything, but a real, performance based and highly legitimate deal,” Yadlin said. “Legitimacy should come from a UN Security Council resolution, which includes chapter 7, the article which says, if the Syrians are not living up to their obligations, force can be used.”

“Second, the timeline is important: don’t let the Syrians drag it [out] for years,” he said. “And then a very well defined mechanism: who is going to be on the ground to take care of it. UN forces, NATO forces, Russian forces…It must be a military force which is very professional, well protected, but with determination to complete the job.”

Asked about reports Russia had already Tuesday objected to a binding UN security council resolution and Putin saying the US must renounce its threat of force to secure the deal, Yadlin said such conditions would be, in his view, deal breakers. “Ok, if they prefer an American attack.”

“If you don't very much insist that the parameters are well defined, I think at the end of the day there will not be not a diplomatic solution, but a diplomatic failure.”

“This will be an important test,” Yadlin said, in international eyes, not just of Russia and Syria, but of Obama.

zp8497586rq

Obama, Putin previously discussed plan to secure Syria chemical arms


U.S. and Russian officials confirmed Tuesday that they have had discussions about securing Syria’s chemical arms going back months, including in a meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin at the G-20 summit last week, and that the idea was not born out of a stray comment made by US Secretary of State John Kerry at a London press conference Monday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that he and President Obama had “indeed discussed” the idea during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia last week.

He and Obama agreed “to instruct Secretary of State [John Kerry] and Foreign Minister [Sergey Lavrov] to get in touch” and “try to move this idea forward,” Putin told Russia Today in an interview Tuesday.

A US official confirmed this basic account Tuesday.

Obama and Putin, meeting in a corner for 20-30 minutes last Friday (Sept. 5), “agreed that a political solution is ultimately necessary to resolve the civil war, but we continue to have differences about Assad’s role in that transition,” a senior US administration official said Tuesday.  “However, they did agree that we could cooperate on the issue of chemical weapons – specifically, an effort to secure [chemical weapons] stockpiles, as both the US and Russia believe that they pose a significant danger, within Syria and beyond.”

“Putin broached the idea that had been discussed in previous meeting about reaching an international agreement to remove chemical weapons,” the US official said. “Obama agreed that could be an avenue for cooperation, and said that Kerry and Lavrov should follow up on the concept to shape a potential proposal. Putin agreed to relay that to Lavrov.”

Kerry, Lavrov and Putin earlier “spoke about this concept back in the spring, when Kerry first visited Moscow in April – at the time hooked to the notion that all shared an interest in avoiding collapse of the institutions of the state,” the U.S. official said.

In fact, Obama and Putin had discussed the concept at the G-20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico last year, and in subsequent meetings, “though agreement could not be reached,” the senior US official said.

Lavrov announced Monday that Russia was calling on Syria's leaders to turn over its chemical weapons to international custody, for subsequent destruction, and to sign the chemical weapons ban. Lavrov noted in his statement that the decision followed a telephone conversation he and Kerry had after Kerry was asked at a London news conference Monday if there is anything Syria could do to avert U.S. military action.

“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” Kerry responded. “Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Kerry's reference to a diplomatic option was immediately downplayed by State Department spokespeople as “rhetorical” and “hypothetical,” and by another unnamed US official to CNN as a “goof.” But President Obama, in previously scheduled television interviews Monday, indicated that while he was skeptical of the plan, it represents “a potentially positive development,” and he was willing to “run this to the ground” to determine if it was a serious and feasible proposal, and not just a delaying tactic.

In both Kerry's and the “President's mind, it can be a win-win,” the U.S. official said Tuesday. “Either you succeed in coming up with a …means by which it happens quickly and verifiably; or you get to.. show that you exhausted another diplomatic route which adds legitimacy and brings more partners and more in Congress to your side.”

Kerry will meet with Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday to discuss the option in detail, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. Continue reading

Kerry says 'indiscriminate' Syria chemical attack 'undeniable'

Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday began laying out the US case for limited international military action in Syria, saying it is “undeniable” that chemical weapons were used in a mass casualty attack last week that he described as a “moral obscenity” that shocks “the conscience of the world.”

“Anyone who can claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass,” Kerry said at a news conference at the State Department on Monday. “What is before us today is real, and it is compelling.”

“Make no mistake:  President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people,” Kerry said.

Kerry’s unusually forceful comments came as a United Nations chemical weapons inspection team got its first access to the site of the alleged chemical attack, in the outskirts of Damascus, five days after it occurred.

Kerry said the fact that the Syrian government did not agree to grant access to the site before Sunday and carried on shelling and attacking the area was an attempt to destroy evidence.

“I spoke on Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister [Walid] Muallim and I made it very clear to him that if the regime, as he argued, had nothing to hide, then their response should be immediate – immediate transparency, immediate access – not shelling,” Kerry said.  “Failure to permit that, I told him, would tell its own story.”

“Instead, for five days, the Syrian regime refused to allow the UN investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them,” Kerry said.  “Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence.  That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide.”

“The regime’s belated decision to allow access is too late, and it’s too late to be credible,” Kerry said.

Kerry said the US has additional intelligence attributing the attack to Syrian forces including from partners that it was reviewing with allies and would start presenting to the public in the coming days.

Even as the U.S. began laying out its case for action, Moscow was ratcheting up arguments against any sort of Syria intervention, and casting doubt on western assessments of Syrian culpability. Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in a phone call with British Prime Minister David Cameron Monday, reportedly insisted that there had been no chemical weapons attack in Syria at all.

His Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a news conference Monday, expressed doubts about the veracity of amateur videos of the alleged attack in Ghouta, and railed against the U.S.-led interventions in Iraq and Libya.

But Lavrov also signaled Moscow wasn’t planning to become involved in hostilities against western action in Syria. “Of course, we're not going to war with anyone,” Lavrov told the news conference. 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

White House to step up aid to Syria rebels, after US confirms Assad chemical use

President Obama has decided to provide military support to the Syrian rebels after the U.S. intelligence community concluded with high confidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale numerous times, the White House announced Thursday.

“The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said in a statement Thursday.

“Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC,” the Syrian rebel Supreme Military Council, the White House statement continued. “These efforts will increase going forward.”

The US assistance provided to the Syrian rebels “is going to be substantively different than what we were providing before our initial chemical weapons assessment in April,” Rhodes told journalists in a press call Thursday evening.

While declining to provide a full inventory of the assistance the US might provide to the rebels, Rhodes said the U.S. aim “is to be responsive to the needs of the SMC on the ground…There will be an increase in support to both the political and military side.”

Among the types of assistance the US was looking to provide, in coordination with allies, Rhodes said, was aid to enhance the Syrian rebels’ cohesion and effectiveness. “Communications equipment, transport, … medical assistance” [such as ambulances] “relevant to their effectiveness…to allow them to cohere as a unit that can challenge the regime.” The US would also provide small arms and ammunition, and would consider supplying anti-tank weapons, the New York Times reported late Thursday.

Representatives of the US, UK and France are expected to meet SMC military commander Gen. Salim Idriss in Turkey on Saturday, wire reports said Thursday.

The US announcement was made during a week of intensive, high level White House consultations on Syria, including a meeting Wednesday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and visiting UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. It also comes ahead of the first meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in the United Kingdom next week.

Notably, the United States has briefed Russia on its latest Syria chemical weapons assessment, Rhodes said in the call Thursday. It has also provided the information to the United Nations, which Rhodes said had been unable to get its Syria chemical weapons investigation team on the ground in Syria due to Assad’s obstruction.

The announcement came as the United Nations said Thursday that it assesses 93,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict to date.

“We’re at a tipping point” in Syria, Martin Indyk, Bill Clinton’s former top Middle East diplomat told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday.

Recent gains by Assad forces, backed by Hizbollah, on the ground have thrown plans for transition talks in Geneva into doubt.

“There can’t be any political solution on an agreement on a post-Assad transition if Assad thinks he is going to see victory,” Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution, said.“What happens on the battlefield determines what happens in the conference room.”

Full White House statement below the jump:

Continue reading