Syria conflict ‘incubator of extremism,’ Burns tells Senators

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The Syrian civil war has become an “incubator of extremism” and a “magnet” for foreign fighters, and poses growing risks to U.S. interests and allies, U.S. officials told frustrated lawmakers Thursday. The three year old conflict is also likely to go on for a long time, they assessed, as it pulls in foreign fighters from both sides of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, and both Bashar al-Assad and his opponents believe they can win.

“The hard reality is that the grinding Syrian civil war is now an incubator of extremism, on both sides of the sectarian divide.” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, at a hearing on the Syrian civil war that led off with the deepening US-Russian rift over Ukraine.

“We face a number of serious risks to our interests as a result,” Burns said. “The risk to the homeland from global jihadist groups…the risk to the stability of our regional partners….and the risk to the Syrian people, whose suffering constitutes the greatest humanitarian crisis of this new century.”

That grim assessment may portend the U.S. deepening its support for Syrian opposition fighters now battling both Al Qaeda-linked groups and Assad, and stepped up U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, in coordination with regional partners and European allies alarmed by the threat posed by jihadi fighters returning from Syria.

Syria “has become the preeminent location for independent or al-Qaida-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom we assess may seek to conduct external attacks,” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), testified (.pdf).

US policy on Syria is to counter extremists, boost moderates, and shore up Syria’s embattled neighbors and population with aid to withstand the protracted conflict, Burns told lawmakers.

“First, we are working to isolate and degrade terrorist networks in Syria,” Burns said. “It also means stepping up efforts to strengthen the moderate opposition, without which progress toward a negotiated transition of leadership through the Geneva process or any other diplomatic effort is impossible.”

With the Syrian opposition battling a two-front war against Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), it has lost some ground, reducing pressure on Assad and his patrons to make concessions on a political transition at the Geneva talks, while  seemingly increasing US willingness to coordinate increased assistance to opposition forces.

“Strengthened moderate forces are critical both to accelerate the demise of the Asad regime, and to help Syrians build a counterweight to the extremists,” Burns said.

Lawmakers on the panel expressed frustration and exasperation that the situation in Syria has deteriorated so drastically over time, with some suggesting it was partly a result of over-cautiousness and inaction by the Obama administration.

“What does the administration expect to do to change the equation on the ground in Syria now that it’s become what it is,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), ranking Republican on the foreign relations panel, asked Burns. He said that Secretary of State John Kerry had suggested to him and other lawmakers at a meeting last month that the US was on the verge of announcing a more assertive US policy on Syria.

“We certainly are looking at a range of options, [some of which I] can’t discuss in this setting,” Burns said. “We are looking actively at other ways we can support the moderate opposition, [working in coordination with others]… All of us understand what’s at stake here, what we and our partners do.”

But administration statements that it is stepping up support to Syrian opposition fighters is something that some lawmakers said they had heard before, only for the conflict to intensify and the death toll to mount, while straining the fragile stability of neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.

“100,000 people ago we were hearing this,” an exasperated Corker said, referring to the mounting death toll in Syria’s three year conflict, now estimated to be as high as 140,000 people.

The conflict is unlikely to end soon, the NCTC’s Olsen said, as both sides are digging in for a protracted fight.

With hostilities “between Sunni and Shia…intensifying in Syria and spilling into neighboring countries,” it increases “the likelihood of a protracted conflict in Syria, as both seek military advantage,” Olsen said. “Both the Syrian regime and the opposition believe that they can achieve a military victory in the ongoing conflict.”

“As long as Assad exists, the civil war will get worse,” Burns said. “This is going to require an ‘all of the above’ effort.”

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

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

Roundup: Obama to Riyadh, Israel DM in front row for Zarif talk

  • The White House confirmed that President Obama will travel to Saudi Arabia in March.
  • Hillary Clinton announces her opposition to new Iran sanctions in a Jan. 26 letter (.pdf) to Sen. Carl Levin.
  • Some 70 House Democrats reportedly sign a letter favoring diplomacy with Iran.
  • Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the Holocaust a “horrifying tragedy” that “should never occur again” in an interview with Germany’s Phoenix TV.
  • In a shift, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon sat in the front row during Zarif’s panel at the Munich Security Conference Sunday. (photo top right).
  • Iran Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced that Iran will host a conference on Syrian humanitarian assistance involving Swiss, Syrian and Iranian officials in Tehran. Last week, Amir-Abdollahian denied an Al Jazeera report that Iranian officials were meeting in Bern with the Syrian sides.
  • Turkish President Abdullah Gul shows daylight with PM Erdogan on Syria policy.
  • GOP Senators say John Kerry expressed frustration with Russia slow-rolling US on Syria.
  • Iran’s top clergy backs Hassan Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy.

US Deputy NSA Blinken's unannounced visit to UAE to discuss Egypt


US Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken traveled to the United Arab Emirates earlier this week for consultations with Emirati, Iraqi and other Gulf country officials on Egypt, the White House told Al-Monitor.

Blinken in the UAE met with “counterparts from the UAE and neighboring countries to discuss recent developments in the region,” National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden told Al-Monitor in response to a query Wednesday. “I don't have any further details for you on those discussions.”

Blinken was accompanied on the trip by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran  Brett McGurk and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Amos Hochstein.

Among the issues discussed in the meeting were UAE and Gulf assistance to Egypt in the wake of the ouster of Mohammed Morsi.

Egypt’s Central Bank said Thursday that  it had received $3 billion in aid pledged by the UAE in the wake of Morsi’s ouster, Reuters reported.

“The UAE said last week that it would provide Egypt with $1 billion as a grant and a $2 billion loan in the form of an interest-free central bank deposit,” Reuters wrote.In addition, “Saudi Arabia pledged $5 billion and Kuwait, $4 billion.”

A significant portion of the pledged aid from the Gulf states is in the form of oil, petrol and diesel, rather than cash, a western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. Continue reading

Morsi ousted: Egypt army suspends constitution, calls early elections

Egypt's military chief announced Wednesday that it was stepping in to transfer power from Egypt's Islamist President Mohammad Morsi to a technocratic government ahead of early parliamentary and presidential polls.

“President Mohammad Morsi has failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people,” Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sissi said in a televised address to the nation Wednesday, al-Arabiya reported.

Flanked by Muslim and Christian clerics and opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei, al-Sissi vowed “not to exclude anyone or any movement” from Egypt's political process.

He said Egypt's military did not plan to become involved in politics, but was responding to the demands of the people, as witnessed in some of the largest protests ever seen. But shortly after he spoke, to fireworks and ecstatic cheers of anti-Morsi protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Sqaure, the Muslim Brotherhood's television station “went blank,” the Associated Press reported.

Morsi was reported to have been taken to an undisclosed location. A statement on his Facebook page said “that the measures announced by the Armed Forces' General Command, are considered a 'military coup,' …and this is rejected,” Al-Arabiya reported.

“What we are seeing now is a major change in the dynamics in the region,” an Egyptian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The idea that you need a secular dictator to protect you from religious autocracy is falling apart.”

The “lively forces of the population are the ones who will oust the dictatorship–secular or religious,” the Egyptian official continued.

Egyptians did not accept that they have to choose between an autocratic Muslim Brotherhood government or military rule, he said. If they didn't like the next government, he said, Egyptians would take to the streets again and bring it down, too.

Morsi's ouster came as the United States had steadily distanced itself from him over the past 48 hours, while insisting that it wasn't taking sides.

President Morsi, in a speech Tuesday, “had an opportunity to lay out some specific steps” to show responsiveness to the demands of the protesters, “and he did not take the opportunity to do that,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at a press conference Wednesday. Meantime, the State Department on Wednesday also ordered non-emergency U.S. personnel and diplomats' family members to leave Egypt, and urged American citizens to defer travel to Egypt due to the unrest.

The Saudi King and UAE Foreign Minister both sent congratulations to the Egyptian caretaker government and its appointed head, Supreme Court Justice Adli Mansour.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton spoke with ElBaradei Wednesday, and “urged all sides in Egypt to return rapidly to the democratic process,” her spokesperson Michael Mann said.

(Top Photo: Protesters, who are against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, react in Tahrir Square in Cairo July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem. Second photo: Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi addressing the nation on Egyptian State Television Wednesday, July 3, 2013. AP Photo/Egyptian State Television.)

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Roundup: Upbeat start to Obama Israel trip

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Iran, world powers agree to new nuclear talks in Istanbul, Almaty

Almaty, Kazakhstan__ Negotiators from Iran and six world powers announced they would hold two more meetings over the next month to discuss a new international proposal aimed at curbing Iran's 20% enrichment and nuclear breakout capacity, in exchange for some sanctions relief. The announcement came at the conclusion of two days of talks here that have seemingly turned out to be among the most positive of the past year, though both sides say they still have some work to do to narrow differences.

The parties agreed to hold an experts meeting in Istanbul on March 18, followed by a political directors meeting, again in Almaty, Kazakhstan on April 5-6, negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran announced in a joint statement at the conclusion of talks Wednesday.

Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili described the Almaty meeting as “positive,” while his American and European counterparts characterized it, more cautiously, as “useful,” stressing the imperative is results, not atmospherics.

“I would say it was a useful meeting,” a senior US official told journalists Wednesday. “The day we have concrete results, I will use a different adjective.”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, speaking at the conclusion of talks Wednesday, said she welcomed if the Iranian side “are looking positively at proposals we put forward.” But, she added, “I believe in looking at what the results are.”

The centerpiece of the two-day meeting was a presentation Tuesday by Ashton of a revised international proposal focused on curbing Iran's 20% enrichment, suspending operations at the fortified Fordow enrichment facility, and increasing nuclear safeguards, transparency and IAEA inspections that would prevent a rapid Iranian breakout capability, the US diplomat said.

The updated offer somewhat eases demands to entirely “stop, shut and ship” its 20% stockpile made in a proposal put forward in Baghdad last May.

Unlike the past proposal, the updated one would allow Iran to keep a sufficient amount of its 20% enriched fuel to fuel a research reactor that produces isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients, the US diplomat said.

The revised proposal also calls for “suspension of enrichment” at Fordo–rather than shuttering the fortified facility, built into a mountain in Qom– and would “constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there,” the American official said. It also calls for enhanced IAEA monitoring measures “to promote greater transparency…and provide early warning” of any attempted breakout effort, the official said.

In exchange, the proposal offers an easing of some sanctions. The US official said the proposed sanctions relief at this stage does not involve oil or financial sanctions, but other US and European Union imposed sanctions, which the official declined to specify. It would also offer to not impose new UN Security Council or European Union proliferation sanctions, as the previous offer also had. “We never regarded sanctions as an end in themselves,” the American official said.
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The US official declined to say whether the updated proposal asks Iran to halt installation of more advanced centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility, that could considerably speed up Iran's enrichment capacity.

Jalili offered rare praise for the international proposal, acknowledging it demonstrated a clear effort to respond to Iranian concerns. “We believe this is a…turning point,” he said through at a translator at a press conference Wednesday. The six parties “have moved closer to our proposal.”

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Appointments: Frank Lowenstein advising Kerry on Middle East; economist may move up

More John Kerry aides have arrived at the State Department, officials tell the Back Channel.

Frank Lowenstein, former Senate Foreign Relations committee chief of staff and foreign policy advisor to Senator Kerry, has joined the Kerry State Department as a senior advisor, currently focusing on Middle East issues, officials tell the Back Channel. Lowenstein is currently working in the office of David Hale, the acting Middle East peace envoy, and may be being groomed to succeed him, the official said. Lowenstein joins State after a year at the Podesta Group.

Lowenstein joins the fray amid a flurry of preparations for Kerry's and President Obama's upcoming trips to the region. Kerry leaves Sunday for his first foreign trip as Secretary of State, heading to the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. President Obama travels to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan next month.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro is in town this week helping prepare for President Obama’s trip, he said on Twitter Wednesday. Also in town to help prepare for Obama's trip, Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, an Israeli official told the Back Channel, as well as Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat, the State Department said.  (Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni his envoy on Palestinian peace talks.) Continue reading

Obama to name John Brennan for CIA, Chuck Hagel for Defense


President Obama on Monday will nominate White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan to head the CIA, and former Senator Chuck Hagel to be his Secretary of Defense.

Brennan, a 25 year CIA veteran who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has served as Obama’s top terrorism and intelligence advisor going back to the 2008 campaign.  He is very close with the President and extremely well-liked by the White House and National Security Council staff.

“When I was in [the White House], I slept better at night knowing that John Brennan never did,” former Obama White House political advisor David Axelrod wrote on Twitter Monday. “He worked 24/7 to keep Americans safe. Extraordinary guy.”

Brennan however withdrew his name from consideration for CIA chief in 2008 amid concerns about whether he had endorsed Bush-era CIA use of waterboarding and other controversial harsh interrogation techniques. More recently, Brennan has reportedly been among the figures arguing inside the administration for more restraint in the use of targeted drone strikes to kill militants.

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran who served two terms as Republican Senator from Nebraska, has been co-chairman of Obama’s President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

The nominations are expected to be announced at 1pm EDT.

The administration is gearing up for a tough confirmation battle over Hagel.

Neoconservatives and some right-leaning pro-Israel and gay rights groups have already signaled their opposition to Hagel, while several former diplomats, military officers, and Israel envoys have endorsed him. Among Hagel’s supporters, former National Security advisors Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Israel Tom Pickering, former Defense Secretary  Frank Carlucci, and World Bank President James Wolfensohn.

The administration may have been taking aback by the early opposition to the Hagel nomination, given his distinguished record of service and compelling personal story.  The White House also may have thought the worst was behind it after Obama’s first choice for Secretary of State, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, bowed out amid Republican sniping over her comments on the Benghazi attacks. Obama last month nominated Sen. John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State.

Regarding the preemptive campaign against Hagel, it has been “like picking up a rock and discovering all the nasties underneath,” one Democratic source said. The Obama administration “may not have wanted to have a fight at the outset, but I think at least some want to have this fight now to shine a light on some really awful, blackmail-style politics. They are sick of these groups boxing them in and want a public fight to expose them and hopefully put them in their place.”

“If they win, it may expand space for actual ‘moderate’ voices,” the source continued. “The stakes are really high — so they better go all in and win.”

Hagel’s positions on national security policy are considered similar to those of President Obama, who defended him as a “patriot” in an interview last month.

“I’ve served with Chuck Hagel,” Obama told NBC’s David Gregory last month. “I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate. Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who’s currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job.”

Hagel “is not anti-Israeli and he is not an anti-Semite,” former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas wrote in an article for Al-Monitor Dec. 23.

Describing several meetings he witnessed between Israeli Defense Minister Barak and Hagel, Pinkas asserted that “Barak was thoroughly impressed not only by Hagel’s military background, but by his analysis, knowledge of the Middle East, and his understanding of Israel’s security issues and predicaments.”

“Senator Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the President’s prerogative,” Abe Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, reportedly said Monday.

(Photo: White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan briefs President Obama on Dec. 14, 2012 on the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The President later said this was the worst day of his Presidency. Pete Souza, White House.)

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Obama defends Hagel as ‘patriot’

President Barack Obama on Sunday strongly defended former Senator Chuck Hagel as a patriot and outstanding intelligence advisor, but said he had still not decided who he would nominate to serve as his next Defense Secretary.

Obama, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday for the first time since 2009, was asked by host David Gregory, “Is there anything about Chuck Hagel's record or statements that’s disqualifying to you, should you nominate him to run the Defense Department?”

“Not that I see,” Obama responded, after saying he had not made up his mind yet about his pick for Pentagon chief.

“I've served with Chuck Hagel,” the president continued. “I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate. Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who's currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job.”

“So I haven’t made a decision on this,” Obama said.

Hagel, who served two terms as a Republican Senator from Nebraska, apologized earlier this month for comments he made in 1998 regarding an ambassador nominee who was gay. Former US ambassador to Luxembourg James Hormel subsequently wrote on Facebook that he accepts Hagel's apology.

“Senator Hagel's apology is significant–I can't remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything,” Hormel reportedly wrote on Facebook Dec. 22, noting that over the past “fourteen years…public attitudes have shifted–perhaps Senator Hagel has progressed with the times, too.”

Obama made the same point to Gregory. “With respect to the particular comment that you quoted, he apologized for it. And I think it's a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people's attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country.  And that's something that I'm very proud to have led.”

Obama’s comments on the Sunday show gave no indication of when he might announce further cabinet nominations for his second term. To date since his reelection last month, Obama has nominated only Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The longtime chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel and former Democratic presidential candidate is expected to be easily confirmed. Kerry and Hagel are both Vietnam veterans. Continue reading