U.S. suspends Syria embassy operations

Share

The United States announced Tuesday that it has ordered the Syrian government to immediately cease all operations at its embassy in Washington, D.C. and two honorary consulates in Houston, Texas and Troy, Michigan.

Personnel at the facilities who are not U.S. citizens or legal US residents have been ordered to depart the country.

“For three years, Bashar al-Asad has refused to heed the call of the Syrian people to step aside…and created a humanitarian catastrophe,” Daniel Rubinstein, the new US Special Envoy for Syria, said in a press statement.

“Following the announcement that the Syrian Embassy has suspended its provision of consular services, and in consideration of the atrocities the Asad regime has committed against the Syrian people, we have determined it is unacceptable for individuals appointed by that regime to conduct diplomatic or consular operations in the United States,”  Rubinstein said.

There are just two Syrian diplomats left at its embassy in Washington, a Syrian contact told Al-Monitor Tuesday, as well as 8 or 9 local employees. The Syrian diplomats in Washington do not have US residency and will have to leave, the contact said. The State Department gave them til the end of the month to depart..

Ayman Midani serves as the honorary consul general of Syria in Houston, Texas. The last Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, departed in December 2011, to become Syria’s envoy to China.

“The United States will continue to assist those seeking change in Syria, to help end the slaughter, and to resolve the crisis through negotiations,” Rubinstein said.

The chair and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee welcomed the expulsions of the Syrian government personnel, and urged the Obama administration to withdraw diplomatic recognition of, and increase pressure on, the Assad regime.

“I welcome this overdue action,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-California), said in a joint statement.  “But it would be withdrawal of our diplomatic recognition of the regime that would signal strong American support for the Syrian people.”

“After three years of brutality by Assad against his people, including the horrifying use of chemical weapons on civilians, it is crucial that we increase the pressure on his regime,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) said. “The longer this war goes on, the more dangerous and unstable the region will become.”

We feel that the illegitimacy of the Assad regime is overwhelming — 10,000 children killed, millions of refugees,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a State Department chat with university students on Tuesday.

Meantime, the Assad regime this week signaled that it “plans to hold presidential elections this summer in all areas under government control and President Bashar al-Assad will likely be one of several candidates to run,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing Syria’s minister of information.

Syria conflict ‘incubator of extremism,’ Burns tells Senators

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.”

UN Syria envoy Brahimi said to consider resigning


UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with the Russians last week and threatened to resign if they did not get the Syrian regime to seriously negotiate.

Russian diplomats in the meeting said they would like to have another round of Syria peace talks in Geneva, a western official told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

Brahimi responded, what’s the point, if the Syrian regime delegation is only going to insult the opposition delegation, as it did at the last two rounds of talks, the western official, speaking not for attribution, said. The Russians said they did not have as much influence over the Syrian regime as some observers think, and Brahimi said that he thought they did have some, and that they should use it, the official described.

“I would not hold my breath for Geneva,” the western official said, referring to another round of Syria peace talks anytime soon.

The deadlocked Syria diplomatic process comes amid a deepening rift between its chief cosponsors, the US and Russia, over Russia’s de facto occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Brahimi met with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Wednesday. But Brahimi did not speak to reporters after the meeting, and the State Department said it did not yet have information on what was said. Update: Kerry and Brahimi discussed the status of the Geneva talks at their meeting Wednesday, a State Department official told Al-Monitor Thursday. “The talks are still on recess,” the official said. “We look forward to JSR Brahimi’s briefing to the Security Council in closed consultations on March 13.”

Kerry also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, and they were due to meet again in Rome on Thursday.

“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with the Ukrainians, in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it, and overcome the crisis,” Kerry told reporters after his day of meetings in Paris.

“All parties agreed today that it is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue,” Kerry said. “I don’t believe..any of us are served by greater or further confrontation.  And also, we met today to discuss these issues because we cannot and will not allow the integrity of the sovereignty of the country of Ukraine to be violated and for those violations to go unanswered.”

If Brahimi quits as the UN/Arab League special envoy, a possible candidate to succeed him is former Kuwaiti foreign minister Shaikh Mohammad Al Sabah, Gulf News reported Wednesday.

Brahimi is already the second joint UN/Arab League special Syria envoy to consider resigning. His predecessor Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, quit in frustration in the summer of 2012, shortly after the first round of Geneva talks was held.

“Yes, he has threatened to resign, but that isn’t new,” a U.S. official told Al-Monitor Wednesday of Brahimi. “But I suspect he will persist.”

“I don’t want to speak to what his intentions may or may not be,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department Wednesday about whether Brahimi is resigning.  “Obviously, we have confidence in him and he has done a great job convening the beginning of the Geneva process.  There are many paths and many routes that we are pursuing at the same time as it relates to diplomacy in Syria.”

Separately, the United States informed Syria’s mission to the United Nations last month that Syrian diplomats posted there will be confined to within 25 miles of New York, the State Department said Wednesday. A U.S. official said the decision to restrict Syrian diplomats’ movement to the New York area had been in the works for several months, and was not related to the breakdown in talks in recent weeks.

Meantime, Brahimi’s deputy in Damascus, Mokhtar Lamani, resigned on Monday, Al-Arabiya reported.

US Syria envoy Robert Ford also retired last week after serving thirty years as a US diplomat, the State Department announced last Friday (February 28). Daniel Rubenstein, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan and US Consul General in Jerusalem will be tapped to succeed him as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor previously reported.

“I am very, very sorry and I apologize to the Syrian people,” Brahimi told journalists in Geneva last month after the second round of Syria peace talks concluded with no future meeting set, as the Syrian regime side refused to discuss a political transition. The Syrian peoples’ “hopes .. were very, very high here, that something will happen here.”

(Photo of UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva in January by Reuters.)

Syria envoy Robert Ford retires, Rubenstein to be named successor

US Syria envoy Robert Ford retired on Friday after 30 years distinguished service, the State Department announced Friday.

Ford’s “extraordinary leadership has guided our response to one of the most formidable foreign policy challenges in the region,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists Friday.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Lawrence Silverman will temporarily serve as his replacement until a permanent successor is named, Psaki said.

US officials tell Al-Monitor that US diplomat Daniel Rubenstein will be named as Ford’s permanent successor working with the Syrian opposition. Rubenstein, described by colleagues as an “outstanding Arabist,” currently serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the State Department Intelligence and Research bureau (INR).

Rubenstein previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Jordan (2005-2008), as the US Consul General  in Jerusalem (2009-2012), and as chief of the Civilian Observer Unit in the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, Egypt. Rubenstein, who is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and Portuguese, also served in earlier postings in Damascus, Tunis, Tel Aviv, and Brasilia. He couldn’t immediately be reached Saturday for comment.

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

Iran, world powers may hold nuclear talks in New York

Iran and six world powers may hold the first round of negotiations to seek a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal in New York in mid-February, a U.S. official and Iranian media reports said Monday. However,an Iranian official said Monday that the parties are still working on both a place and the dates for the meeting.

“It is our understanding that the first round of comprehensive negotiations will be in New York in mid-February with dates still being confirmed on schedules,” Marie Harf, State Department deputy spokesperson, said by email Monday. 

“New York – agreed to by EU High Representative Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif – has a similar support infrastructure to Geneva,” Harf said.  “We believe that United Nations and international support is important for work on a comprehensive agreement.”

The last three rounds of high-level P5+1/Iran nuclear talks that secured a six-month interim nuclear deal on November 24th took place in Geneva.

But Syrian peace talks that got underway in Geneva last week may continue to be regularly convened for months at the UN headquarters in Geneva, diplomats earlier suggested.

It was understood that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s team suggested to P5+1 counterparts last fall that the nuclear negotiations take place in UN cities, such as Geneva, Vienna and New York.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was reported to have met with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif in Davos last week to confer on the upcoming negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear deal.

An EU spokesperson said Monday, however, that he did not yet have confirmation of the venue or dates for the next meeting. An Iranian official too, speaking not for attribution, said the venue and dates of the meeting are still being worked on.

Zarif, who previously served as Iran’s envoy to the UN in New York, met with Ashton and P5+1 foreign ministers on the sidelines of the opening of the UN General Assembly last September. US and Iranian diplomats also met quietly in New York in the run up to UNGA in  September, including to discuss arranging the September 26th one on one side-bar meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif, and the historic phone call between US President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Al-Monitor previously reported.

Bill Burns on nuclear diplomacy with Iran

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, in an interview (Jan. 14) with the Back Channel posted on the front page, spoke about leading the U.S. effort to open direct talks with Iran, expectations for the upcoming Geneva  II Syria peace talks, and a three decade career in US diplomacy:

With negotiations set to begin in February between Iran and the P5+1 on a comprehensive nuclear accord, Burns said President Barack Obama’s estimate of 50-50 odds of reaching an agreement is not bad, considering the context.

“The truth is, against the backdrop of the tortuous history of the relationship between the United States and Iran, that’s actually not a bad opportunity to be tested,” Burns said. “And I think it’s very important for us to test it.”

Full report and interview here. Earlier reports on the US-Iran channel: Burns led secret US back channel to Iran (Nov. 24, 2013);  Three Days in March: New details on how US, Iran opened direct talks (January 8, 2014).

Kerry welcomes Higginbotom as Deputy, Shannon as Counselor

Secretary of State John Kerry has welcomed the confirmation of Heather Higginbottom as Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, and announced that he has tapped outgoing Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon to succeed her as his Counselor, as the Back Channel reported was in the works.

“Having served as my Counselor since shortly after I arrived at State, Heather is well known to all of you,” Kerry wrote in a note to the Department this week. “The President let me steal Heather back – which is only fair since he stole her from me in 2007.  I know she will excel in this new challenge.” Continue reading

Senate Egypt bill could ease US aid after coup

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to introduce an Egypt aid bill Wednesday that if passed could set a precedent for loosening current restrictions on US assistance to post-coup countries, Congressional sources tell Al-Monitor.

Sen. Robert Menendez  (D-NJ), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is expected to introduce the bill, called the Egypt Assistance Reform Act of 2013, at a SFRC business meeting or Wednesday.  The bill is listed as the first item on the published agenda  for the committee meeting.

A senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution Tuesday, said the bill is expected to pass, but it isn’t clear that Menendez has a vehicle to bring it to the floor before the end of the week, after which Congress is expected to go on break. The real test will be the continuing resolution or the omnibus in early January, the official said.

The bill, while geared to Egypt, could have wider implications for US defense/security and economic assistance to post coup countries universally, one Congressional staffer, speaking not for attribution, said. If passed, it would virtually eliminate the restrictions of Section 7008, which currently prevents aid to post coup countries, by offering a framework for a waiver, which could be renewed. The Congressional staffer suggested the Obama White House had been closely involved in drafting the text of the legislation with the SFRC.

“We are continuing to work with the Congress to ensure we obtain the funding and authorities necessary to provide assistance for Egypt, consistent with the approach we outlined earlier this year,” Bernadette Meehan, spokesperson for the National Security Council, told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

A spokesman for the SFRC majority staff contacted by Al-Monitor Tuesday evening said he may not be able to get guidance on the matter before Wednesday.  A spokesman for ranking SFRC Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee could not immediately be reached Tuesday.

The proposed bill would provide “the administration a legislative roadmap forward for U.S. assistance to continue to Egypt despite current legal restrictions on aid to countries where a military coup d’état has taken place,” a summary of the draft bill provided to Al-Monitor states. Continue reading

David Makovsky joins Indyk’s Middle East peace team

20131118-134406.jpgVeteran Middle East scholar David Makovsky has joined the team of US Middle East peace envoy Martin Indyk as a strategist and senior advisor.

Makovsky formally joined Indyk’s team and started working at Foggy Bottom today, a State Department official told Al-Monitor Monday.

“Drawing upon decades of experience working and writing on Israeli-Palestinian issues, Makovsky will serve as a strategist for the U.S. efforts and will be dealing with the wide range of issues associated with the negotiations,” the State Department official said in a statement. “We believe this expertise will greatly contribute to the ongoing efforts to achieve peace.”

Indyk has been expanding his team as the U.S. prepares to step up its role in trying to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian final status peace agreement. Israeli media reported Monday that US Secretary of State John Kerry will travel again to Israel late next week.

Makovsky, a former journalist, has most recently served as a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he directed the project on the Middle East peace process. He has also taught as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Update: “While we are saddened to lose David, we are proud that he will play this critical role in U.S. policymaking,” Robert Satloff, executive director at the Washington Institute, said in a press statement later Monday. “We are confident that David will enrich the U.S. government’s diplomatic efforts to promote Middle East peace with the same creativity and wisdom that have made him a pivotal member of the Institute research team and a trusted resource to decisionmakers in Washington and throughout the region.”

(Photo: David Makovsky will serve as a senior adviwor to US Middle Peace envoy Martin Indyk. By Jennifer Logan.)