Syria conflict ‘incubator of extremism,’ Burns tells Senators

Share

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.”

Egypt’s Foreign Minister: Terrorism by any side should be part of Syria discussion

20140121-200125.jpg

Montreux, Switzerland: Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told Al-Monitor that “the maximum” the plenary session of the Geneva II conference on Syria can achieve here January 22 is for the “international community and the parties to express their support for a political resolution to this conflict.”

Fahmy, who served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 1999-2008, spoke to Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti and Laura Rozen on Tuesday night at his hotel in Montreaux on the eve of the international conference.

Fahmy expanded on his ideas for a political process that leads to a “new Syria which should be open, inclusive to all of its different affiliations in Syria, and that responds to the aspirations of the Syrian people.”

“Who stays how long, when, and who leaves, when, that is for the Syrians to decide,” Fahmy said.

Asked whether discussions of Syria should address the rise of terrorism in Syria and elsewhere in the region, Fahmy said that “the issue of terrorism–violence by any side, by the way, not only by one side–is obviously going to be in the mix. But, as part of the discussion on creating a new Syria, not in place of the discussion, on creating a new Syria.”

Fahmy, whose father also served as foreign minister of Egypt, from 1973-1977, supported confidence building measures such as localized cease fires, prisoner exchanges, and humanitarian corridors. But he warned the conference should not be solely focused on either such humanitarian, confidence -building steps, or counterterrorism, but on launching a process towards a political transition as well.

“We offered the Russians and the Americans starting a month ago, first the Russians and then the Americans, a list of confidence building measures (CBMs), including partial cease-fires, exchange of detainees, different kinds of detainees, because there are some purely civilian detainees, a lot of different things,” Fahmy said.

“I actually would recommend highly that, as they start the political process of building this new Syria, they should in parallel with that, always continue to try to deal with, how can we facilitate the situation on the ground, how can you reduce the suffering,” he added

That will create a different confidence level, but it shouldn’t become a confidence building conference, but if you ignore it, how can you simply negotiate for the next 6 months, and people are getting killed mindlessly, and you assume that you have all the time in the world.”

The interview follows, below the jump:

Continue reading

Report: UN to blacklist Syria’s Al-Nusra Front

The United Nations Security Council is expected to formally designate the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group next week, Agence-France Press reported Friday, amid intensified efforts to rally international consensus on a plan to halt Syria”s civil war.

The designation, expected to be finalized by the Security Council al-Qaeda sanctions committee on Tuesday, would make the group subject to a global asset freeze, the AFP report said.

The move, supported by France and Britain, comes days after the United States and Russia agreed to try to convene a Syria peace conference. The conference, expected to take place in Geneva as early as the end of this month, aims to bring representatives of the Syrian government and opposition together to try to negotiate the creation of a transition body.

The United States designated Al–Nusra Front as a terrorist organization in December.

Late last year, US intelligence officials encouraged moderate Syrian rebel forces at a meeting in Jordan to target Al-Nusra Front even at the cost of setbacks in their fight against Assad’s forces, Phil Sands reported in The National this week.

(Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo December 24, 2012. REUTERS.)

US charges Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston Marathon bombing


The United States on Monday charged Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, with perpetrating the bombings of the Boston Marathon last week.

Tsarnaev, recovering from gunshot wounds sustained in a police chase that killed his brother and accused accomplice, was formally charged and advised of his rights in his Boston Beth Israel-Deaconess hospital bed, by US Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler. In the presence of three federal defense attorneys,  Tsarnaev nodded affirmatively when asked by the judge if he understood the charges and his rights, and said “no,” when asked if he could afford an attorney, according to a transcript of the hearing.

Tsarnaev, a naturalized American of Chechen descent who has been in the United States since he was 9 years old, was charged with the use of a weapon of mass destruction, and malicious destruction of property resulting in death, according to the 10-page federal complaint (.pdf). The charges, if proven, carry a penalty of life imprisonment or, if a jury decides, the death penalty. Additional charges could be added as the investigation proceeds.

The twin bombs, made of pressure cookers and dropped in backpacks near the finish line of the marathon April 15th, killed three people, including an 8 year old boy, and wounded over 200, some of whom were severely maimed.

Reports over the weekend pieced together from interviews with relatives and associates of the Tsarnaev family in North America and Dagestan, Russia, described Dzhokhar as a smart, seemingly well-adjusted and popular teenager, a former captain of his Cambridge high school wrestling team, who was until last week a college sophomore at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. However, his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, killed in a police shoot out early Friday, had a more troubling path and was described as growing increasingly alienated and extreme. Once a talented boxer, Tamerlin quit the sport, dropped out of community college in 2008, got arrested for assaulting a girlfriend in 2009, and was thrown out of his Cambridge mosque twice in the past year for outbursts denouncing the sermons as being “un-Islamic,” the Boston Globe reported.

In 2012, Tamerlin traveled to Dagestan, Russia for six months, as well as to Chechnya, to visit relatives, according to media interviews given by his father, Aznor Tsarnaev. Whether Tamerlin possibly made contact with jihadi radicals on that trip is a focus of US terrorism investigators now. Other accounts, including from a paternal uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, suggest Tamerlan’s radicalization began in Boston, starting years earlier.

Though accounts generally describe Tamerlan as the presumed ringleader of the plot and Dzholkhar as the loyal brother dragged into it, the federal complaint offers a chilling description of Dzholkhar’s behavior on videos the FBI obtained from the scene of the marathon bombings.

After the first explosion went off on Boston’s Boylston street last Monday afternoon, “virtually every head [in the crowd] turns to …that direction in apparent bewilderment and alarm,” the affidavit states.

But Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, “virtually alone among the individuals in front of the restaurant, appears calm,” the affidavit continues. “He walks away without his knapsack… Approximately 10 seconds later, an explosion occurs in the location where Bomber 2 [Dzhokhar] had placed his knapsack.”

Meantime, the FBI said Saturday that in early 2011 it interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and members of the family at the request of a foreign government, subsequently identified as Russia. The Russian government said it had information that Tamerlan had become “a follower of radical Islam” and “had changed drastically since 2010” as he “prepared to leave the United States and… join unspecific underground groups” in Russia, according to the FBI press release.

Continue reading

US intelligence: Iran decision on nuclear weapon matter of 'political will'


The United States believes Iran has the technical capability to make nuclear weapons, but does not know if Iran will decide to do so, saying it's ultimately a matter of Iranian political will, the US intelligence community said in a worldwide threat assessment delivered to the Senate Tuesday. The United States would know in time if Iran attempted to break out to produce highly enriched uranium for a bomb, the assessment also said.

“We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” the US intelligence community’s annual worldwide threat assessment, delivered by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate intelligence community Tuesday, states.

Given that Tehran “has developed technical expertise in a number of areas—including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles—from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable  nuclear weapons,” the assessment states, “this makes the central issue its political will to do so.”

Sanctions have had an impact on Iran's economy, but have so far not caused the Iranian leadership to change its course on the nuclear program, Clapper told the Senate panel during questioning.

“Sanctions have had a profound impact on Iran’s economy and the situation is getting worse,” Clapper said. “At the same time, at least publicly, overtly, it has not prompted a change in the Iranian leadership's decision, the Supreme Leader's approach,” to the nuclear program.

While the sanctions and the prospect of increased social unrest “do concern” the Iranian leadership, Clapper said, “at the same time, the Supreme Leader's standard is a level of privation that Iran suffered during the Iran-Iraq war. And I don’t think, he doesn’t believe they have reached that point yet.”

“Of course, as the Supreme Leader looks westward, at us, he can argue we are on decline, our influence in that part of the world,” is waning, Clapper continued. “And so, his view of the world may not necessarily be fact-based even when it comes to internal conditions in his country.”

Clapper said he would wait until closed briefing with the panel to discuss any classified intelligence on the leadership's thinking, as well as to address questions on alleged cooperation between Iran and North Korea. Continue reading

Roundup: Brennan confirmed, Obama: Iran needs way to climb down

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama salutes as he steps off Marine One at the White House in Washington after visiting wounded military personnel at the Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Maryland, March 5, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing.)

zp8497586rq
zp8497586rq

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.)

zp8497586rq

A visit to the blast scene in Beirut

My colleague Ben Gilbert, Al-Monitor’s news editor, reports from the scene of Friday’s blast in Beirut, that reportedly killed Maj. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, head of intelligence of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, and seven others.

A car bomb tore through a predominantly Christian neighborhood of Beirut on Friday, killing at least eight people — including Wissam Hassan, a senior intelligence officer in Lebanon’s National Police Force — and wounding more than 70.

A visit to the scene shows that the explosion, which occurred at 2:50pm local time, tore at least one car in half and gutted many others. It ripped balconies from buildings, scattered glass and metal several blocks away from the blast site, and even tore leaves from trees.
Bloodied civilians could be seen being dragged from the area as ambulances attempted to evacuate the wounded to nearby hospitals. One small girl, carried away from the rubble, was bleeding heavily from deep gashes on her head and upper arms.

“It broke all the windows and shook the house,” Ghassan Baroudi, who was at home in the building next to the bomb when the blast struck, told Al-Monitor. “I saw a screaming woman get out of her car and a man running across the street carrying an infant. The child was okay, but the man was covered in blood.”

“We feared another explosion so we left and went around the back,” Baroudi, 28, added.
The bomb attack was the worst of its kind to hit Lebanon for more than four years, when a wave of political assassinations killed dozens of civilians and several officials between 2004 and 2007.

The explosion occurred just off Beirut’s Sassine Square, a major traffic junction in the capital’s eastern Ashrafieh district lined with several shops, cafes and restaurants.
Nour Kassab, a ninth-grade student living on the street where the bomb exploded, was visiting her cousin in a nearby restaurant when the blast hit.

“I came to my house and there was fire in the street,” she told Al-Monitor. “Cars were on fire and my neighbors were coming down from the buildings covered in blood. I was so scared I couldn’t move. ‘Oh my God,’ I thought. ‘The house is gone. There is nothing left.’”

Nour’s uncle, Toni Haddad, expressed the fear of many residents that the conflict in neighboring Syria was spreading to Lebanon. “The Shiites and Sunnis, the Russians and Americans and Qataris and Syrians, now they are bringing their war to Lebanon.”

The reported target of Friday’s blast, Lebanese police intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan, was a close ally of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a foe of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Saad Hariri on Friday accused Assad of the killing.

At a watch repair shop around the corner from where the bomb went off, owner Jimmy, who didn’t want to give his last name, swept the glass shards of what was once the store’s glass façade into the sidewalk.

“I had forgotten what a bomb sounds like, said Jimmy, who showed Al-Monitor scars on his leg he said was from one of the bombs that exploded 100 feet away from this one in 1978. “It’s funny how you can forget it, and I did.”

Ben Gilbert, Al-Monitor’s news editor, tweets @benrgilbert

(Photo: Firefighters try to extinguish a fire as a car burns at the scene of an explosion in Ashafriyeh, central Beirut, October 19, 2012. REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban)

Gunmen kill top Yemeni security officer employed by US Embassy

A top Yemeni security official with the US Embassy in Sanaa was killed Thursday by a gunman on a motorbike, in an attack the State Department said appeared to target him.

Qassim M. Aklan, a Yemeni national, served as head of the Foreign Service national investigative unit within the larger Regional Security Office shop at the US Embassy in Sanaa, where he had worked for eleven years, the State Department said Thursday.

Mr. Aklan “was a dedicated professional who will be greatly missed,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at the State Department Thursday. “We condemn this vicious act in the strongest terms possible and extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends at this difficult time.”

In his capacity as head of the Yemeni security staff working at the US Embassy Sanaa, Aklan was “responsible for routine personnel checks,” Nuland said. “He was our liaison on security matters to local authorities.”

Aklan “was not in the Embassy at the time of his killing,” but “off duty….and out with a family member when he was killed,” Nuland said.

The US is in close contact with Yemeni authorities who are investigating the incident, Nuland said.

Reports from Yemen hypothesized that Aklan was targeted by al Qaeda.

‘Homeland’ actor raises alerts at airports

The actor who plays terrorist leader Abu Nazir on the breakout spy thriller television series “Homeland” finds himself often stopped at airports, Navid Negahban tells CNN.

“When I’m at the airport, the agents look at my passport and they look at me and there is something in their eyes, and you can see them thinking, ‘I know this guy. Where have I seen him before?’”  Negahban told CNN’s Suzanne Kelly.

The Iranian-born actor was going through the security line at New York’s LaGuardia airport last year en route to Toronto, he recounted to Kelly, when the “agent locked eyes with me and I thought ‘Oh, here we go again’”: Continue reading