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

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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

Ex envoys Wisner, Kurtzer: What the U.S. should do now in Egypt

Two former U.S. envoys to Egypt advise that given the uncertain and violent turn of events, Washington should avoid public statements for now.

Washington was perhaps slow to recognize and try to correct the widespread perception in Egypt that the U.S. government was supporting Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government–as opposed to the elected government of Egypt.

“The United States has been behind the curve for a long time in this revolution, and I think it’s a little behind the curve this past week as well,” former US Ambassador to Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al Monitor in an interview Sunday.

“We gave the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi in particular a very long time to prove his capabilities and his understanding of democracy and he failed on both counts,” Kurtzer, now at Princeton University, said. “He was a totally inept president–which is not necessarily a reason to be thrown out of office. He was also a president who didn’t understand what [democracy] means in terms of inclusiveness and respect for institutions.”

Kurtzer was a junior diplomat in Cairo in 1981 when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. He rose through the Foreign Service ranks to serve as Bill Clinton’s envoy to Egypt and the Bush administration’s ambassador to Israel.

“I think the best thing to do is to avoid public statements,” Kurtzer said. Given the fast-moving situation and current atmosphere of heightened tensions, “at this point, all public statements are being misunderstood.”

Veteran former US diplomat Frank Wisner agrees.

“If you know and respect you’re in a hole, don’t take out a shovel and dig any deeper,” Wisner, a former US Ambassador to Zambia, India, the Philippines and Egypt, told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday. “The less we say, the better.”

The son of a legendary CIA officer, Wisner joined the Foreign Service in 1961, and served for over four decades in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. During the anti-Mubarak protests in 2011, he served as a special advisor on Egypt for the Obama administration and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is now a foreign policy advisor at Patton Boggs.

“We got ourselves painted into a corner,” Wisner said. “And now we’re in the awkward position of un-painting ourselves. And it’s not very graceful.”

How did we get here?

“My own personal view is that, in an attempt to do something that I think made sense – which was to try…to get the Muslim Brotherhood government to open its doors, and create national consensus and stability and a chance to unveil some policies that might work–we allowed ourselves to get painted in the corner as supporting the Muslim Brothers, without making clear what we were trying to accomplish,” Wisner said.

“I am also frank enough to recognize there are moments when our approach to things and the mood swing, and we find ourselves out of step,” Wisner said.

President Obama “had exactly the right line. If we had only just stuck to it,” Wisner said, paraphrasing the president’s statement on Egypt last week, ‘We don’t pick governments in Egypt.’

“Say that and be done with it,” he advised. “And stop babbling and leaping to get on the right side of every fence. Unfortunately in Egypt of the last couple of years, the fence line has moved.”

The current effort by a motley coalition of Egyptian political parties–“the Tamarod gang and the (Salafi) Nour party”–and the military to come to consensus on interim leaders and a transition plan for new elections and a constitution is likely to be bumpy, Wisner said. But “to build a consensus–a workable, grubby, nasty, deal-making consensus–Egyptians are quite good at that,” Wisner said. “They are consensus people. “

The new transition government should then move to tackle two urgent priorities—restoring law and order, and stabilizing the economy, he advised.

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US presses Egypt for swift return to civilian rule, against arbitrary arrests

President Obama met with his national security team on Egypt on the July 4th holiday, as US officials consulted with allies and pressed Egyptian officials for a swift transition back to civilian rule.

US officials “have been in touch with Egyptian officials and our regional partners to convey the importance of a quick and responsible return of full authority to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible,” the State Department said. They also pressed for “a transparent political process that is inclusive of all parties and groups; avoiding any arbitrary arrests of President Morsy and his supporters; and the responsibility of all groups and parties to avoid violence.”

Secretary of State John Kerry discussed developments over the past two days with Egyptian opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Emirati Foreign Minister bin Zayed, the Norwegian Foreign Minister Kai Eide, and Qatari Foreign Minister al-Attiya, the State Department said Thursday.

Defense Secretary Hagel spoke with Egyptian army chief al-Sisi and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Bogie Ya'alon.

New US National Security Advisor Susan Rice spoke with her Israeli counterpart, National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror. 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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Obama administration calls for full investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria


The Obama administration notified Congress Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community has newly assessed that Syria probably used chemical weapons, but cautioned that further tests are necessary and said it is pressing for the United Nations to conduct a comprehensive investigation.

“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin,” the White House said in a letter to Congress Thursday.

The new assessment, announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the United Arab Emirates Thursday, was finalized in the past twenty four hours and received with evident reluctance by the Obama administration, which has expressed strong misgivings about the prospect of deeper entanglement in a new Middle Eastern conflict.

But the administration decided to publicly release the findings, which were contained in an assessment requested by some members of Congress, as several allied governments and foreign officials, including in Israel, the UK and Qatar, have made similar claims, to press for a comprehensive probe.

The US intelligence assessment “is based in part on physiological samples,” the White House letter said. But it cautioned that “the chain of custody” of the physiological samples it tested “is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.” Blood samples and soil samples are the type of physiological material that would be tested for chemicals, a western diplomat said Thursday.

“Precisely because the President takes this issue so seriously, we have an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria,” the White House letter said.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient,” the White House letter said, obliquely referring to past flawed US intelligence assessments that Iraq had WMD. Only “credible and corroborated” facts will guide US decision-making, it continued.

It’s important that any evidence be “air-tight,” a senior US official later echoed in a press call.

The White House said it was consulting closely with allies, particularly the UK and France, in considering possible next steps. Vice President Joe Biden was also meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Thursday. Hagel announced last week that the US was sending an additional 200 US troops there.

Earlier Thursday, a French official said the French government did not have conclusive evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but had strong concerns, and was also pressing for a broader UN probe.

“France does not have proof of the use of chemical weapons at this stage, but France is actively investigating with its partners,” the French official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists. Continue reading

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

US Navy fires on “rapidly approaching” boat near Dubai

A US Navy security team fired on a small motor boat off the coast of Dubai, United Arab Emirates Monday, after the small vessel “disregarded warnings and rapidly approached”  the US Navy ship, the Rappahonnock, the Pentagon said Monday.

“The U.S. crew repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel’s operators to turn away from their deliberate approach,” the US Navy/Centrall Command said in a press statement sent to Pentagon reporters Monday. “When those efforts failed to deter the approaching vessel, the security team on the Rappahannock fired rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun.”

The incident, near Jebel Ali, UAE,  is under investigation. The nationality of those aboard the motor boat is not yet known or being released, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy Central Command told Al Monitor. “At this time I don’t have that information, the incident is still under investigation,” US Navy spokesman Ltn. Greg Raelson told Al Monitor by email.

ABC News reported that the small motor boat was not from Iran. “I can’t emphasize enough that this has nothing to do with Iran,” an unnamed Navy official told ABC News.

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Successor sought for US National Intelligence Officer for Iran (Updated)

Correction: The National Intelligence Council has been searching for a successor for Jillian Burns, who has served as the National Intelligence Officer for Iran for the past few months. Burns is due to rotate out of the NIC to take a new Foreign Service assignment,  colleagues say. I regret the error.

Original Post: The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has named its first National Intelligence Officer for Iran. She is Jillian Burns, a senior State Department Foreign Service officer and veteran Iran hand, who most recently served as an Iran advisor in State’s Policy Planning shop. Previously, the well-regarded Burns served as the first director of the US’s Iran regional presence office (a kind of virtual consulate in exile) in Dubai, UAE. Burns opened the office in 2006, after serving as an “Iran watcher” in Dubai. Continue reading

Why has so much been revealed about how US/Saudi intel foiled the AQAP bomb plot?

Details are still emerging about the alleged role of an undercover mole in foiling a plot by Al Qaida’s Yemen branch to bomb a US-bound airliner.

But along with the details about the US-Saudi intelligence coup comes the question: why would American officials be seemingly so forthcoming with the methods involved in the highly sensitive counter-terrorism operation, given the threat posed by Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is hardly over.

Among the details that have emerged in gripping reports from the Associated Press, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times among others the past two days: that an apparently Saudi intelligence mole infiltrated AQAP, volunteered for the suicide mission; delivered the sophisticated, metal-free bomb composed of military-grade explosives and sewn into underwear, to the US via the Saudis/UAE;  provided information that allowed the US to target AQAP’s chief of external operations Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso in a drone strike Sunday; and that the Saudis may have several other informants in place inside the terror organization’s Yemen branch.

“Of dozens of AQAP fighters with Saudi backgrounds, ‘at least five or eight of them are undercover’ working for the Saudi service at any point,” the Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing a Middle Eastern official. “’The Saudis have always had a network’ of sources in Yemen, the official said. ‘Now they are expanding its objectives.’”

Former FBI terrorism analyst Matthew Levitt suggested that US officials probably decided to offer more details on the foiled plot only after it was clear the press already had them and was going to report them.

“My instinct is they said as much as they did because it was going to be exposed [in the press] … and they wanted to get ahead of it,” Levitt, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me in an interview Wednesday.

The FBI has opened a leak investigation into the disclosures to the press about the foiled AQAP plot, the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Perez reported Wednesday: “A person familiar with the investigation said the probe, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has been under way for days.”

Levitt said the rather extensive details exposed in press reports, especially concerning the alleged role of Saudi intelligence in infiltrating AQAP, is liable to cause the CIA some real headaches or worse in placating allied Arab intelligence services, which tend to be very discreet.

“I have had calls from people expressing that this is not going to please foreign parters; ‘loose lips sink ships’ and all that,” he said.

Once the operation was going to be exposed in the press, however, he mused, Washington may have resigned itself to “spinning it so that we can inflate ourselves as much as we can,” in the eyes of AQAP, in order to stoke paranoia, fissures and insecurity in the group, he said.

Recently released documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound show that bin Laden thought the US had capabilities beyond what it may have, he noted–microchips, etc..

“It’s clear the enemy does think we are capable,” Levitt said. “At a certain point, we may want to encourage that.”

As to the infiltration operation that reportedly led to the US acquiring AQAP’s latest bomb prototype and to the killing in a drone strike of Quso, Levitt said the achievement “is pretty big.” And he added, we still don’t know all the details of what the US has learned from the operation.

UPDATE: More on this from the Boston Globe’s Juliette Kayyem, a former DHS official, who wonders if a turf battle over control of US CT policy in Yemen explains the leaks:

…What’s worse, the story may not have been the result of a deliberate decision by the Obama administration, but rather prompted by leaks from lower-level officials. That would be a symptom of bureaucratic competition for leadership of the next phase of the fight against Al Qaeda. ….

 

Now, there should be an independent investigation of who, at what agency, was so loose-lipped about a covert mission, and the White House should embrace it. If the leaker was at the CIA, he or she has not only tarnished the agency, but undermined some of the most important tactics that can be used against a flexible enemy.

Turf battles are common, especially in times of transition from one government strategy to another. But rarely do turf battles make someone so easily forget who the real enemy is.

(Photo of Saudi fugitive Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri as seen from a Yemeni police handbook of the most wanted terror suspects. A Saudi bombmaker believed to be working with al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing is suspected of designing the bombs used in at least three attempts to bomb US-bound airliners. REUTERS/Yemeni Police/Handout.)