Was U.S. ‘outfoxed’ on Syria?

 President Barack Obama's motorcade moves up Pennsylvania Ave. in the direction of the U.S. Capitol, center, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, in Washington, en route to Andrews Air Force Base to golf.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Barack Obama’s motorcade moves up Pennsylvania Ave. in the direction of the U.S. Capitol, center, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, in Washington, en route to Andrews Air Force Base to golf.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Lawmakers assessing the agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons argued Sunday about whether President Barack Obama was outfoxed by the Russians and had lost leverage in trying to end the civil war, or whether his threat of military action propelled the breakthrough.

Obama said the turn to diplomacy had laid “a foundation” toward political settlement of the conflict.

The deal announced Saturday in Geneva by U.S. and Russian diplomat sets an ambitious timetable for elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014, with rapid deadlines including complete inventory of its chemical arsenal within a week and immediate access by international inspectors to chemical weapons sites.

The agreement came in response to an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus, the capital, that the U.S. believes was carried out by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Republican lawmakers said that committing to remove or destroy Syria’s chemical weapons was laudable, the agreement fell short by not mandating military action should Assad fail to comply.

Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the U.S. is “being led by the nose by” Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“So, if we wanted a transition with Assad, we just fired our last round, and we have taken our ability to negotiate a settlement from the White House, and we’ve sent it with Russia to the United Nations,” Rogers, R-Mich., said. “That’s a dangerous place for us to be if you want an overall settlement to the problems.”

Russia, which already has rejected three resolutions on Syria, would be sure to veto a U.N. move toward military action, and U.S. officials said they did not contemplate seeking such an authorization.

Obama said Saturday that “if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act,” and Secretary of State John Kerry warned during a visit to Israel on Sunday that “the threat of force is real” if Assad fails to live up to the terms of the agreement.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the threat of force “is still very much in Russian hands.”

“That’s the most important element, is the veto piece, Corker said. “So in many ways, our credibility in the region, and certainly relative to the chemical warfare, is very much driven by Russia, which has its hands firmly on the steering wheel. ”

Democrats insisted that while the agreement itself doesn’t commit the U.S. to using force, the option of acting independently of the U.N. remains.

Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Russia’s primary aim has been to force the U.S. to give up that option. “Russia has failed in that goal,” Levin said.

To Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the threat of American military action is “the only reason we’ve gotten to this point, even to this possibility.”

Obama said in an interview with ABC’s “This Week” that if Syria can be stopped from using chemical weapons, “then we may also have a foundation” to begin the process of reaching a political settlement to civil war.

The president’s interview aired Sunday but was taped Friday, before the chemical weapons deal was reached but while Secretary of State John Kerry was engaged in intense talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Obama said Putin is “protecting” Assad and doesn’t share American “values” in Syria. “He has a different attitude about the Assad regime,” Obama said. “But what I’ve also said to him directly is that we both have an interest in preventing chaos, we both have an interest in preventing terrorism. The situation in Syria right now is untenable. As long as Mr. Assad’s in power, there is going be some sort of conflict there.”

The U.S. says intelligence reports have placed the blame on the Assad government for the attack last month, and that prompted Obama to ready American airstrikes on his order, until he announced on Aug. 31 that he would first ask for authorization from Congress. But amid growing skepticism among lawmakers and opposition from the U.S. public, he asked lawmakers to delay a vote while giving negotiations with the Russians time to play out.

Rogers spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Corker and Levin were on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” and Menendez appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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U.S. and Russia reach agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons

Secretary of State John Kerry (left) speaks on September 13, 2013 during a press conference with UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi (centre) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the UN headquarters in Geneva. The United States and Russia. An agreement was reached on eliminating Syria's chemical weapons. (AFP Photo/Larry Downing)
Secretary of State John Kerry (left) speaks on September 13, 2013 during a press conference with UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi (centre) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the UN headquarters in Geneva. An agreement was reached on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons. (AFP Photo/Larry Downing)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov say they have reached an agreement on a framework for securing Syria‘s chemical weapons after the third day of intense negotiations in Geneva.

They say some elements of the deal include a timetable and how Syria must comply — and that if Syria fails, they will seek a Security Council resolution that could authorize military action.

At a news conference Saturday, Kerry said the pair and their teams of experts had reached “a shared assessment” of the existing stockpile and that Syria must destroy all of its weapons.

Kerry said “we have committed to a standard that says, verify and verify.”

The negotiations between the United States and Russia on securing Syria’s chemical weapons also are considered key to a resumption of peace talks to end the 2 ½-year Syrian civil war.

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Lost in translation or lack of trust? Kerry wasn’t sure

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks next to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, during a press conference before their meeting to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. (AP Photo/Larry Downingl)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks next to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, during a press conference before their meeting to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria.
(AP Photo/Larry Downingl)

Something got lost in translation between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday — and it served to illustrate the level of distrust in U.S.-Russian relations.

It happened when the two diplomats delivered opening statements before their high-stakes talks about how to inventory and dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons.

As their joint appearance ended, Kerry asked a Russian translator to repeat the end of Lavrov’s remarks, saying his headset had cut out briefly.

When it was clear that Kerry wasn’t going to get an immediate retranslation, Lavrov tried to assure him that he hadn’t missed anything controversial.

“It was OK, John, don’t worry,” Lavrov said.

“You want me to take your word for it?” Kerry said. “It’s a little early for that.”

At least they were still smiling.
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A lot still riding on outcome of Syria weapons talks

John Kerry, left, US Secretary of State, shakes hands with Lakhdar Brahimi, center, UN Joint Special Representative for Syria, next to Sergei Lavrov, right, Russian Foreign Minister during a press conference after their meeting at the European headquarters of the United Nations. (AP Photo/Keystone, Martial Trezzini)
John Kerry, left, US Secretary of State, shakes hands with Lakhdar Brahimi, center, UN Joint Special Representative for Syria, next to Sergei Lavrov, right, Russian Foreign Minister during a press conference after their meeting at the European headquarters of the United Nations.
(AP Photo/Keystone, Martial Trezzini)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that prospects for a resumption in the Syrian peace process are riding on the outcome of U.S.-Russian talks aimed at securing Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal that lurched into a second day.

As American and Russian chemical weapons experts huddled in a Geneva hotel to haggle over technical details that will be critical to reach a deal, Kerry and Lavrov met a distance away with U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakdar Brahimi to examine political developments and plot a new international conference to support the creation of Syrian transitional government.

Kerry, flanked by Lavrov and Brahimi, told reporters at the U.N. in Geneva after an hour-long meeting that the chances for a second peace conference in Geneva “will obviously depend on the capacity to have success here … on the subject of the chemical weapons.”

Brahimi also met privately with Kerry at a Geneva hotel on Thursday to explore ways to resume international negotiations last held in Geneva in June 2012 aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.

Lavrov said it was “very unfortunate that for a long time that the Geneva communique was basically abandoned.”

Kerry and Lavrov announced they would meet again in New York toward the end of the month to try to fix a date for second conference.

When the talks began Thursday, Kerry bluntly rejected a Syrian pledge to begin a “standard process” by turning over information rather than weapons — and nothing immediately. The American diplomat said that was not acceptable.

“The words of the Syrian regime, in our judgment, are simply not enough,” Kerry declared as he stood beside Lavrov. “This is not a game.”

The talks were the latest in a rapidly moving series of events following the Aug. 21 gas attack on suburbs in Damascus. The U.S. blames Syrian President Bashar Assad for the use of chemical weapons, although Assad denies his government was involved and instead points to rebels engaged in a 2-year-old civil war against his government.

President Barack Obama began building a case for support at home and abroad for a punitive military strike on Assad’s forces, then changed course and asked Congress to give him explicit authority for a limited strike. With the campaign for lawmakers’ building to a vote — one that he might well lose — Obama said Tuesday he would consider a Russian proposal calling for international control of Assad’s chemical weapons and their eventual destruction.

Obama dispatched Kerry to Geneva to hammer out the details of the proposal even as he kept alive the possibility of U.S. military action.

“We believe there is nothing standard about this process at this moment because of the way the regime has behaved,” Kerry said on the opening day of talks. The turnover of weapons must be complete, verifiable and timely, he said, “and, finally, there ought to be consequences if it doesn’t take place.”

Lavrov seemed to contradict Kerry’s negative view of Assad’s offer to provide details on his country’s chemical arsenal beginning 30 days after it signs an international convention banning such weapons. Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations said that as of Thursday his country had become a full member of the treaty, which requires destruction of all chemical weapons.

The Russian said the initiative must proceed “in strict compliance with the rules that are established by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.” That suggests Russia does not agree with the U.S. that this is an exceptional case and that Syria should face tougher standards than other countries.

“We proceed from the fact that the solution to this problem will make unnecessary any strike on the Syrian Arab Republic, and I am convinced that our American colleagues, as President Obama stated, are firmly convinced that we should follow a peaceful way of resolution to the conflict in Syria,” Lavrov said.

The distrust in U.S.-Russia relations was on display even in an off-hand parting exchange at the news conference. Just before it ended, Kerry asked the Russian translator to repeat part of Lavrov’s concluding remarks.

When it was clear that Kerry wasn’t going to get an immediate retranslation, Lavrov apparently tried to assure him that he hadn’t said anything controversial . “It was OK, John, don’t worry,” he said.

“You want me to take your word for it?” Kerry asked Lavrov. “It’s a little early for that.”

They were smiling at that point. Shortly after making their opening statements, the two went into a private dinner.

Assad, in an interview with Russia’s Rossiya-24 TV, said his government would start submitting data on its chemical weapons stockpile a month after signing the convention. He also said the Russian proposal for securing the weapons could work only if the U.S. halted threats of military action.

At a meeting in Kyrgyzstan of an international security grouping dominated by Russia and China, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Syria’s efforts have demonstrated its good faith.

“I would like to voice hope that this will mark a serious step toward the settlement of the Syrian crisis,” Putin said.

Even as diplomacy took center stage, word surfaced that the CIA has been delivering light machine guns and other small arms to Syrian rebels for several weeks, following Obama’s statement in June that he would provide lethal aid to the rebels.

White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the administration could not “detail every single type of support that we are providing to the opposition or discuss timelines for delivery, but it’s important to note that both the political and the military opposition are and will be receiving this assistance.”

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the CIA has arranged for the Syrian opposition to receive anti-tank weaponry such as rocket-propelled grenades through a third party, presumably one of the Gulf countries that have been arming the rebels. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the classified program publicly.

Loay al-Mikdad, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, told The Associated Press that his group expected to receive weapons in the near future.
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An offhand remark by Kerry put a Syria deal into play

Secretary of State John Kerry.  (REUTERS/Alastair Grant)
Secretary of State John Kerry. (REUTERS/Alastair Grant)

Whether deft diplomacy or a rhetorical stumble, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has managed to crack open the door to a possible solution to the Syrian crisis that could get President Barack Obama and U.S. lawmakers out of a bind, save Syria from a bombing and cast Russia as peacemaker.

Kerry’s seemingly off-hand suggestion on Monday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might avert a U.S. military strike if he surrendered all of his chemical weapons offered a potential escape hatch that no one had seriously proposed before – and that could end up leading nowhere.

But in a sign of how desperate the United States, Russia, Syria and the United Nations are to defuse the international standoff over Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war last month, momentum for Kerry’s suggestion seemed to build instantly.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seized upon the idea, issuing a proposal for putting Syria’s chemical stockpile under international control.

Positive to lukewarm reaction flowed in from the White House, Assad’s government and the United Nations. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers in both parties expressed hope that a diplomatic solution would help them avoid a vote to either attack Syria – a plan most Americans oppose – or go against Obama’s plea for authorization to attack.

By late afternoon, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 – was speaking out on the Syrian conflict for the first time, saying that a plan to rid Assad of his stock of chemical weapons had potential.

Even as Obama used a half-dozen interviews with television networks to continue pressing his case for military action in Syria and made plans for a nationally broadcast speech to Americans on Tuesday night, the sudden prospect of a deal with Russia dominated the conversation in Washington.

During an interview with NBC, Obama signaled that he might have to adjust his approach because of the Russian proposal.

He told NBC that the proposal was “potentially positive,” but said that “we have to be skeptical,” a reflection of the many questions surrounding the plan.

A ‘WELCOME WRENCH’

Obama and several lawmakers said it was important for Congress to move forward with its debate over authorizing U.S. military force in Syria.

By all appearances, Obama has been losing that debate.

Vote count estimates by The Washington Post and The New York Times, among others, indicate that far more members of Congress oppose military action in Syria than support it – a reflection of Americans’ wariness of engagement in another conflict in the Middle East.

The ongoing debate over military force could give the United States some leverage in any discussions of a deal with Russia, according to Obama and key lawmakers such as Arizona Senator John McCain.

However, Middle East analysts said that the idea of sequestering Assad’s chemical weapons almost certainly would complicate Obama’s efforts to win Congress’ approval for military force.

“It basically throws a bit of a wrench into the administration’s approach, but it may be a welcome wrench,” said Robert Danin, a Middle East specialist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

A ‘FANTASY’ PROPOSAL?

Monday’s drama began when Kerry, after a meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, was asked by a reporter how military strikes on Syria might be averted.

Kerry said that Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week …. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”

Perhaps not. But by merely floating the idea in what the State Department said was just an attempt to make a rhetorical point, America’s top diplomat suddenly gave it credence.

After Lavrov responded with his proposal, Kerry called him and said that U.S. officials were “not going to play games,” but that if the Russian proposal was serious, “we will take a look,” a senior State Department official said.

White House officials also expressed doubts about Assad’s credibility in such a deal, but acknowledged that the idea was in play.

Clinton – who had met with Obama earlier in the day – then used a speech on wildlife preservation to suggest that the United States was interested in a solution that would rid Syria of chemical weapons.

To some analysts, it all sounded far-fetched.

A senior European security official deemed it a “fantasy” and said it would be “impossible to verify” whether Syria would give up its chemical weapons.

A former senior U.S. intelligence expert said there was no full accounting of Assad’s stockpile and where it is stored.

NO MASTER PLAN BY KERRY

For Obama, however, a deal brokered by Russia could mean at least a temporary way out of a crisis that he helped to create.

Last year, Obama declared that Assad would cross a “red line” for U.S. action if the Syrian president used chemical weapons in a civil war that now has gone on for 2 1/2 years and killed an estimated 100,000 people.

For Assad, such a deal could be a chance to delay or prevent a U.S.-led missile strike that could weaken Assad’s loyalists in their fight against rebel forces. Assad would, however, be under extreme pressure to make good on any pledge to identify and relinquish his chemical weapons.

And even though its Syrian ally is accused of using chemical weapons, Russia would have a chance to be seen as a peace-enabler while continuing to shield Syria from U.S. retribution for last month’s gas attack.

If Russia’s proposal leads to a deal, Kerry’s utterance that inspired the proposal could become a historic moment in U.S. diplomacy – and an ironic symbol of how his spontaneous comments sometimes have complicated the Obama administration’s efforts to sell the notion that military action in Syria is necessary.

Kerry, a former senator who joined the administration in February and became its most forceful voice for tougher action against Assad, faced criticism last week for initially refusing to rule out American “boots on the ground” in Syria before backtracking and accepting that restriction.

A senior U.S. official said that Kerry’s remarks Monday about Assad giving up chemical weapons were not part of some carefully crafted diplomatic strategy aimed at finding a way out of the Syria impasse.

Kerry, the official said, was simply emphasizing what he saw as the unlikely possibility that Assad would give up such weapons.

“Then,” the official said, “it kind of took off.”

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Sharp slide in support for Obama’s plans to attack Syria

Things not looking too good for Obma (Reuters/kevin Lamarque)
Things not looking too good for Obma (Reuters/kevin Lamarque)

White House efforts to convince the U.S. Congress to back military action against Syria are not only failing, they seem to be stiffening the opposition.

That was the assessment on Sunday, not of an opponent but of an early and ardent Republican supporter of Obama‘s plan for attacking Syria, the influential Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers.

Rogers told CBS’s “Face the Nation” the White House had made a “confusing mess” of the Syria issue. Now, he said, “I’m skeptical myself.”

Congress will be in session on Monday for the first time since the August recess. Debate on Syria could begin in the full Senate this week, with voting as early as Wednesday. The House of Representatives could take up the issue later this week or next.

Obama is expected to spend the next several days in personal meetings with members.

Some Democratic opponents of a military strike, meanwhile, were looking for a way to spare Obama’s administration the effects of a “no” vote.

Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts suggested that the president withdraw his request before it is defeated, saying on CNN’s “State of the Union” that there was insufficient support for it in Congress.

There are no signs that Obama is considering that, but speculation about the possibility that the administration might delay a vote surfaced on Sunday when Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Paris after meeting Arab foreign ministers, did not rule out returning to the United Nations Security Council to secure a Syria resolution.

A U.S. official who asked not to be named later squelched that speculation: “We have always supported working through the U.N. but have been clear there is not a path forward there.”

Obama is scheduled to address the American public on television on Tuesday, but even his political allies fear that his acknowledged power as an orator will be tested, given that polls show a majority of Americans opposed to his plan for military action.

White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough suggested that the speech will repeat points Obama has already made several times.

“What he’ll tell the country is what this is, which is a targeted, limited, consequential” use of military force, McDonough said during a round of appearances on Sunday TV shows.

“He’ll also tell the country what this is not. This is not Iraq. This is not Afghanistan. This is not an extended air campaign like Libya.”

‘FLOOD THE ZONE’ IS NOT WORKING

Most opponents of the proposed U.S. military strike do not contest the administration’s view that the Syrian government gassed its own people on August 21. Their expressed concerns focus instead on the effectiveness and potential unintended consequences of a U.S. military response.

Only about a quarter of the Senate’s 100 members and fewer than 25 members of the 435-seat House have been willing to go on record in support of Obama’s request, according to a tally by the Washington Post. Seventeen senators and 111 House members are on record against.

Leaders of both parties have characterized Syria as a “conscience vote,” not subject to the usual pressure for party discipline. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for example, has not made a personal pitch for votes in any of the five “Dear Colleague” letters she has sent her fellow Democrats.

The White House plans to step up what it has called a “flood the zone” lobbying effort this week, with briefings on Capitol Hill by Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

The influential American-Israel Public Affairs Committee will deploy hundreds of activists to lobby Congress in support of Obama’s plan. However, similarly intense lobbying by the White House last week proved unsuccessful.

Rogers, among others, faults Obama for not starting months ago to build congressional and public support on Syria.

“They don’t have strong relationships in Congress today – that’s a huge problem for them,” said Rogers. “I think it’s very clear he’s lost support in the last week.

As for the lack of public support, Rogers added: “You have a reluctant commander in chief, first of all, who’s trying to come to the American people and say, ‘I’m going to do something, but I’m not going to do a lot.’ They’re not sure exactly what we’re trying to do.”

Another Republican supporter, Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, said on ABC’s “This Week” that he had “reached out to the White House and said, ‘hey we support the strike on Syria, we’re going to help you round up support if you need it.’ I haven’t heard back from the White House yet.”
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Plenty of doubt about ‘evidence’ of Syria gas attack

A "citizen journalist" photo that the Obama White House claims if proof of a gas attack in Syria.
A “citizen journalist” photo that the Obama White House claims if proof of a gas attack in Syria. (Photo provided by Local Comity of Arbeen)

The U.S. government insists it has the intelligence to prove it, but the American public has yet to see a single piece of concrete evidence — no satellite imagery, no transcripts of Syrian military communications — connecting the government of President Bashar Assad to the alleged chemical weapons attack last month that killed hundreds of people.

In the absence of such evidence, Damascus and its ally Russia have aggressively pushed another scenario: that rebels carried out the Aug. 21 chemical attack. Neither has produced evidence for that case, either. That’s left more questions than answers as the U.S. threatens a possible military strike.

The early morning assault in a rebel-held Damascus suburb known as Ghouta was said to be the deadliest chemical weapons attack in Syria’s 2½-year civil war. Survivors’ accounts, photographs of many of the dead wrapped peacefully in white sheets and dozens of videos showing victims in spasms and gasping for breath shocked the world and moved President Barack Obama to call for action because the use of chemical weapons crossed the red line he had drawn a year earlier.

Yet one week after Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the case against Assad, Americans — at least those without access to classified reports — haven’t seen a shred of his proof.

There is open-source evidence that provides clues about the attack, including videos of the rockets that analysts believe were likely used. U.S. officials on Saturday released a compilation of videos showing victims, including children, exhibiting what appear to be symptoms of nerve gas poisoning. Some experts think the size of the strike, and the amount of toxic chemicals that appear to have been delivered, make it doubtful that the rebels could have carried it out.

What’s missing from the public record is direct proof, rather than circumstantial evidence, tying this to the regime.

The Obama administration, searching for support from a divided Congress and skeptical world leaders, says its own assessment is based mainly on satellite and signal intelligence, including indications in the three days prior to the attack that the regime was preparing to use poisonous gas.

But multiple requests to view that satellite imagery have been denied, though the administration produced copious amounts of satellite imagery earlier in the war to show the results of the Syrian regime’s military onslaught. When asked Friday whether such imagery would be made available showing the Aug. 21 incident, a spokesman referred The Associated Press to a map produced by the White House last week that shows what officials say are the unconfirmed areas that were attacked.

The Obama administration maintains it intercepted communications from a senior Syrian official on the use of chemical weapons, but requests to see that transcript have been denied. So has a request by the AP to see a transcript of communications allegedly ordering Syrian military personnel to prepare for a chemical weapons attack by readying gas masks.

The U.S. administration says its evidence is classified and is only sharing details in closed-door briefings with members of Congress and key allies.

The assessment, also based on accounts by Syrian activists and hundreds of YouTube videos of the attack’s aftermath, has confounded many experts who cannot fathom what might have motivated Assad to unleash weapons of mass destruction on his own people — especially while U.N. experts were nearby and at a time when his troops had the upper hand on the ground.

Rebels who accuse Assad of the attack have suggested he had learned of fighters’ plans to advance on Damascus, his seat of power, and ordered the gassing to prevent that.

“We can’t get our heads around this — why would any commander agree to rocketing a suburb of Damascus with chemical weapons for only a very short-term tactical gain for what is a long-term disaster,” said Charles Heyman, a former British military officer who edits The Armed Forces of the U.K., an authoritative bi-annual review of British forces.

Inconsistencies over the death toll and other details related to the attack also have fueled doubts among skeptics.

The Obama administration says 1,429 people died in 12 locations mostly east of the capital, an estimate close to the one put out by the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. When asked for victims’ names, however, the group provided a list of 395. On that list, some of the victims were identified by a first name only or said to be members of a certain family. There was no explanation for the hundreds of missing names.

In Ghouta, Majed Abu Ali, a spokesman for 17 clinics and field hospitals near Damascus, produced the same list, saying the hospitals were unable to identify all the dead.

Casualty estimates by other groups are far lower: The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says it only counts victims identified by name, and that its current total stands at 502. It has questioned the U.S. number and urged the Obama administration to release the information its figure is based on. The AP also has repeatedly asked for clarification on those numbers.

The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders says it has not been able to update its initial Aug. 24 estimate of 355 killed because communication with those on the ground around Damascus is difficult. That estimate was based on reports from three hospitals in the area supported by the group.

Moreover, the group, whose initial report was cited in U.S. and British intelligence assessments, has rejected the use of it “as a justification for military action,” adding in a disclaimer published on its website that the group does not have the capacity to identify the cause of the neurotoxic symptoms of patients nor the ability to determine responsibility for the attack.

French and Israeli intelligence assessments back the U.S., as does reportedly Germany’s spy agency, on its conclusion the Syrian regime was responsible. However, none have backed those claims with publicly presented evidence.

Some have suggested the possibility, at least in theory, that the attack may have been ordered by a “rogue commander” in Assad’s military or fighters seeking to frame the regime.

Testifying Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rebuffed a congressman’s bid to declassify one of the key pieces of intelligence Kerry publicly cited last week: intercepted communications telling Syrian military units to prepare for the chemical strikes.

Still, there was very little pushback from members of Congress on the government’s conclusion that the Syrian regime was responsible.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the intelligence was “very compelling” and that senators have had more access to classified information on Syria than they’ve had on anything in her two decades in the Senate.

Asked if that was enough to merit a U.S. military reaction, she said: “Yes, it’s enough for me. I think the prohibition on chemical weapons is well-founded.”

Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who closely follows Syria’s war, said it would be “political suicide” for the regime to commit such an act given Obama’s warning. He also questioned U.S. assertions that the Syrian rebel fighters could not have launched sophisticated chemical weapons. He said that some among the estimated 70,000 defectors from the Syrian military, many of them now fighting for the opposition, could have been trained to use them.

“It is conceivable that one or more know how to fit a rocket or artillery shell with a chemical agent,” said Jaber, who also heads the Beirut-based Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research. He claimed Syrian insurgents have acquired chemical weapons, bought from tribes in Libya after the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, through Saudi interlocutors. Other weapons from Libya have been used in the conflict, though Jaber did not offer evidence to support his chemical weapon claim.

Saudi Arabia has been a chief supporter of the opposition. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of Saudi intelligence, recently flew to Moscow, reportedly on a mission to get Russia to drop its support for Assad.

Syrian government officials and Assad accused foreign fighters of carrying out the attacks with the help of countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the hopes of prompting an international military intervention.

Syria says some of its own soldiers were badly contaminated in Jobar, on the edge of Damascus, as they went into tunnels cleared by the rebels. U.N. experts, who had been collecting tissue and other samples from victims in Ghouta, also visited the Mazzeh military hospital in Damascus, taking samples from injured soldier there.

Two days after the Ghouta attack, state television broadcast images of plastic jugs, gas masks, medicine vials, explosives and other items that it said were seized from rebel hideouts. One barrel had “made in Saudi Arabia” stamped on it.

In the U.S., the case for military action has evoked comparisons to false data used by the Bush administration about weapons of mass destruction to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Multiple U.S. officials have told AP that the intelligence pictures on the Aug. 21 attack was “not a slam dunk” — a reference to then-CIA Director George Tenet’s insistence in 2002 that U.S. intelligence showed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction — intelligence that turned out to be wrong. They cite the lack of a direct link between Assad and the chemical assault — a question the administration discounts by arguing Assad’s responsibility as Syria’s commander in chief. A second issue is that U.S. intelligence has lost track of some chemical weaponry, leaving a slim possibility that rebels acquired some of the deadly substances.

Russian President Vladimir Putin — a staunch ally of Assad — said if there is evidence that chemical weapons have been used, specifically by the regular army, it should be submitted to the U.N. Security Council.

“And it ought to be convincing. It shouldn’t be based on some rumors and information obtained by intelligence agencies through some kind of eavesdropping, some conversations and things like that,” he told The Associated Press in an interview late Tuesday.

David M. Crane, an international law professor at Syracuse University in New York, said the scale of the attack makes it very unlikely that anyone other than the regime was behind it.

“I think it was a calculated risk by the Assad regime to push to see how far he can go while causing a great deal of political disruption,” he said. “It’s a huge gamble, but he’s in a very risky situation.”

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AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier reported from Washington.

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Associated Press writers Greg Katz in London and Richard Lardner and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.
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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

 

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Democrats divided over Syria

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

President Barack Obama’s pursuit of a military strike in Syria has put congressional Democrats and party leaders around the country in a tough spot.

They face loud opposition from war-weary constituents at home and are wary of being pulled into another foreign conflict. But they also are confronted with grim images from Syria of gassed children and the pleas of a president from their own political party to consider the consequences of inaction.

Breaking from Democrats’ long history of being the party typically opposed to military conflict, Obama is pushing for a limited military strike in Syria in response to President Bashar Assad‘s alleged use of chemical weapons. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have rallied behind him.

But some liberal and moderate Democrats, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fresh in their minds, have begun joining dozens of conservative Republicans registering their opposition. And many rank-and-file Democrats are undecided on whether to support a congressional resolution for military action, questioning whether it would turn the tide in a bloody civil war, whether it’s in the U.S. national interest and whether it would prompt Assad to retaliate with more chemical weapons.

“We’ve been to this dance before and we saw what happened in Iraq,” said Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who says he is leaning against supporting the resolution. “And I have a solemn responsibility to understand what the risks are before I vote to authorize the use of force. What’s the risk to the U.S. and the president’s standing in the world if the Congress votes against the resolution?”

Emerging from a closed-door briefing on Thursday, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, an Iraq war veteran, said she wanted answers about what would happen after a U.S. attack but her own military experience was giving her “great pause” before making a decision.

Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., was resolute in his opposition. “It’s simply not our responsibility,” he said, wearing a tie covered with 1960s peace symbols.

In the Senate, Democrats Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico opposed the resolution to authorize a strike when it was up for a committee vote while recently elected Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, who succeeded Secretary of State John Kerry, voted present. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the party’s most moderate members, said he would oppose the resolution. More than a dozen Democratic senators are supporting it.

Obama captured the Democratic nomination in 2008 in part because of his opposition to the Iraq war, a position that he used effectively against primary opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton, who as senator voted in October 2002 to authorize the war but then stumbled among anti-war Democratic voters.

Many Democrats in the House first won their seats in the elections of 2006 and 2008, when the party was fueled by voters who blamed President George W. Bush for the enduring conflicts. It is difficult for many of those Democrats to authorize U.S. intervention in a new conflict — even as Obama and Kerry assure them that it will be narrowly focused and not include U.S. ground troops.

“Members are trying to really listen and hear and understand,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., who said he was undecided after emerging from a private briefing on the issue Thursday night. “They don’t want to make the same mistake that was made before.”

The deliberations extend into households. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who opposed the 2002 Iraq war authorization, is undecided this time but has said a failure to hold Syria accountable for the chemical weapons attack would set a “terrible precedent.”

Schakowsky’s husband, Democratic strategist Robert Creamer, wrote in a Huffington Post column last week that the U.S. needs to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons.

The Syria vote has generated an intense lobbying effort by the left to pressure Obama to stay out of the civil war.

Liberal activists are planning candlelight vigils across the country on Monday night to urge members of Congress to oppose the resolution, and they suggest those who support military action risk political punishment in the future.

“Everyone who positions themselves as a progressive needs to think very hard about what their vote will mean down the road,” said Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org.

At the same time, a large delegation of members representing the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group with strong ties to congressional Democrats, plans to press lawmakers on Capitol Hill next week to approve the resolution.

The vote could carry implications beyond this year. House Democrats who represent liberal districts might face primary challenges if they support the resolution. The votes could figure prominently in several key Senate races crucial to Democrats’ effort to maintain control of the chamber during Obama’s final two years.

Incumbents in two closely watched races — Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska — remain undecided. But Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, running for a third term, said in a statement Saturday that “at this time” he can’t support the resolution to intervene in Syria that lawmakers are expected to consider next week.

Among potential 2016 presidential candidates, Clinton said through an aide that she supported Obama’s efforts in Congress. As secretary of state she urged the administration to intervene in Syria, and a speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday could give the former first lady the opportunity to discuss a potential U.S. response. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley told reporters last week that there was a need for a “clear understanding of what it is exactly this mission would hope to accomplish.”

Wrapping up a trip to Sweden and Russia, Obama will try to make a full-court press next week, addressing the nation on Tuesday while his administration fans out to briefings and meetings with wavering lawmakers.

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Associated Press writers Alan Fram in Washington and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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American intel caught napping on Syrian chemical weapons

Black columns of smoke rising from heavy shelling in the Jobar neighborhood in East of Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)
Black columns of smoke rising from heavy shelling in the Jobar neighborhood in East of Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

U.S. intelligence agencies did not detect the Syrian regime readying a massive chemical weapons attack in the days ahead of the strike, only piecing together what had happened after the fact, U.S. officials say.

One of the key pieces of intelligence that Secretary of State John Kerry later used to link the attack to the Syrian government — intercepts of communications telling Syrian military units to prepare for the strikes — was in the hands of U.S. intelligence agencies but had not yet been “processed,” according to senior U.S. officials.

That explains why the White House did not warn either the regime or the rebels who might be targeted as it had done when detecting previous preparations for chemical strikes.

“We know that for three days before the attack the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area making preparations,” Kerry said as he presented the evidence in a State Department speech last week. “We know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.”

But the Obama administration only uncovered the evidence after Syrians started posting reports of the strike from the scene of the attack, leading U.S. spies and analysts to focus on satellite and other evidence showing a Syrian chemical weapons unit was preparing chemical munitions before the strike, according to two current U.S. officials and two former senior intelligence officials.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the intelligence publicly.

The spokesman for the director of national intelligence confirmed that U.S. intelligence did not detect the massive chemical weapons attack beforehand.

“Let’s be clear, the United States did not watch, in real time, as this horrible attack took place,” Shawn Turner said in a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday. “The intelligence community was able to gather and analyze information after the fact and determine that elements of the Assad regime had in fact taken steps to prepare prior to using chemical weapons,” Turner said.

Turner offered no reason for the delay in processing the intelligence, but current and former intelligence officials said analysts were stretched too thin with the multiple streams of intelligence coming out of multiple conflict zones, from Syria to Libya to Yemen.

In December, U.S. intelligence detected Syria’s military was readying chemical weapons for use, and President Barack Obama warned the Syrian government publicly that such use was “totally unacceptable” and that the country’s leaders would be held accountable.

The White House is now asking Congress to approve a punitive strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which the administration blames for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus.

The administration says 1,429 died in the attack. Casualty estimates by other groups are far lower.

Kerry and other officials are laying out the intelligence in open and closed sessions with lawmakers, explaining why the U.S. intelligence community last week issued a “high confidence” report implicating the Syrian regime — a conclusion echoed by British and French intelligence in similar reports made public since the attack.

Senior administration officials explained last week that the U.S. intelligence community had reconstructed a picture of the attack, from satellite and signals intercepts that indicated to them that troops from Syria’s military unit that handles chemical weapons, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, were readying such weapons. That conclusion was backed up, however, by a carefully written sentence that indicated the intelligence was somewhat circumstantial: “Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating … near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin.”

The report says U.S. intelligence intercepted communications after the attack by a “senior official intimately familiar with the offensive” who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian government, and was concerned that the U.N. inspectors might find evidence of the attack. The report also says the U.S. has intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to “cease operations” on the afternoon of Aug. 21, several hours after the attack.

The U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence say such intercepts were in hand but waiting to be processed among hours of intercepted military communications.

The CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency have dozens officers on the ground in countries neighboring Syria, relying on a network of rebels and local agents to provide human intelligence on the goings on of both the regime and its opponents. The Pentagon also has satellites focused on the area, capturing images of the regime and rebel maneuvers, while various types of airborne platforms collect electronic transmissions such as military radio traffic or cellphone calls.

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Follow Kimberly Dozier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kimberlydozier
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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Divided vote in Senate over Obama’s war plans; More trouble in House?

A defiant John Kerry in testimony before the House on Obama's war.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
A defiant John Kerry in testimony before the House on Obama’s war.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A Senate panel’s deep divide over giving President Barack Obama the authority to use U.S. military force against Syria underscores the commander in chief’s challenge in persuading skeptical lawmakers and wary allies to back greater intervention in an intractable civil war.

The administration was pressing ahead Thursday with its full-scale sales job, holding another round of closed-door meetings for members of Congress about its intelligence on Syria. On another continent, Obama was certain to face questions from world leaders when he arrives in St. Petersburg, Russia, for an economic summit.

The event’s host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, stands as a reminder of resistance to U.S. pleas for Moscow to intervene with its ally Syria and President Bashar Assad.

Obama has called for military action after the administration blamed Assad for a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 that it says killed more than 1,400 civilians, including at least 400 children. Other casualty estimates are lower, and the Syrian government denies responsibility, contending rebels fighting to topple the government were to blame.

Responding to Obama’s request, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 Wednesday to authorize the “limited and specified use” of the U.S. armed forces against Syria, backing a resolution that restricts military action to 90 days and bars American ground troops from combat.

Secretary of State John Kerry, testifying for the second consecutive day before Congress, insisted that the U.S. military response would be restricted as Americans fatigued by more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan show little inclination to get involved in Syria.

“I don’t believe we’re going to war, I just don’t believe that,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, citing the ground troops and long-term commitment that he said wars entail. “That’s not what we’re doing here. The president is asking for permission to take a limited military action, yes, but one that does not put Americans in the middle of the battle.”

In the Senate, five Republicans, including potential presidential candidates Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, and two Democrats opposed the resolution, which is expected to reach the Senate floor next week. The timing of a vote is uncertain.

“I believe U.S. military action of the type contemplated here might prove to be counterproductive,” Rubio said. “After a few days of missile strikes, it will allow Assad, for example, to emerge and claim that he took on the United States and survived.”

Paul, a Kentucky conservative with strong tea party ties, has threatened a filibuster, although he acknowledged that proponents have the votes to prevail in the Senate, and he pinned his hopes on the House.

The notion of a contained operation has failed to sway many Republicans and Democrats in the House, who question why the U.S. should get involved now in a Syrian civil war that has killed an estimated 100,000, displaced millions and is in its third year. While House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have expressed support for military action, but rank-and-file Republicans remain reluctant or outright opposed.

Republican Rep. Chris Collins said voters in his western New York district are “overwhelmingly against involvement.” The freshman congressman is undecided.

“Really, I’m looking for the president to justify limited military strike and establish what are the objectives he’s seeking and what is the mission,” Collins said in a phone interview.

Kerry told the Foreign Affairs Committee that he believed Obama would address the nation on Syria in the next few days. The president returns home from overseas Friday night.

Speaking in Sweden on Wednesday, Obama left open the possibility he would order retaliation for the deadly chemical weapons attack even if Congress withheld its approval.

“I always preserve the right and responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security,” he told a news conference. In a challenge to lawmakers back home, he said Congress’ credibility was on the line, not his own, despite saying a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line.”

The Senate panel’s vote marked the first formal response in Congress, four days after Obama unexpectedly put off an anticipated cruise missile strike against Syria and instead asked lawmakers to unite behind such a plan.

The vote capped a hectic few days in which lawmakers first narrowed the scope of Obama’s request and then widened it.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a proponent of aggressive U.S. military action in Syria, joined forces with Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware to add a provision calling for “decisive changes to the present military balance of power on the ground in Syria.”

At their urging, the measure was also changed to state that the policy of the United States was “to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria.” McCain, who long has accused Obama of timidity in Syria, argued that Assad will be willing to participate in diplomatic negotiations only if he believes he is going to lose the civil war he has been fighting for more than two years.

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Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Josh Lederman in Sweden and Bradley Klapper, Alan Fram, Deb Riechmann, Kimberly Dozier, Lolita C. Baldor and Andrew Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.
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Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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