Obama lets Kerry spin diplomatic wheels with Russia since U.S. has no ‘plan B’ for Syria

The New York Times reports: The image of a 5-year-old Syrian boy, dazed and bloodied after being rescued from an airstrike on rebel-held Aleppo, reverberated around the world last month, a harrowing reminder that five years after civil war broke out there, Syria remains a charnel house.

But the reaction was more muted in Washington, where Syria has become a distant disaster rather than an urgent crisis. President Obama’s policy toward Syria has barely budged in the last year and shows no sign of change for the remainder of his term. The White House has faced little pressure over the issue, in part because Syria is getting scant attention on the campaign trail from either Donald J. Trump or Hillary Clinton.

That frustrates many analysts because they believe that a shift in policy will come only when Mr. Obama has left office. “Given the tone of this campaign, I doubt the electorate will be presented with realistic and intelligible options, with respect to Syria,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former adviser on Syria in the administration.

The lack of substantive political debate about Syria is all the more striking given that the Obama administration is engaged in an increasingly desperate effort to broker a deal with Russia for a cease-fire that would halt the rain of bombs on Aleppo.

Those negotiations moved on Sunday to China, where Secretary of State John Kerry met for two hours with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, at a Group of 20 meeting. At one point, the State Department was confident enough to schedule a news conference, at which the two were supposed to announce a deal.

But Mr. Kerry turned up alone, acknowledging that “a couple of tough issues” were still dividing them.

“We’re not going to rush,” he said, “and we’re not going to do something that we think has less than a legitimate opportunity to get the job done.”

Mr. Kerry said he would stay in China another day to keep trying. But his boss, Mr. Obama, voiced skepticism.

“If we do not get some buy-in from the Russians on reducing the violence and easing the humanitarian crisis, then it’s difficult to see how we get to the next phase,” the president said after a meeting with the British prime minister, Theresa May, in Hangzhou.

Whatever progress Mr. Kerry has made, officials said, could easily be unraveled by external events, whether a new offensive by Turkey or the Nusra Front — which until recently had publicly aligned itself with Al Qaeda — or intensified bombing raids by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. And it is clearer than ever that if Mr. Kerry’s latest attempt at diplomacy falls short, there is no Plan B. [Continue reading…]

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Promises unfulfilled: How a State Department plan to stabilize Iraq broke apart

The Washington Post reports: A week before the last U.S. soldiers left his country in December 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to Washington to meet the team that would help shape Iraq’s future once the troops and tanks were gone.

Over dinner at the Blair House, guest quarters for elite White House visitors since the 1940s, the dour Iraqi sipped tea while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of how her department’s civilian experts could help Iraqis avoid a return to terrorism and sectarian bloodshed.

Iraq would see a “robust civilian presence,” Clinton told reporters afterward, summing up the Obama administration’s pledges to Maliki. “We are working to achieve that,” she said.

Less than three years later, the relatively calm Iraq that Maliki had led in 2011 was gone. The country’s government was in crisis, its U.S.-trained army humiliated, and a third of its territory overrun by fighters from the Islamic State. Meanwhile, State Department programs aimed at helping Iraqis prevent such an outcome had been slashed or curtailed, and some had never materialized at all.

Clinton’s political foes would later seek to blame her, together with President Obama, for the Islamic State’s stunning takeover of western Iraq, saying the State Department failed to preserve fragile security gains achieved at great cost by U.S. troops. In a speech Monday on how he would deal with terrorist threats, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said, “The rise of ISIS is the direct result of policy decisions made by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.”

But an intensive review of the record during Clinton’s tenure presents a broader picture of missteps and miscalculations by multiple actors — including her State Department as well as the Maliki government, the White House and Congress — that left Iraqi security forces weakened and vulnerable to the Islamic State’s 2014 surge. [Continue reading…]

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Syria is Obama’s shame

Hisham Melhem writes: It was a moral rational Cri de Coeur for taking steps to end the carnage in Syria, but it was also grounded in equally clear and compelling strategic imperatives. For weeks, scores of State Department officers in Washington and in U.S. embassies in the Middle East have been circulating a draft of a sharply critical “dissent cable” of the Obama administration’s fickle policies towards the tragic war in Syria, and forcefully urging the United States to end its dithering and carry out military strikes if necessary to compel the Assad regime to end its systematic mass murder of Syrian civilians.

About two weeks ago the message titled Syria Policy was posted on the “Dissent Channel” signed by fifty one mostly middle ranking and junior officers who worked over the last five years on aspects of Syria policy, and who were exposed to the daily gut-wrenching accounts that came across their desks of the demoralizing and very depressing depredations, mostly from the Assad regime.

The Dissent Channel was set up during the Vietnam War as a vehicle for officers who had strong political and moral disagreements with official policies, to express their dissent to their senior officials without fear of retaliation.

Although the military recommendations in the dissent message are thoughtful and the signatories believe that “perhaps most critically, a more muscular military posture under U.S. leadership would underpin and propel a new and reinvigorated diplomatic initiative,” it is very unlikely that President Obama, who pursued half-heartedly and with stunning detachment several tentative, incomplete and contradictory approaches to Syria will fundamentally alter his current policy, which involves only criticizing the Assad policies but steering away from undermining him or his regime, and focus instead on containing the threat of ISIS. [Continue reading…]

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Former Ambassador Robert Ford on the State Department mutiny on Syria

Robin Wright: What does the letter of dissent reflect?

Former Ambassador Robert Ford: Frustration at the State Department has come to a boil. People don’t write in the Dissent Channel every day. The cessation of hostilities in Syria has broken down completely. The bombings of hospitals in Aleppo and Idlib are a violation of every human norm — and that’s not including the barrel bombs and the chemical weapons. The effort to get a political deal is going nowhere. The Assad government has refused to make any serious concessions. It won’t let in food aid, in violation of U.N. resolutions. And the Americans are watching it all happen. So the Dissent Channel message is a reflection of frustration by the people who are responsible for conducting policy on the ground. I felt that way when I left—and that was after Geneva II, in January-February, 2014.

The existing policy is failing and will continue to fail. Why? I don’t sense, in the message, dissent from the strategic objective, which is a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war, but I sense a sharp disagreement with the tactics the Administration is or is not using. The dissent message says that, without greater pressure on the Assad government, it will be impossible to secure the compromises necessary to win a political agreement and end the war. The message says that the Administration needs to reconsider tactics to generate that pressure.

We all learned from Iraq that regime change is not the way to bring about positive political change. In the case of civil war, there needs to be negotiation between the opposition and the government. The question is how you increase the likelihood that it will succeed. And ever since Secretary Clinton and Sergei Lavrov concluded the communiqué, in June, 2012, Administration policy has failed to create the conditions necessary to succeed. [Continue reading…]

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51 U.S. diplomats urge strikes against Assad in Syria

The New York Times reports: More than 50 State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its persistent violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war.

The memo, a draft of which was provided to The New York Times by a State Department official, says American policy has been “overwhelmed” by the unrelenting violence in Syria. It calls for “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.”

Such a step would represent a radical shift in the administration’s approach to the civil war in Syria, and there is little evidence that President Obama has plans to change course. Mr. Obama has emphasized the military campaign against the Islamic State over efforts to dislodge Mr. Assad. Diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, have all but collapsed.

But the memo, filed in the State Department’s “dissent channel,” underscores the deep rifts and lingering frustration within the administration over how to deal with a war that has killed more than 400,000 people.

The State Department set up the channel during the Vietnam War as a way for employees who had disagreements with policies to register their protest with the secretary of state and other top officials, without fear of reprisal. While dissent cables are not that unusual, the number of signatures on this document, 51, is extremely large, if not unprecedented.

The names on the memo are almost all midlevel officials — many of them career diplomats — who have been involved in the administration’s Syria policy over the last five years, at home or abroad. They range from a Syria desk officer in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs to a former deputy to the American ambassador in Damascus. [Continue reading…]

For Obama to change course at this juncture would require that he acknowledge America’s role in enabling the collapse of Syria, yet he and his staff have been guided by the self-serving conviction: that direct intervention can only make the conflict worse.

If Obama is going to have some great epiphany about the errors of his presidency, don’t expect that to come until after he’s left office and perhaps spent a decade reflecting on what he could have done differently.

What we know already and have known since day one, however, is that this is a president who doesn’t believe in looking back.

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Bashar Assad’s defiance points to a Syrian peace effort in tatters

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Michele Kelemen reports: Syrian President Bashar Assad is sounding rather confident these days. In his first major address in the past two months, he promised that his troops will reclaim “every inch” of Syrian territory.

“We have no other choice but to be victorious,” Assad told Syria’s parliament on Tuesday. He also lashed out at rebels, blaming them for the failure of peace talks backed by the United Nations.

Assad’s speech is calling into question international diplomacy on Syria. One Syria-watcher at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Faysal Itani, says it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

“It is safe to say [the peace effort] has failed,” Itani tells NPR, saying he never thought the prospects for diplomacy were good.

The diplomatic plan relied on Russia and Iran using their influence with Assad to encourage him to agree on a transitional government and make peace with more moderate rebels.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, one of the key architects of this approach, was “trying to pull a rabbit out of his hat,” according to Itani. While Kerry was seeking concessions from Assad, the military balance of power was turning in favor of the Syrian regime.

“The Russians are quite committed to ensuring it stays that way. No one has any incentive to give John Kerry what he’s asking for,” Itani says. [Continue reading…]

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Empty stomachs, empty words: Syria’s children starve as America looks on

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In an editorial, the Washington Post says: It’s been nearly six months since the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding an end to the bombing and shelling of civilian areas in Syria and calling for immediate humanitarian access to besieged areas. It’s been four months since Secretary of State John F. Kerry described the sieges as a “castastrophe” of a dimension unseen since World War II and said that “all parties to the conflict have a duty to facilitate humanitarian access to Syrians in desperate need.”

Three weeks ago, a diplomatic conference on Syria joined by Mr. Kerry issued a statement saying it “insisted on concrete steps to enable the provision of urgent humanitarian deliveries,” and warning that if none were taken, it would support airdrops to besieged towns beginning on June 1.

By Monday, there still had been no food deliveries to Darayya in the Damascus suburbs, the al-Waer district of Homs or several other of the 19 besieged areas, with a population of more than 500,000, identified by the United Nations. Nor had there been airdrops. None have been organized, and U.N. officials say none are likely in the coming days. Another deadline has been blown, another red line crossed — and children in the besieged towns are still starving. [Continue reading…]

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It wasn’t a ‘glitch’: State Department deliberately cut embarrassing questions from press briefing video

The Washington Post reports: The State Department acknowledged Wednesday that someone in its public affairs bureau made a “deliberate” request that several minutes of tape be cut from the video of a 2013 press briefing in which a reporter asked if the administration had lied about secret talks with Iran.

The embarrassing admission by State Department spokesman John Kirby came three weeks after another spokesperson insisted that a “glitch” had caused the gap, discovered only last month by the reporter whose questioning had mysteriously disappeared.

“This wasn’t a technical glitch, this was a deliberate step to excise the video,” Kirby told reporters.

Kirby said he had not been able to learn who ordered the deletion, which appeared as a jarring, undisguised white flash on the archived video posted on the State Department’s website and in its YouTube video.

“The recipient of the call doesn’t remember anything other than the caller, the individual who called this technician, was passing on a request from someone else within the public affairs bureau,” Kirby said, explaining the faulty memory by adding, “This happened three years ago.”

The curious gap in an old video of a public briefing is not of the same ilk as the famous 18 1/2- minute gap in audio tapes of President Nixon’s Oval Office conversations during the Watergate coverup. The official written transcript of the State Department briefing always carried the full exchange.

But it is likely to further fuel controversy over the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, coming amid allegations that the White House duped the press and misled Congress and foreign policy scholars about the Iran nuclear deal that was implemented in January. [Continue reading…]

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Kerry helps Egypt’s dictator avoid being asked awkward questions

David Sanger writes: The contrast between Myanmar, once one of the world’s most closed societies, and Egypt made me revisit my recent travels with Mr. Kerry in terms of what restrictions were placed on us journalists.

In November, Mr. Kerry zipped through Central Asia on a tour of some of the world’s most repressive states, including Turkmenistan, whose leadership shares Mr. Sisi’s approach to anyone who utters a thought the government finds distasteful. Still, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov allowed international reporters to record his encounters with Mr. Kerry, though local Turkmen journalists were kept at a far remove.

The King of Bahrain, who knows a thing or two about clearing the streets of critics, invited reporters in for the start of his meeting with Mr. Kerry last month, and, with a deep understanding of how to keep them docile, fed them at the palace before they were packed off.

Even China’s leaders routinely let the news media pool in, though they do their best to ignore them.

Egypt used to do the same — in what now looks, by comparison, like the days of openness when Hosni Mubarak was still president. [Continue reading…]

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Instead of honoring leader of Syria’s ‘White Helmets,’ U.S. refused his entry

The New York Times reports: The leader of a Western-backed rescue organization that searches for survivors of bombings in Syria was denied entry into the United States this week, where he was to receive an award recognizing his contributions to humanitarian relief.

Raed Saleh, the head of the Syria Civil Defense, was to accept the award from InterAction, an alliance of aid agencies, at its gala dinner Tuesday night in Washington. The dinner’s keynote speaker was Gayle Smith, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development.

But when Mr. Saleh, who works in Syria and Turkey, arrived Monday at Washington’s Dulles International Airport on a flight from Istanbul, the authorities said he could not enter the United States. He was told his visa had been canceled.

It was unclear whether Mr. Saleh’s name might have shown up on a database, fed by a variety of intelligence and security agencies and intended to guard against the prospect of terrorism suspects slipping into the country.

The State Department declined to give specifics, but a spokesman, John Kirby, said that “the U.S. government’s system of continual vetting means that traveler records are screened against available information in real time.”

“While we can’t confirm any possible specific actions in this case, we do have the ability to immediately coordinate with our interagency partners when new information becomes available,” he added.

Mr. Saleh was put on the next flight back to Istanbul. In a telephone interview from Istanbul on Wednesday, Mr. Saleh sought to turn the focus to the experience of millions of Syrians who find the world’s borders closed to them.

“In any airport, the treatment we get as Syrians is different,” he said. “The way they look at us, we are suspected.” In his case, he pointed out, he had no intention of staying longer than 16 hours.

His group is widely known as the White Helmets for the headgear its members wear as they rush to bomb sites to rescue survivors and dig out the dead from the rubble. Government supporters have criticized the group for working in some areas held by the Nusra Front, a terrorist organization linked to Al Qaeda. But like many internal aid groups, it says it is neutral and seeks to help civilians no matter whose territory they live in.

Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, called the denial of entry “a scandal.”

“The White Helmets are one of the few organizations in Syria that have been above reproach,” he said. “They have tried to observe strict neutrality in order to facilitate their humanitarian work and save lives. To do this they have worked along side all sorts of militias in order to get to victims of the fighting.”

At the dinner on Tuesday night, InterAction staff members wore white helmets in solidarity — and posted a photo on Twitter.

“I really was moved by this moment,” Mr. Saleh said. “It was a stance of the unity of humanity — and I don’t mean the international community, I mean humanity.” [Continue reading…]

In February, Saleh spoke at the Conference Supporting Syria and the Region, co-hosted in London by the UN and the Governments of the United Kingdom, Kuwait, Germany and Norway.

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Kerry encourages Obama to visit Hiroshima

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry attended a memorial ceremony in Hiroshima on Monday for victims of the American atomic bombing 71 years ago, becoming the highest-ranking United States administration official to visit the site of one of the most destructive acts of World War II.

The visit is likely to intensify speculation about whether President Obama will go to Hiroshima during a planned trip to Japan next month. Mr. Obama would be the first sitting American president to visit the city, a decision that would resonate deeply in Japan but would be controversial at home.

“Everyone should visit Hiroshima, and everyone means everyone,” Mr. Kerry said at a news conference on Monday in response to a question about whether Mr. Obama would go. He said that the president had been invited by Japanese officials and that he would like to visit someday, but Mr. Kerry added: “Whether or not he can come as president, I don’t know.”

Mr. Kerry spoke after he and other leading diplomats from the Group of 7 industrialized countries toured Hiroshima’s atomic bomb museum, laid flowers at a cenotaph in its Peace Memorial Park and examined the former exhibition hall that stood directly under the atomic blast and has been preserved as a skeletal monument. He called the experience “stunning” and “gut-wrenching.”

Mr. Kerry and the other officials were in the city for talks ahead of the annual Group of 7 summit meeting next month, to be hosted by Japan.

The question of how to acknowledge the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, and another on the city of Nagasaki three days later, has long troubled American diplomats. The bombings ultimately killed more than 200,000 people, most of them civilians, in a country that after the war was transformed from an enemy of the United States into one of its closest allies.

But a majority of Americans have long believed that the bombings were necessary to force Japan’s surrender and to spare American lives. [Continue reading…]

An article by Ward Wilson, published in Foreign Policy in 2013, argues, however, that Japan’s decision to surrender probably had much less to do with the effect of nuclear weapons, than with Stalin’s decision to invade.

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Syria releases American freelance photographer Kevin Patrick Dawes

The Washington Post reports: The Syrian government has freed an American freelance photographer who was abducted after traveling to the country in 2012, according to two U.S. officials.

Kevin Patrick Dawes, 33, from San Diego, was released following many months of negotiations, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details of Dawes’s release have not yet been made public.

Dawes had been allowed in recent months to call his family and receive care packages, a signal to officials that the Syrian government was moving toward releasing him, officials said. The U.S. State Department had taken the lead on winning Dawes’s release. [Continue reading…]

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