Two U.S. diplomats drugged in Russia last year, deepening Washington’s concern

RFE/RL reports: Two U.S. officials traveling with diplomatic passports were drugged while attending a conference in Russia last year, and one of them was hospitalized, in what officials have concluded was part of a wider, escalating pattern of harassment of U.S. diplomats by Russia.

The incident at a hotel bar during a UN anticorruption conference in St. Petersburg in November 2015 caused concern in the U.S. State Department, which quietly protested to Moscow, according to a U.S. government official with direct knowledge of what occurred.

But it wasn’t until a dramatic event in June, when an accredited U.S. diplomat was tackled outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, that officials in Washington reexamined the November drugging and concluded they were part of a definite pattern.

The State Department suggested the harassment has become a particular concern in the past two years. [Continue reading…]

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Is the U.S. weighing a tougher response to Russia over Syria crisis?

Reuters reports: Obama administration officials have begun considering tougher responses to the Russian-backed Syrian government assault on Aleppo, including military options, as rising tensions with Moscow diminish hopes for diplomatic solutions from the Middle East to Ukraine and cyberspace, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

The new discussions were being held at “staff level,” and have yet to produce any recommendations to President Barack Obama, who has resisted ordering military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s multisided civil war.

But the deliberations coincide with Secretary of State John Kerry threatening to halt diplomacy with Russia on Syria and holding Moscow responsible for dropping incendiary bombs on rebel areas of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. It was the stiffest U.S. warning to the Russians since the Sept. 19 collapse of a truce they jointly brokered.

Even administration advocates of a more muscular U.S. response said on Wednesday that it was not clear what, if anything, the president would do, and that his options “begin at tougher talk,” as one official put it.

One official said that before any action could be taken, Washington would first have “follow through on Kerry’s threat and break off talks with the Russians” on Syria.

But the heavy use of Russian airpower in Syria has compounded U.S. distrust of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical intentions, not only in the 5-1/2 year civil war, but also in the Ukraine conflict and in what U.S. officials say are Russian-backed cyber attacks on U.S. political targets.

The U.S. officials said the failure of diplomacy in Syria has left the Obama administration no choice but to consider alternatives, most of which involve some use of force and have been examined before but held in abeyance. [Continue reading…]

The basis for this reporting appears to be an exchange in Tuesday’s State Department press briefing. The suggestion that the administration is now seriously considering its military options sounds like a bit of a stretch. Much more likely is that it is merely restating every administration’s fallback position as it struggles to craft policy: we are keeping all options on the table.

Even if Kerry or Obama was to say, diplomacy has failed, they remain doctrinally wedded to the view that there is no military solution to this conflict.

So, if diplomacy has indeed reached a dead end, I don’t expect to see a tougher response from Obama, but instead, no response at all. All he’s doing now is counting the days until his departure from the Oval Office.

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U.S. condemnations of assault on Aleppo provide no relief to the Syrians getting bombed

An editorial in the Washington Post says: “What Russia is sponsoring and doing” in the Syrian city of Aleppo “is barbarism,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said on Sunday. She’s right: For days, Russian and Syrian planes have rained bombs — including white phosphorus, cluster munitions and “bunker-busters” designed to penetrate basements — on the rebel-held side of the city. Hundreds of civilians have been killed; as many as half are children. U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura described “new heights of horror.” Ms. Power said that “instead of helping get lifesaving aid to civilians, Russia and [Syria] are bombing the humanitarian convoys, hospitals and first responders who are trying desperately to keep people alive.”

It goes without saying that this war-crimes-rich offensive, which Syria’s U.N. ambassador said is aimed at recapturing east Aleppo, has shredded the Obama administration’s attempt to win Russian and Syrian compliance with a cessation of hostilities. So naturally reporters asked senior officials as the attack was getting underway how the United States would respond. “I don’t think . . . this is the time to say where we will go from here,” one answered. Said another: “We’re waiting to see what the Russians come back with.”

In other words: Hem, haw.

By Monday, the administration’s response seemed clear: It will hotly condemn the assault on Aleppo, but do absolutely nothing to stop it. On the contrary, Secretary of State John F. Kerry insisted he will continue to go back to the regime of Vladi­mir Putin with diplomatic offers, hoping it will choose to stop bombing. “The United States makes absolutely no apology for going the extra mile to try and ease the suffering of the Syrian people,” he grandly declared after a meeting Thursday on Syria. By “extra mile,” he doesn’t mean actual U.S. steps to protect civilians — just more futile and debasing appeals to Moscow.

The Putin and Bashar al-Assad regimes are well aware that the only U.S. action President Obama has authorized is diplomatic, and that they are therefore under no pressure to alter their behavior.[Continue reading…]

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Obama used a pseudonym in emails with Clinton, FBI documents reveal

Politico reports: President Barack Obama used a pseudonym in email communications with Hillary Clinton and others, according to FBI records made public Friday.

The disclosure came as the FBI released its second batch of documents from its investigation into Clinton’s private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

The 189 pages the bureau released includes interviews with some of Clinton’s closest aides, such as Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills; senior State Department officials; and even Marcel Lazar, better known as the Romanian hacker “Guccifer.”

In an April 5, 2016 interview with the FBI, Abedin was shown an email exchange between Clinton and Obama, but the longtime Clinton aide did not recognize the name of the sender.

“Once informed that the sender’s name is believed to be pseudonym used by the president, Abedin exclaimed: ‘How is this not classified?'” the report says. “Abedin then expressed her amazement at the president’s use of a pseudonym and asked if she could have a copy of the email.” [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon grudgingly accepts Syria deal amid deep mistrust of Russia

The Washington Post reports: Hours after reaching an agreement on Syria last Friday with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and clearing the final deal with Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wandered the halls of their meeting venue in Geneva, waiting for Kerry to get the okay from Washington.

In a secure room upstairs, a frustrated Kerry was on hold. Already deep into a conference call with President Obama’s top national security team, he was waiting for the Defense Department to locate its legal counsel to sign off on one of the many provisions of the accord that Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter was questioning.

“I hope before Washington gets some sleep, we can get some news,” Lavrov said as he offered pizza and vodka to reporters awaiting an announcement. Clearly on a propaganda roll, he observed that the wheels of government appeared to turn more efficiently in his country than in the United States.

Obama, who did not attend the principals’ meeting, ultimately approved the agreement and a news conference was held at midnight, Geneva time.

But beneath the politics and diplomacy of the deal — which began with a cease-fire Monday, to be followed, if it succeeds, by coordinated U.S.-Russian counterterrorism airstrikes — the prospect of military-to-military cooperation does not sit well with the Defense Department.

“There is a trust deficit with the Russians; it is not clear to us what their objectives are,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, said Wednesday. “They say one thing, and we don’t necessarily see them following up on this.”

That mistrust resides most deeply in Carter, who officials familiar with the Russia negotiations said almost single-handedly delayed Friday’s final agreement with his repeated questions during the conference call. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced little objection during the principals’ meeting, officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Details of Syria pact widen rift between John Kerry and Pentagon

The New York Times reports: The agreement that Secretary of State John Kerry announced with Russia to reduce the killing in Syria has widened an increasingly public divide between Mr. Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who has deep reservations about the plan for American and Russian forces to jointly target terrorist groups.

Mr. Carter was among the administration officials who pushed against the agreement on a conference call with the White House last week as Mr. Kerry, joining the argument from a secure facility in Geneva, grew increasingly frustrated. Although President Obama ultimately approved the effort after hours of debate, Pentagon officials remain unconvinced.

On Tuesday at the Pentagon, officials would not even agree that if a cessation of violence in Syria held for seven days — the initial part of the deal — the Defense Department would put in place its part of the agreement on the eighth day: an extraordinary collaboration between the United States and Russia that calls for the American military to share information with Moscow on Islamic State targets in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Confusion over cease-fire as U.S. walks back Kerry comments

The Associated Press reports: Confusion reigned Monday over Syria’s new cease-fire as Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States and Russia could permit President Bashar Assad’s government to launch new airstrikes against al-Qaida-linked militants. The State Department quickly reversed itself.

Spokesman John Kirby said later there were no provisions under the nationwide truce for U.S.-Russian authorization of bombing missions by Assad’s forces. “This is not something we could ever envision doing,” he said.

Kerry’s comments at a news conference were the closest any American official had come to suggesting indirect U.S. cooperation with Assad since the civil war started in 2011. President Barack Obama called on Assad to leave power more than five years ago; the U.S. blames the Syrian leader for a war that has killed perhaps a half-million people.

While Kirby called his boss’ remarks “incorrect,” Kerry’s statement reflected the general murkiness of an agreement that hasn’t been presented publicly in written form. The deal came after a marathon negotiation between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last Friday; descriptions by the two diplomats represent the only public explanation of what was agreed to. [Continue reading…]

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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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