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…]


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.


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.


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…]


U.S., Russia said to team up to draft new Syria constitution

Bloomberg reports: Russia and the U.S are working on drafting a new constitution for Syria, according to three Western and Russian diplomats, in the clearest sign yet of the two powers’ determination to broker a solution to a five-year civil war that has sent a wave of refugees toward Europe.

The joint efforts are at an early stage, and Russia’s current proposals are closer to the Syrian government’s position, said one Western diplomat. The two countries are continuing to exchange ideas, a Russian diplomat said. All three envoys spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are confidential.

The U.S agreed with Russia on a target of August to create a framework for a political transition and a draft constitution for Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry said after talks in the Kremlin on March 24. The United Nations is leading peace talks in Geneva where the government and opposition are negotiating a settlement. [Continue reading…]


U.S. and Russia reach ‘agreement’ that some day Assad will leave Syria

Middle East Eye reports: The US and Russia have reached an understanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad will leave to another country as part of the future peace process, according to the Lebanese Al-Hayat newspaper.

A diplomatic source on the Security Council told al-Hayat in reports published on Thursday that US Secretary of State John Kerry had “informed concerned Arab countries that the US and Russia have reached an agreement on the future of the political process in Syria, including the transfer of President Bashar al-Assad to another country.”

The source said the US-Russian agreement was “clear” in diplomatic back channels, though he said that “the timing and context of that in the political process remains unclear to everyone at the moment”. [Continue reading…]


Leahy asked State Dept. to investigate Israel and Egypt’s human rights ‘violations’

Politico reports: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and 10 House members have asked the Obama administration to investigate claims that the Israeli and Egyptian security forces have committed “gross violations of human rights” — allegations that if proven truei could affect U.S. military aid to the countries.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry dated Feb. 17, the lawmakers list several examples of suspected human rights abuses, including reports of extrajudicial killings by Israeli and Egyptian military forces, as well as forced disappearances in Egypt. The letter also points to the 2013 massacre in Egypt’s Rab’aa Square, which left nearly 1,000 people dead as the military cracked down on protesters, as worthy of examination.

Leahy’s signature is particularly noteworthy because his name is on a law that conditions U.S. military aid to countries on whether their security forces are committing abuses. [Continue reading…]


U.S. sold $33 billion of weapons to Gulf states in 11 months

Defense News reports: The US State Department has facilitated $33 billion worth of weapons sales to its Arab Gulf allies since May 2015, according to department figures.

The six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have received weapons including ballistic missile defense capabilities, attack helicopters, advanced frigates and anti-armor missiles, according to David McKeeby, a spokesman the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

“Consistent with the commitments we made to our Gulf partners at the Camp David summit last May, we have made every effort to expedite sales. Since then, the State and Defense departments have authorized more than $33 billion in defense sales to the 6 Gulf Coordination Council countries,” McKeeby told Defense News. [Continue reading…]


Citing atrocities, John Kerry calls ISIS actions genocide

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Thursday that the Islamic State is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims who have fallen under its control in Syria and Iraq.

The militants, who have also targeted Kurds and other Sunni Muslims, have tried to slaughter whole communities, enslaved captive women and girls for sex, and sought to erase thousands of years of cultural heritage by destroying churches, monasteries and ancient monuments, Mr. Kerry said.

The Islamic State’s “entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology,” he said.

The statement by Mr. Kerry, made in response to a deadline set last year by Congress for the Obama administration to determine whether the targeting of minority religious and ethnic groups by the Islamic State could be defined as genocide, is unlikely to change American policy. The United States is already leading a coalition that is fighting the militants, and American aircraft have been bombing Islamic State leaders and fighters, its oil-smuggling operations and even warehouses where the group has stockpiled millions of dollars in cash. [Continue reading…]


‘We know what the U.S. can do with bombs,’ a Libyan student said. ‘What else can you do?’

In a 12,000-word two-part report for the New York Times on the U.S. intervention in Libya and Hillary Clinton’s role in it, Jo Becker and Scott Shane write: President Obama has called failing to do more in Libya his biggest foreign policy lesson. And Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United Nations during the revolution, is deeply troubled by the aftermath of the 2011 intervention: the Islamic State only “300 miles from Europe,” a refugee crisis that “is a human tragedy as well as a political one” and the destabilization of much of West Africa.

“You have to make a moral choice: a blood bath in Benghazi and keeping Qaddafi in power, or what is happening now,” Mr. Araud said. “It is a tough question, because now Western national interests are very much impacted by what is happening in Libya.”

It was late afternoon on March 15, 2011, and Mr. Araud had just left the office when his phone rang. It was his American counterpart, Susan E. Rice, with a pointed message.

France and Britain were pushing hard for a Security Council vote on a resolution supporting a no-fly zone in Libya to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from slaughtering his opponents. Ms. Rice was calling to push back, in characteristically salty language. [Read more…]


Syria and Barack Obama’s surplus powerlessness

Fred Hof writes: In his excellent Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, Joby Warrick quotes White House wordsmith Benjamin Rhodes as saying, “I think, candidly, that a lot of people have used this debate to position themselves for posterity as being for doing something in Syria when in fact it wouldn’t have made much difference.” Leave aside that the use of the word “candidly” is an indicator that the thought articulated is anything but candid. Leave aside the broad brush nature of the accusation. What is important is not the view of a staffer, but that of his boss. If President Obama thinks that his critics are poseurs and their ideas are all useless, what does it imply about his willingness to correct a disastrous course during the time left to him in the presidency?

Mr. Kerry too is perfectly free to claim that nary a “realistic alternative” has been offered by critics. This critic takes special exception to the claim. What is important, however, is whether or not the President of the United States recognizes that a significant policy shift is required. What is critical is whether or not he is energizing his national security apparatus to produce alternatives for his consideration. If he is satisfied with the present course, if he is at peace with the political implications for allies of Syria emptying itself, and if he is satisfied that mass murder in Syria can go unanswered on the grounds that it is not genocide, then it will likely be up to his successor to stop digging and eventually climb out of the hole. [Continue reading…]

The phrase, surplus powerlessness, comes from Michael Lerner, who in his 1991 book of the same name, defined it this way:

the set of feelings and beliefs that make people think of themselves as even more powerless than the actual power situation requires, and then leads them to act in ways that actually confirm them in their powerlessness.

Lerner describes the shift from idealism to cynicism that has shaped the thinking of so many of our generation — including a president who once in office, traded hope for realism:

The cynical chic that dominates social and political discourse in the 1990s — and which finds its highest expression in the elitist put-downs of all forms of idealism that weekly emanate from The New Republic, national columnists, and television news commentators and analysts — is a defensive compensation for the pain that many people experienced when they found that their unrealistic hopes for total transformation could not immediately be gratified. The tendency of the mass media to foster a desire for immediate gratification of all our desires made many people expect that the minute they could formulate the notion of a very different kind of world, the moment they could see its importance and desirability, they should be able to achieve it without too much struggle. A year or two, perhaps. But if nothing happened that quickly, then perhaps nothing would ever happen, and the very possibility of things changing must be an illusion. How quickly the demand for instant gratification turns revolutionaries into cynics. Suddenly the Saddam Husseins and Mu’ammar Qaddafis, the virulent nationalists of Eastern Europe, the totalitarian oppressors in China, the multinational firms that seem to have little compassion for the communities they uproot or destroy or the ecology they pollute in pursuit of their profits — all seem to be inevitable, as though built into the structure of necessity. All we can do as individuals, we begin to believe, is to become “realistic,” which is to say, to act in the same selfish and self-centered way as everyone else, expecting that anyone who can will hurt us if we don’t get the advantage first.

The power of an American president can be overstated and yet the description — most powerful man on Earth — remains true, even at this time of dwindling American power.

The president might view Syria as though he is no different from the millions of other onlookers who feel powerless to influence events and yet his posture has always involved the exercise of choice.

Some might argue that Obama now serves as a much needed role model in a rare, unappreciated virtue: American humility.

I suspect, however, that the lesson more commonly drawn from his example will be that presidents can’t actually accomplish much. Having fueled hope, he ended up breeding apathy.

Whether that turns out to be the case will likely become evident as the Bernie Sanders campaign advances.

Some of the early signs are not too promising as strong youth support fails to be matched in voter turnout.


Russia agrees to ‘ceasefire’ during which it will continue bombing Syria

Syria Deeply reports: World powers agreed Friday to the “cessation of hostilities” in Syria in one week and to redouble efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians across the country, but failed to secure a nationwide ceasefire or an end to Russian bombing.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the deal in Munich shortly after a marathon meeting with top diplomats from more than a dozen countries, including Russia, to push forward a ceasefire deal and to resurrect peace talks that collapsed last week.

“First, we have agreed to accelerate and expand the delivery of humanitarian aid beginning immediately,” Kerry told reporters.

“Second, we have agreed to implement a nationwide cessation of hostilities to begin in a target of one week’s time. That’s ambitious, but everybody is determined to move as rapidly as possible to try to achieve this.”

Kerry was quick to acknowledge that the meeting produced commitments on paper only.

“What we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground, in the field,” he said, adding that “without a political transition, it is not possible to achieve peace.”

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow would not halt its air raids in Syria, saying the cessation of hostilities did not apply to the Islamic State group (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.

Diplomats from the U.S. and the E.U. have said very few of Russia’s air raids have targeted Islamic extremist groups; instead, they have primarily targeted western-backed rebel groups seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Russian warplanes resumed their bombardment of rebel positions across Syria within hours of the deal, striking areas in the countryside around the northern city of Aleppo in support of a 10-day-old government offensive to lay siege to the city.

In Brussels, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that Moscow would continue its attacks against groups including the Islamic State.

The Russians have repeatedly said that they consider a number of Islamist groups fighting within the opposition to be “terrorist,” and have used this formulation to justify air attacks that have largely targeted the anti-Assad opposition.

Under the agreement, the United States and Russia will chair a task force to adjudicate questions about where and when bombing is permitted. But it remains unclear how those decisions will be made. [Continue reading…]

U.S. State Department: Statement of the International Syria Support Group

Meeting in Munich on February 11 & 12, 2016, as the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States decided that humanitarian access will commence this week to besieged areas, and an ISSG task force will within one week elaborate modalities for a nationwide cessation of hostilities. [Continue reading…]


Syrian opposition see Obama’s support having been worthless

The New York Times reports: The United States and its allies have spent many millions of dollars backing Syrian opposition fighters they deem relatively moderate and secular, and civilian groups whose work on small businesses and local councils they billed as the cornerstone of Syria’s future.

But the very Syrians who benefited — and risked their lives in the process — now say that investment is in danger of going down the drain, and they see little urgency from Washington, diplomatic or military, to save it.

“What are you going to do, other than statements?” Zakaria Malahifji, the political chief of one of the largest rebel groups given weapons and salaries by the C.I.A. and its counterparts in several European and Arab states, demanded in a recent message to contacts at the French Embassy.

In nearly five years of war and insurrection, many Syrians have been repeatedly disillusioned by what they saw as a mismatch between tough American rhetoric against the Syrian government and comparatively modest efforts to aid some of its opponents. President Obama said President Bashar al-Assad must go, and drew a red line over the use of chemical weapons, but backed off on both, diminishing anti-government Syrians’ trust.

But the confusion and despair has reached a new level over the last week, as forces backing Mr. Assad have pushed farther north into Aleppo Province, sending tens of thousands of new refugees to the Turkish border. With insurgent groups losing troops and territory, their villages shattered by Russian warplanes, civilians and fighters have in recent days used phrases like “no hope,” “it’s finished” and “it’s over.”

“Bye-bye, revolution,” Abu al-Haytham, a spokesman for Thuwwar al-Sham, another rebel group supported through the C.I.A. program, said in a text message on Friday from Tal Rifaat, a town in northern Aleppo that is increasingly threatened by the government advance.

American-backed insurgents have long been used to the American stance in recent years, that the United States did not want them to actually win the war — lest a sudden toppling of Mr. Assad lead to Islamist rule — but wanted to prevent them from losing for long enough to pressure the government to negotiate for a political solution.

Now they fear that the United States and its allies may actually let them lose. [Continue reading…]


U.S. credibility is plummeting among Syrians and across the region

Josh Rogin writes: In the eyes of the Syrian opposition, Russia and Iran are making a mockery of the peace process, and Kerry’s reluctance to acknowledge this is putting them in deadly harm. It also creates more problems for America’s regional allies, aids the Islamic State and dims the prospects for future peace talks. “The failures of the negotiations end up lowering the credibility of the moderate opposition in front of the Syrian people,” said [Riyad] Hijab. [Hijab is leader of the High Negotiating Committee that represented the Syrian opposition at last week’s meetings in Geneva.] “United States credibility is plummeting within the population of Syria but also in the region as a whole.”

This week, it is Syrians near Aleppo who are paying the price. Regime forces, with Russian support, are advancing toward the Turkish border, threatening to cut off opposition groups and civilians from their source of aid. At least 35,000 people have joined the flood of refugees since the collapse of the talks, ahead of what many anticipate will be another in a long line of starvation sieges the regime is perpetrating on cities. Hijab said there are now 18 cities under siege, three more than when the talks began.

Moscow wants the peace talks to fail, Hijab said. He accused the Russian air force of using illegal cluster bombs indiscriminately against civilians. (Human rights groups support those claims.) “The situation has taken a horrible turn, specifically in terms of the scorched earth policy of the Russian aircraft and the way that they are bombing, literally destroying everything,” he said. “The other side has been moving to ensure the failure of any negotiation through horrendous bombardment.”

Hajib said the Obama administration is still pressuring the opposition to return to talks despite the ongoing offensive, but the opposition is insisting that Russia adhere by the UN resolutions first. In a press conference with reporters last week, Kerry said of the Syrian-Russian attacks on civilians, “It’s not going to stop just by whining about it.” He called on rebel leaders to return to the negotiating table. [Continue reading…]

While listening to U.S. State Department spokesmen John Kirby at yesterday’s press briefing, one might not have accused him of whining, but instead adopting President Obama’s standard position: a baseless confidence that whoever can make the most reasonable argument will win the day — as though politics conforms to the rules of a debating society.

Kerry and Obama must be very perplexed about how unreasonable it is that Russia regards bombing as more useful than diplomacy. But what is actually very unreasonable is the notion that anyone would be fooled by Washington’s toothless efforts at peacemaking.


John Kerry keeps calling ISIS ‘apostates.’ Maybe he should stop

Adam Taylor writes: There may be no more globally divisive question over the past few years than whether the Islamic State is representative of the world’s global Muslim population or not. Speaking in Rome on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry waded into this controversial debate yet again – and took a remarkably strong position for a Western leader.

“Daesh is in fact nothing more than a mixture of killers, of kidnappers, of criminals, of thugs, of adventurers, of smugglers and thieves,” Kerry said. “And they are also above all apostates, people who have hijacked a great religion and lie about its real meaning and lie about its purpose and deceive people in order to fight for their purposes.”

The use of the word “apostates” – a term to describe someone who renounces or abandons their religion – has raised eyebrows among observers. The description has been commonly used by extremist groups: The Islamic State has justified its attacks on Muslims with rhetoric that suggests these Muslims were apostates, which they view as a crime punishable by death.

On Twitter, Nasser Weddady, a popular online activist who grew up in Syria, mocked Kerry for his comment. Wedaddy and others also jokingly suggested that Kerry was a “takfiri,” a word used to describe a Sunni Muslim who accuses others of apostasy. [Continue reading…]