Kerry Said to Express Doubts About Syria Strategy

President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, November 22, 2013
President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, November 22, 2013 (White House/Pete Souza)

For the past two and a half years, the Obama Administration has projected an aura of confidence to the public about its policy on Syria. Despite clamors from some members of Congress for more active military engagement in the conflict, officials have resisted the temptation to intervene on a mass scale, with a certain private assurance that the policy they have been following is the most responsible course of action the United States can take.

That confidence seemed to pay off when Bashar al-Assad agreed to dismantle and destroy his chemical weapons stockpile in order to avert the use of military force — an event that President Barack Obama brought up himself during his State of the Union address this week as an example of his administration’s foreign policy achievements.

But it appears much of that confidence is now being tossed aside by some of the Obama Administration’s most senior members. According to reporters Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg, Josh Rogan of the The Daily Beast and Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post, Secretary of State John Kerry is one of the officials beginning to doubt whether America’s policy in Syria is doing anything to push the Assad regime out of power.

In a private meeting with congressmen that was supposed to be kept confidential and off the record, America’s top diplomat apparently expressed doubt that the administration’s approach to the Syrian conflict is working. Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two of the most outspoken critics of Obama’s Syria policy, provided glimpses of Kerry’s reservations to the three reporters. Assuming that McCain and Graham are telling the truth, their remarks lead to one conclusion: John Kerry is doubting the very policy that he is tasked with carrying out.

Among Kerry’s chief concerns, according to the senators, is the steady growth and power of Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria as well as their aspirations to eventually use the country as a base of operations for attacks against the United States. “He openly talked about forming a coalition against Al Qaeda because it’s a direct threat,” Graham told The Daily Beast. “The first thing [Kerry] said is, ‘The Al Qaeda threat is real. It is getting out of hand.'”

Al Qaeda was not the only thing on Kerry’s mind. Senator Graham also told reporters that the secretary touched on every major issue that has been a focus of America’s policy in Syria, from the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons to the fact that peace talks in Switzerland have done nothing to slow down the war.

“He acknowledged that the chemical weapons [delivery] is being slow rolled; the Russians continue to supply arms [and that] we are at a point now where we are going to have to change our strategy,” Graham remarked.

The State Department denies that Kerry made any suggestion about changing strategy in Syria. That statement, however, may not make much of a difference in Washington DC where there has always been speculation that the secretary is not entirely on board with the president’s more restrained and cautious direction in the war. And, as often occurs in the capital, whether or not reports of Kerry’s doubts are accurate is less important than the fact that the reports are out there.

For lawmakers like McCain and Graham, who have argued for increased lethal support to the moderate Syrian opposition, airstrikes on strategic Syrian military facilities, the formation of no-fly zones and the establishment of humanitarian corridors, these accounts will serve as a useful piece of leverage to drive American policy in a more activist direction.

Senators Pull Support from Iran Sanctions After Ultimatum

Just last week, it looked as if the United States Senate was close to bringing a bipartisan bill to the floor that could have potentially threatened the success of the Obama Administration’s nuclear talks with Iran. The legislation, written by Democratic Robert Menendez and Republican Mark Kirk, would blacklist an even greater amount of Iran’s economy if its leaders backed out of the interim agreement signed last November or failed to arrive at a comprehensive deal to dismantle a significant portion the Islamic country’s uranium enrichment infrastructure. When the bill was first introduced, it drew overwhelming support from both parties, with 59 senators signing on as co-sponsors — one vote shy of the supermajority necessary to override a filibuster.

Yet thanks to months of tenacious behind the scenes lobbying from White House officials and a public veto threat from President Barack Obama during his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, the sanctions bill that could otherwise have breezed through the Senate has lost momentum. Read more “Senators Pull Support from Iran Sanctions After Ultimatum”

“Industrial Scale” Syrian War Crimes: Report

The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad is known for many things: the indiscriminate and purposeful targeting of civilian neighborhoods, mass executions of rebel sympathizers, the use of crude and deadly barrel bombs as well as chemical weapons and the withholding of food and aid to areas that are held by the opposition. Courtesy of three top international human rights lawyers, the systematic torture, killing and starvation of Syrian detainees can be added to the list of its grievous human rights.

According to a bombshell report (PDF) released to The Guardian newspaper and CNN, approximately 11,000 Syrian prisoners have been brutalized and killed in the past two and half years in what is described as a highly orchestrated campaign of retribution and punishment. Sir Desmond Lorenz de Silva, the former chief prosecutor of the special tribunal for Sierra Leone and one of the authors of the report, bluntly labeled the actions depicted in the study as “documented industrial scale killing.”

Since the Syrian uprising began nearly three years ago, human rights lawyers from around the world have repeatedly called on the United Nations Security Council to refer officials in the Assad regime to the International Criminal Court. Navi Pillay, the United Nations’ top human rights official, has been at the forefront of this drive, pushing the council to hold human rights violators to account. Read more ““Industrial Scale” Syrian War Crimes: Report”

Political Resolution to Iraq Violence Still Far Away

For billions of people worldwide, the start of the New Year is an opportunity to look ahead at the year to come and hope that it will bring about greater peace and prosperity for friends and family alike. For the people of Iraq, such hopes seem futile when their government is incapable of suppressing the violence that, according to Iraq Body Count, a database that tracks civilian casualties in the country, has claimed over six hundred lives in the first half of this month alone.

In the capital city, Baghdad, thousands who live in dangerous neighborhoods leave their homes unsure if they will return at the end of the day. And while violence is certainly nothing new in Iraq, the regeneration of Al Qaeda and its resurgence in the last twelve months — helped along by the civil war in neighboring Syria — is once again proving to be the main accelerant driving the country’s mayhem.

The bloodiest day in Iraq for months occurred just two days ago when over ninety Iraqis were killed in a series of car bombings, suicide bombings and shootings across the country, targeting security forces personnel, anti-Al Qaeda militiamen and scores of innocent civilians. Nine bombings exploded in Baghdad alone, most of which were deliberately targeted to claim the lives of Iraqi Shia. Over forty people were killed in those explosions. Read more “Political Resolution to Iraq Violence Still Far Away”

Planner Benghazi Attack Formally Designated Terrorist

Sixteen months after Islamist extremists attacked the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, the United States government has designated three groups that it believed were involved in the incident as terrorist organizations.

Courtesy of The Washington Post, which broke the story two days before the designations were officially announced on Friday, the State and Treasury Departments have named the two branches of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya — one in Benghazi, the other in Derna — as foreign terrorist organizations that were intimately connected to the operation against the consulate.

Inclusion on the list bans Americans from communicating with, joining or supporting the groups. Any financial assets they might hold in the United States have also been frozen.

More unusual is that on the same day, the United States blacklisted the first individual who is suspected of involvement in the Benghazi attack. Ansar al-Sharia‘s leader, Abu Sufian bin Qumu, was named a terrorist operative for the role he allegedly played in the murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on September 11, 2012.

While Qumu is not as well known in the jihadist lexicon as Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, he has been associated with Islamist extremist networks for most of his life. A former detainee of the Guantánamo Bay detention center, he was one of the original “Afghan Arabs” who traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviets who had invaded the country. After his training at one of Osama bin Laden’s camps, Qumu traveled to Sudan in the early 1990s where he worked as a driver for one of the terrorist leader’s front companies.

After pressure from the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi forced Sudan to expel him, Qumu made his way back to Afghanistan and Pakistan where he became a close member of the Taliban movement. So close that he was wounded with the Taliban fighting against the Northern Alliance. Upon his return to Pakistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Pakistani security forces were able to arrest him, handed him over to the Americans, who transferred him to Guantánamo.

Like many detainees in the prison, he was repatriated back to Libya at the request of the Gaddafi government. After a period of “reintegration,” Qumu was finally released in 2010. 

Friday’s listing of Qumu as a specially designed global terrorist would seem to confirm fears that he never fully renounced his jihadist beliefs. When he is not directing attacks on Libyan security forces and Western facilities,

The next step for American authorities is finding a way to capture Qumu and prosecute him in the United States. With the daring raid that captured Abu Anas al-Libi, another Al Qaeda planner, in the middle of Tripoli last fall, Special Forces undoubtedly have the capability to execute a similar operation to nab Qumu. The difficulty is pinpointing his location, monitoring his movements to establish a daily pattern of life and getting the Libyan government to cooperate with such an operation.

It may take time to bring Qumu to justice for his role in the death of four Americans, including an ambassador. For now, the United States have taken the next best step: putting him on notice and freezing his assets.

Iraq’s Maliki Faces Tough Choices in Fallujah

In some of the most deadly fighting in Iraq since the American withdrawal more than two years ago, the residents of Fallujah, one of the largest city in the western Anbar Province, find themselves in the middle of a violent confrontation between militants associated with Al Qaeda and Sunni tribesmen who, for now, back the national army and police.

Thanks to reporters on the ground and corresponds in the region, we know that Islamist fighters have effectively taken over the city and held their ground for the last week. While Ramadi, Anbar’s provincial capital, is also partially in the hands of the same insurgents, Sunni tribes supported by the Iraqi government have reportedly captured its center.

The violence prompted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to appeal to the residents of Fallujah in televised address to evict Al Qaeda’s fighters on their own if they hope to stave off a military operation. With sectarian tensions already at a dangerous high in Iraq, the worst decision that Maliki, a Shia, could take is to order the Iraqi army to storm a major Sunni city and potentially incur civilian casualties. Read more “Iraq’s Maliki Faces Tough Choices in Fallujah”

Iraq’s Anbar Province Descends into Violence

When tens of thousands of American troops were patrolling Iraq’s streets, the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah were often the most troublesome to pacify. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, used both areas as a staging ground for recruitment and a safe haven to plan suicide and car bomb operations that would often take place in Baghdad, the capital. By the time the United States withdrew in 2011, Anbar Province, where Ramadi and Fallujah are located, had accounted for a third of its casualties during the war.

Now, with all American combat troops out of the country, Anbar is again descending into the very type of violence that was so difficult to tame then. Last week, Iraqi special operations troops and reinforcements from conventional units entered both cities, fighting one of the largest open engagements with Al Qaeda militants in years.

The latest violence occurred when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the Iraqi security forces to demolish a large protest camp in Ramadi that served as a venue for Iraqi Sunnis to vent their frustration against a government in Baghdad that they see as overtly sectarian. The clearing operation proceeded with a minimal degree of violence, despite strong sentiment from Anbar’s predominately Sunni population that the security forces were once again cracking down on their community. Read more “Iraq’s Anbar Province Descends into Violence”

West Sees Syria’s Islamists as Too Powerful to Ignore

Eighteen months ago, when the supporters and opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime met in Geneva, Switzerland to negotiate a common policy on Syria, the civil war in that country was starting to intensify in lethality and geographic scope. China, European countries, Russia, the United States and Syria’s neighbors all understood that the war was going to get worse. And their predictions came true: over the next two months, Syria experienced the most destructive days of the conflict during that time.

Yet just as the war was raging and spreading to new areas of the country, the civil war in Syria was at least relatively uncomplicated in terms of who was fighting. Assad, financed and armed by Iran and Russia, was on one side of the dispute. A fractious but seemingly pro-democratic opposition was assumed to be on the other — men who had either taken up arms in defense of their communities or deserted their posts in the Syrian army and switched sides.

One a half year later, the conflict in Syria is far deadlier and more complicated with few areas still spared from the violence. The alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime almost pushed the United States to intervene militarily. The manpower and considerable resources of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement have been devoted to the defense of his government, resulting in a string of military victories of loyalist forces in the west of the country and near Aleppo, the second biggest city. Read more “West Sees Syria’s Islamists as Too Powerful to Ignore”

Baker Shows Contemplative Bush During Iraq War

Days of Fire cover
Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (2013)

When President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney finally left the White House in January 2009 after eight tumultuous years, the popularity of both men was at an historic low. Plagued by an oftentimes dysfunctional national-security team, Bush departed the White House with the knowledge that his case for an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 would go into the confines of history as one of the worst intelligence blunders ever recorded. When combined with the worst financial crisis in the country’s history since the Great Depression happening on his watch, it raised the Republican leader’s disapproval rating to a 71 percent high at the end of his tenure. Cheney’s numbers were even worse.

By the time Barack Obama assumed the presidency as America’s first black president, the public was exhausted from the Bush years and perhaps as divided as it had ever been in modern times. Popular parlance often painted Bush as a one dimensional cowboy who was simply overwhelmed by the job; someone who relied heavily on his vice president for wisdom, to the point of implementing whatever his deputy said.

Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, debunks most of these myths in his newly released book, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. Read more “Baker Shows Contemplative Bush During Iraq War”

Kerry Faces Skeptical House Panel on Iran Nuclear Deal

Secretary of State John Kerry experienced just how difficult it will be for the Obama Administration to get members of Congress on board with the interim nuclear agreement that was signed with Iran last month. Testifying before the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Kerry was hammered for nearly three hours by Democrats and Republicans alike about the incomplete nature of the deal that was negotiated in Geneva, the $7 billion in sanctions relief that Iran is due to receive over the next six months and whether any final agreement would allow the Islamic republic to preserve a low level uranium enrichment capability.

Republican Ed Royce, the chairman of the committee, criticized what he saw as the administration’s soft negotiating strategy toward Iran, calling the agreement a much needed opportunity for the Iranians to receive billions of dollars without dismantling a single centrifuge.

“My concern,” the California congressman said, “is that we have bargained away our fundamental position in exchange for a false confidence that we can effectively check Iran’s misuse of these key nuclear bombmaking technologies.” Read more “Kerry Faces Skeptical House Panel on Iran Nuclear Deal”