Sunday, January 19, 2014

'Western intelligence services have reached out to Assad for information about foreign, European extremists'

'As the US enters next week’s Geneva II conference on Syria, US policy is quietly undergoing a profound transformation. Having started from a firm position that the departure of President Assad constituted a non-negotiable Western demand, the debate inside the Administration is now more nuanced. As Secretary of State Kerry works closely with his Russian counterparts and as doubts have grown about the orientation of the rebel fighters, we are advised that Western intelligence services have reached out to Assad for information about foreign, especially European, extremists inside the rebel ranks. There is now a growing body of opinion inside US diplomatic and intelligence circles that sees Assad’s survival as – at least – a necessary evil. With this debate in the background, US expectations for the conference are far from unified. Some of this confusion was reflected in the pre-conference discussion about possible Iranian inclusion – as was wanted by the UN. Our conversations with State Department officials suggest that this was also Kerry’s preference. However, with an uphill battle with Congress to defend the Joint Plan of Action, the implementation of which starts on January 20th, he included that further outreach to Tehran was premature. With regard to the preliminary nuclear accord with Iran, White House officials are lobbying strongly against a Senate bill – which enjoys significant Democratic support – that sets conditions for the talks and imposes new sanctions should the talks fail. The White House hopes that, despite the current majority support for the bill, they are optimistic that they will be able to postpone legislative action for at least a month. To compound US foreign policy travails, the bombing in Kabul involving IMF and UN officials and the escalating violence in Iraq have prompted calls for areassertion of US airpower there. We very much doubt that the Administration will pay attention. Away from the Middle East, a number of senior State Department visits are underway to Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo. Secretary of State Hagel has met Japan's newly appointed National Security Adviser. Despite some suggestions that the South and East China Seas are the new crisis zones where activist US engagement is required, we still see the Middle East as drawing the majority of top-level attention for the foreseeable future.'

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