By Barbara Starr
The U.S. plans to begin sea trials by the end of the month of a merchant marine ship with special equipment on board that can destroy much of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, according to a U.S. Defense Department official who briefed reporters.
The ship, the M/V Cape Ray, is now in port in the Norfolk area of Virginia being outfitted with a chemical weapons "neutralization" system developed by the Pentagon. If the trials go well and the Pentagon plan is accepted by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the ship could head to the region in January. The official, along with two others who briefed reporters, declined to be identified because the plan has not been approved by those international organizations.
The neutralization technology is called the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System. It mixes chemical agents with water and other chemicals to significantly lower any toxicity. The remaining material will then be destroyed in a commercial waste disposal site. "Absolutely nothing will be dumped at sea," the official said, adding that the technology is "safe and environmentally sound."
After months of delays, a "Geneva II" conference meant to broker an end to the Syrian civil war has been scheduled to begin on January 22 in Geneva, Switzerland, the United Nations said Monday morning.
But which parties will attend - a subject that helped push back the conference for months - wasn't immediately clear.
The conference would bring representatives from Syria's government and elements of the opposition to negotiate an end to the fighting that has wracked Syria since March 2011.
Yet the opposition is hardly a single group; it consists of numerous factions that often oppose each other. The al Qaeda-linked groups Islamic State in Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra have made substantial gains in Syria in recent months, especially in the north, tilting the balance away from more moderate factions of the rebel Free Syrian Army.FULL STORY
By Bill Mears
A North Carolina man has become the latest American charged in federal court with attempting to assist an al Qaeda militant group involved in Syria's civil war.
Basit Javed Sheikh is accused of "providing material support" to a designated terrorist group.
A criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday says the 29-year-old resident of Cary was arrested at Raleigh International Airport earlier this month, allegedly planning to go to Lebanon.
Prosecutors claim Sheikh was prepared to join the group Jabhat al-Nusrah, or al-Nusrah Front, designated last year by the State Department as a foreign terror organization.
Updated 5:51 p.m. ET, 11/5/2013
By Barbara Starr
The United States is looking at new classified intelligence indicating the Syrian government may not fully declare its chemical weapons stockpile, CNN has learned. That would mean it will still have a secret cache of chemical weapons even after the current agreed-upon destruction effort is carried out.
The intelligence is not definitive but “there are various threads of information that would shake our confidence,” one U.S. official said. “They have done things recently that suggest Syria is not ready to get rid of all their chemical weapons.”
CNN has spoken to several U.S. officials with access to the latest intelligence on Syria, who confirmed the information. All declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the data. U.S. intelligence agencies, the Defense Department, the State Department and White House are all reviewing the information.
By Elise Labott
It was unusually positive language for a top U.S. official speaking about the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but there was Secretary of State John Kerry giving the Syrian leader a pat on the back.
Speaking to reporters in Bali on Monday, Kerry hailed the quick pace at which inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have been able to get on the ground in Syria and begin their work to destroy its vast chemical weapons arsenal, as called for in a recent U.N. Security Council resolution.
By Elise Labott, reporting from the United Nations
The drama over whether President Barack Obama would shake hands with his Iranian counterpart detracted from what diplomats at the U.N. General Assembly described as an acute disappointment with his handling of Mideast turmoil.
A perceived lack of leadership in Syria during its civil war coupled with U.S. handling of the political crisis in Egypt has forced the Obama administration to confront a growing lack of confidence among Middle East allies.
But what's most bewildered American allies in the region was Obama's abrupt decision to back away from threats to use military force over alleged Syrian chemical weapons use in favor of a diplomatic approach to divest it of those stockpiles.
They fear Obama's ambivalence foreshadows a lack of mettle in dealing with Iran.
By Elise Labott, reporting from the United Nations
In a tiny room at the United Nations under a portrait of Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, flanked by a team of men in dark suits, welcomed Secretary of State John Kerry into his meeting room.
Kerry was flanked by a team of women: U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Victoria Nuland.
A highly-anticipated 45-minute meeting went twice that long and was described by Kerry as "very constructive."
One senior State Department official said the two men had pencils in hand as they marked up a text of a U.N. resolution on dismantling Syria's chemical weapons.
By CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty
Moscow moved with lightning speed to seize the idea raised unexpectedly by Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria should give up its chemical weapons, and seasoned Kremlin watchers believe that deft maneuver could mark a turning point in Moscow’s broader diplomatic strategy in the Middle East – and beyond.
“It’s the first time in 20 years, since Russia became a new state, that they’ve taken an initiative like that,” says Georgetown University’s Angela Stent, author of a new book “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.”
“It’s part of a broader Russian goal to re-assert itself as a major player,” she told me at the Valdai Discussion Club, a yearly gathering of leading Russian and international experts.
“I think they really were worried about the impact of the potential U.S. military strike on Syria - what it would do to Syria and the instability it could cause.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, says Stent, also was worried about how it might affect Russia itself and the population in the North Caucasus where Moscow has faced an insurgency, especially in Chechnya - “and they saw an opportunity.”
Since Putin came to power, one of Russia’s major goals has been to have a seat at the table on all important international issues, and Russia’s veto power at the United Nations was the vehicle for that.
Now, Stent says, Russia is “beginning to set an agenda,” after two decades of the United States setting the agenda. “This is the beginning of something where, if there is a strategy behind it, it could lead to a … more influential role globally.”
What does Russia really want?
Up to now, Russia’s international strategy was driven more by what it did not want, than what it did want, says Toby Gati, former Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research. “The only word that every American knows in the Russian language is ‘nyet.’ And that means no.”
Russia’s traditional diplomatic role, she says, “is to be wary of what happens in the international system because they can’t control it.”
“They are used to watching the United States, watching us stumble, or not know what’s going to be the next step, and sitting on the sidelines, saying either ‘We told you so,’ which Putin is very good at doing, or ‘We would have done it differently,” or ‘You Americans have to be constrained because you’re the crazy uncle in the attic.’”
Putin’s proposal to rid Syria of chemical weapons puts Russia back on stage, with the Russian president in the new role of initiator. “It’s a very unusual position for Russia and, I think, one they are very happy having,” Gati says.
“But also a very difficult position for them because it means, for the first time, they actually have to prioritize their interests. Is it getting rid of the chemical weapons? Is it having cooperative relations with the U.S.? Is it keeping Assad in power? Is it, perhaps, having to put boots on the ground? Is it actually come to the point that the Security Council will have to vote, perhaps, on Chapter 7 enforcement?”
Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter leaves open the possibility for the Security Council to consider use of force against Syria.
Russia’s goals in Syria
Russia’s aims in Syria have been consistent and “quite straightforward” for some time, says James Sherr of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and author of “Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad.”
“Russia wants to protect and defend its ally – a very important ally in a very critical state, one of only two now in the Middle East – which affords Russia an enormous amount of influence - in Lebanon, in Israel, in the wider region, in Iran - that it might not otherwise have,” says Sherr.
Russia also, he says, is determined to block any form of Western intervention “because Russia’s experience leads them to believe that even if something starts with non-military intentions, it escalates into a military intervention. And this (chemical weapons) agreement, from their point of view, put an immovable spanner in the works of U.S. military intervention.”
Russia is committed, not just in Syria, but globally, Sherr says, “to diminishing the influence of Western values in the world as a whole and, of course, at home.” Moscow may not approve of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s “bestiality,” but it does believe that authoritarian states “have much the same rights of sovereignty under international law as those states we consider democratic.”
Russia sees the chemical weapons framework agreement as a means of beginning to pursue its wider ambitions about “changing the architecture in the region,” Sherr says. “And that is why they are now publicly putting on the table the issue of Israel’s nuclear stockpile.”
Israel’s nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip
Sherr, Stent and Gati all point to Putin’s comments at the Valdai Discussion Club, in which he said that Syria built up its chemical weapons in order to counter Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons. Two other Russian officials at the conference made similar comments.
“He made it clear that Israel … now has to agree, sign a nonproliferation treaty, and give up its nuclear weapons, and this is going to be a condition for any further progress in this area,” says Stent. “That, of course, is a nonstarter as far as the United States is concerned. But that’s where Russia has put its mark.”
Sherr does not believe Russia’s fundamental aim is to weaken Israel but rather “to promote (Moscow’s) own position; everything else is secondary to that.” Nor does he believe Russia can put Israel’s nuclear weapons on the bargaining table. It can, however, “put Israel in a more defensive position, which in turn makes Israel more reliant on Russia and makes it as important for the Israelis to conduct their diplomacy in Moscow as in Washington,” Sherr says.
And if Israel’s nuclear weapons are now part of the discussion about Syria, so is Iran. “They’re in a strong position to say that we cannot proceed constructively without Iran being at the table,” Sherr says. “And if you want a wider solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, then you also need our support and you also then need to bring Israel into that equation.”
“Russia wants everyone to understand that there can be no peace, or even substantial improvement of conditions in the Middle East, if Russia is not at the top table in a critical condition,” Sherr says. “Russia is letting everyone know: ‘We are the country in the key role. We are the only country here who can talk to all the parties that matter.’”
“Iran is the big prize,” Gati agrees. “That’s what we keep forgetting.”
Putin’s recent offers to build a second nuclear reactor at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant, as well as supply Iran with S-300 air defense missile systems, are part of Putin’s overall strategy in the region, Gati says. “I think that was a way of saying to the Iranians: ‘Don’t rush to open up to the Americans. We can provide things now and you don’t have to change internally. You don’t have to meet any demands. If you start negotiations with the Americans what’s going to happen is, ‘What are you doing at home? What are your policies toward Israel?’”
Stent heard something new – and concerning – from Russia’s foreign minister, who also spoke at the Valdai conference. “We also heard from Mr. [Sergey] Lavrov that maybe we won’t get all the chemical weapons from Syria, we may get some of them.”
“I’m sure that the U.S. condition on this is that we have to get all of them,” Stent says. “If you only get some of them, then you really haven’t achieved your objective. So there are many ways this can come unstuck.”
All three experts concur: the agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons has set loose an avalanche of diplomatic moves that could have profound implications for Russia and the West.
“This step arose suddenly, says Sherr. “It is, in fact, an improvisation, but it stems from something the Russians are very good at, which is studying the other side, in this case us, very carefully, studying the logic of our positions, studying our mistakes, and seizing an opening when it suddenly appears. And that’s what they have done.”
Russia pounced on a diplomatic opportunity, Gati says, but it could turn out to be a challenge for Moscow, precisely because Russia is not used to making the first move. “And it will be hard for America,” she says, “because we are usually the ones putting out the ideas, leading the parade, and finally, usually getting the solutions. In this case, that hasn’t happened. Inaction hasn’t worked. The American policy hasn’t worked. And now we’re going to see if the Russian one does.”
Syria, she says, could be a unique instance where the Russians take the lead, or it might be a harbinger of things to come. “One thing that will be very interesting to watch,” she says, “ is whether or not it leads to the development of some ideas for some type of new type of relationship with the United States, what I would call ‘Reset a la Russe.’”
Russia’s last-minute move
It’s too early to predict whether the Russian proposal will help bring the war in Syria to an end. But several Russia experts at the Valdai conference criticize Russia for not using its influence at the outset of the conflict to help stop it.
“Before the opposition was militarized, before the influx of foreign fighters, before the dominance of jihadists, before 100,000 people were killed, before there were half a million refugees,” says Sherr, “the country that had the most convincing combination of nonmilitary means of pressure to apply against Assad to produce meaningful changes and compromises, was Russia. And those means were not used.”
“So Russia does have a considerable responsibility for how this conflict has evolved. Whether they recognize that responsibility or not, anyone on the outside assessing the conflict today or in the future will have to come to that conclusion. They are at least as responsible for everything which has gone awry here as the United States and some other significant actors.”
By CNN's Carol Cratty
A former U.S. soldier accused of fighting with terrorists against Syrian forces pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was released from custody.
Eric Harroun was sentenced to time served by a federal judge in Alexandria, Virginia, on Thursday.
Court documents showed he pleaded guilty to an export charge involving conspiracy to transfer defense articles and services.
By Barbara Starr
Syria continues to move its chemical weapons after making a public declaration that they exist.
A U.S. official with access to the latest intelligence tells CNN that Bashar al-Assad’s regime “is actively moving its stockpiles in the last 24 hours.”
The official says the latest intelligence information shows there is movement at additional sites beyond what the United States had observed in the past two weeks.
“It’s continuous but still unclear what they are really doing,” the official said.