By Elise Labott
Incoming Secretary of State John Kerry plans to include stops in the Middle East as his first official trip, according to a US official. The trip, which is expected as early as mid-February, is likely to include stops in Israel and Egypt, the official said.
A western diplomat said Kerry has already been invited by some European capitals to visit later this month. Kerry indicated interest in going, but did not commit given he has not been sworn in yet.
It has been more than a year since the United States government withdrew its ambassador to Syria and closed its embassy in Damascus.
On Thursday, that ambassador returned to the region along with a U.S. delegation, touring a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey to bring more attention to the growing humanitarian crisis. As the civil war has intensified in Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have sought refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other neighboring countries.
Ambassador Robert Ford gave an exclusive interview to CNN's Ivan Watson and described what the U.S. is doing to help the refugees and the Syrian opposition.FULL STORY
The U.S. ambassador to Syria says the Syrian regime is slowly starting to crumble.
Ambassador Robert Ford said in an exclusive interview with CNN's Ivan Watson while touring the Islahiye refugee camp in Turkey that it is a slow process, but the signs are pointing toward decline.
"Members of the regime, little by little, are flaking off," Ford said, noting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's mother had fled the country and is now in the United Arab Emirates.
The former Foreign Ministry spokesman is now a refugee in the United States, Ford said. (Update, 9:11 p.m. - Senior administration officials tell CNN that the ambassador misspoke and that the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman is not in the U.S.)
Ford said it is a slow process, but al-Assad’s government is falling apart.
"You can see, little by little, the inner core is weakening," Ford said. "But again, it's a gradual process."
Ford said when the U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with al-Assad in December, the closeness of the fighting was evident.
"He told us that you could hear artillery outside the president's office," Ford told Watson. "The fighting is getting that close now to the inner circle itself. And so you can imagine what that does to their own spirits, their own morale."
By Jake Tapper, Elise Labott and Ted Barrett
Republican members of Congress plan a host of questions for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her long-awaited testimony on Wednesday about the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
Questions are expected to range from a security vacuum in Northern Africa to new cables suggesting that Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was killed in the September 11 assault, once proposed moving the compound to a more secure location adjacent the CIA Annex, sources tell CNN.
Congressional staffers have been shown new State Department e-mails and cables indicating that in November 2011, Stevens, concerned about the safety of the compound in Benghazi, proposed two options to the State Department, sources tell CNN. The first involved moving the compound back into a hotel. The second would move the compound to an unoccupied villa adjacent the CIA annex. CIA officials agreed with U.S. diplomatic personnel on the ground that the latter option would be safer. But the State Department rejected the idea.
The presence on the House Foreign Relations Committee of several new members and on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of at least two possible GOP presidential hopefuls – Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky – has some State Department officials anticipating aggressive questions about whether the presence of Islamic extremists in Mali and Algeria were in any way related to past decisions by the Obama administration to keep U.S. combat troops out of Libya.
Most questions are expected to re-visit well-worn lines of inquiry about why requests by officials on the ground in Libya for additional security were not heeded, and faulty talking points about whether an anti-Islam video played a role in the attack that also killed three other Americans.
Other questions could involve the State Department response to the terrorist bombing of the U.S. compound in Benghazi that had occurred the previous June.
Lawmakers may also be interested in Clinton's precise whereabouts on the night of the September attack, her personal involvement in administration actions that night as well as efforts to locate Stevens, who went missing before he died.
Clinton will testify for 90 minutes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the morning and 90 minutes before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the afternoon.
By Jill Dougherty
On Syria, Russia and the United States agree on one thing: The only way the civil war can be solved is politically with a transitional government.
But there's the rub: the U.S. insists president Bashar al-Assad can't be part of that government; Russia says it's up to the Syrians to decide, but the opposition won't deal with any government that includes al-Assad.
No matter how many meetings Moscow and Washington have, they get hung up on this crucial point. But now U.S. diplomats say they're not waiting. They're trying to foster creation of a transitional government on the ground, even before al-Assad might go. As State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland puts it: "Creating de facto, particularly in liberated areas, the Syria of the future that the Syrian people want."
Nuland describes it as "both a top-down process and a bottom-up process happening at the same time in Syria."
Bottom-up, local coordinating councils are taking over and providing services to residents in towns and villages liberated from government control.
By Jill Dougherty
They don't get much more anti-American than Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
For many Americans, the Latin American president is embodied by his 2006 lashing out at then-U.S. President George W. Bush.
"Yesterday the devil came here and it still smells of sulfur today."
For the United States, the socialist Chavez has been a diplomatic troublemaker ever since he took office for the first time in 1999.
But that doesn't mean the United States has given up on Venezuela. Especially with Chavez - who is undergoing cancer treatment in a Cuban hospital and battling complications - being too sick to attend his own inauguration for a new six-year term.
Who says politics and diplomacy aren't contact sports?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returned to work Monday and was gifted the proper equipment for her final plays on the job.
Her Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides and staff at the weekly meeting of approximately 75 department managers presented her "a football helmet with a State Department seal, lots of good padding," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Reporters were not in the room, but the presentation was described by Nuland at a press briefing Monday afternoon, and the department distributed photos of her opening the gifts.
By Jill Dougherty
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was discharged from a New York hospital on Wednesday, three days after she was admitted for treatment of a blood clot in a vein between her skull and brain, the State Department announced.
"Her medical team advised her that she is making good progress on all fronts, and they are confident she will make a full recovery," Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines said in a statement announcing her release.
Clinton walked out of New York Presbyterian Hospital accompanied by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and daughter, Chelsea, for a brief period Wednesday afternoon. She had been admitted Sunday, after doctors found the clot during a medical test related to a concussion she suffered in December.
The secretary is being treated with blood thinners to dissolve the clot, which has not resulted in a stroke or any neurological damage. Doctors expect her to make a full recovery.
By Elise Labott
Three State Department officials, including two who oversaw security decisions at the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, resigned in the wake of a review of security failures there, senior State Department officials told CNN Wednesday.
The independent review of the September 11 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi released Tuesday cites "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies" at the State Department.
The attacks killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
The failures resulted in a security plan "that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place," the 39-page unclassified version of the report concludes.
Despite all the criticism, the board found no U.S. government employee had engaged in misconduct or ignored responsibilities, and it did not recommend any individual be disciplined.
Eric Boswell, assistant secretary of diplomatic security, and Charlene Lamb, deputy assistant secretary of state for international programs, submitted their resignations, a senior official said. A third official in the Near East Affairs bureau also resigned, the official said.
Boswell and Lamb oversaw security for the Benghazi mission. Lamb testified before Congress about the security precautions. Documents show Lamb denied repeated requests for additional security in Libya.
By Jamie Crawford
The independent inquiry into the September 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi made key recommendations to overcome what investigators found were weak security, lack of support for improvement requests denied and failure to see risk in the accumulated incidents of attacks in Benghazi.
The Accountability Review Board (ARB) delivered its report, a comprehensive investigation of what went wrong in Benghazi, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday, who in turn submitted it to Congress on Tuesday.
It put forward recommendations in six core areas - overarching security considerations, staffing for high threat and high risk posts, training and awareness, security and fire safety equipment, intelligence and threat analysis, and personal accountability.
In addition to its recommendations to the State Department, it also called on Congress to do its part to support such posts in the future.