Diplomats spar: Acrimony at outset of talks on Syria. The WSJ's Jay Solomon, Maria Abi-Habib and Stacy Meichtry: "Syria and the U.S. opened a long-awaited peace conference by clashing over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, exposing the depths of division and pessimism about any progress at the first talks in nearly three years of war. The early sparring in Switzerland on Wednesday centered on Western demands that President Bashar al-Assad be removed from power. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry kicked it off by insisting Mr. Assad must go. His Syrian counterpart, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, immediately challenged the notion. He accused the U.S. and its Middle East allies, particularly Turkey and Saudi Arabia, of supporting terrorist groups seeking to destabilize the Damascus regime.
"...However, there was a rare overture to the opposition by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad, who left open the possibility of parliamentary elections this year, a year earlier than the 2015 timeline for the polls... Still, the leader of Syria's main political opposition group said there was very little to negotiate if the government's delegation didn't accept that Mr. Assad would have to stand down. He and other opposition leaders said Mr. Moallem's hard-line stance raised the question of whether any progress could be made during the discussions.
"'If we had a partner in this room that would be willing to be free of Assad...this would be the first building block of a new Syria,' said Ahmad Jarba, president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition. 'Do we have such a partner?'" Read the rest here.
The dispute over the future of Assad is casting a pall over the talks in Switzerland on Syria. FP's own Colum Lynch: "...The talks in the Swiss city of Montreux have been snake bitten from the start, with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon first asking Iran to attend the conference and then having to back track and rescind the invitation after the Obama administration bashed the move and the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott the negotiations if Tehran took part. The Syrian peace conference finally got underway Wednesday, but the first day was, if anything, even messier and angrier than the run-up to the meeting had been. The two sides insulted each other, and made clear that they weren't willing to compromise over Assad's role in Syria if a peace accord was reached." Read the rest here.
State learned of pictures depicting torture in Syria in November. The NYT's Mark Landler and Ben Hubbard: "The Obama administration first learned last November about a harrowing trove of photographs that were said to document widespread torture and executions in Syrian prisons when a State Department official viewed some of the images on a laptop belonging to an antigovernment activist, a senior official said Wednesday. The United States did not act on the photos for the past two months, officials said, because it did not have possession of the digital files and could not establish their authenticity. Nevertheless, they said, the administration believes the photos are genuine, basing that assessment in part on the meticulous way in which the bodies in the photos were numbered." Read the rest here.
McCain says President Obama is worse than Jimmy Carter when it comes to Syria. HuffPo's Mollie Reilly: "Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says President Barack Obama's handling of the crisis in Syria has made him a worse leader than even the right's favorite punching bag, former President Jimmy Carter. In a Tuesday interview with Phoenix-based KFYI, McCain suggested the Syria conflict could put the United States at risk if the administration does not respond properly.
McCain on Phoenix' KFYI: "It is spreading throughout the region, and sooner or later it will affect the United States of America if you allow a place to become a base for al Qaeda... I have never seen anything like this in my life. I thought Jimmy Carter was bad, but he pales in comparison to this president in my view." The rest here.
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Is the little green light solid or blinking? China has Internet problems and expert suspect "the great firewall." The NYT's Nicole Perlroth: " The story behind what may have been the biggest Internet failure in history involves an unlikely cast of characters, including a little-known company in a drab building in Wyoming and the world's most elite army of Internet censors a continent away in China. On Tuesday, most of China's 500 million Internet users were unable to load websites for up to eight hours. Nearly every Chinese user and Internet company, including major services like Baidu and Sina.com, was affected. Technology experts say China's own Great Firewall - the country's vast collection of censors and snooping technology used to control Internet traffic in and out of China - was most likely to blame, mistakenly redirecting the country's traffic to several sites normally blocked inside China, some connected to a company based in the Wyoming building." More here.
Apparently, there's a shortlist for Pentagon policy chief. After Jim Miller left earlier this month it was unclear just who might succeed him and there appeared a scramble to find someone to nominate for the critical policy job (otherwise, the White House would have had someone lined up by now as Miller's departure was very expected). Defense News' John Bennett just floated these two names: "On the shortlist to become the Pentagon's third-ranking civilian leader are a senior Defense Department official and a top White House national security adviser, multiple sources say. DoD's Christine Wormuth and the White House's Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall are under consideration by Obama administration officials to become Pentagon policy chief, a move that could make one the second female to hold the post, sources tell Defense News. Wormuth now holds the key position of deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy, plans and force development, putting her in the midst of myriad high-level national security decisions. If nominated and confirmed by the Senate, it would fill one of a long list of senior-level civilian vacancies at the Pentagon. Sherwood-Randall currently is the White House's coordinator for defense policy, countering weapons of mass destruction and arms control on the National Security Staff." More here.
Betraying his inner-wonk: Bob Work co-pubs a report on "the robotic age." Meanwhile, the Center for New American Security's Bob Work, whose nomination to become Deputy Secretary of Defense seems very imminent - but hasn't happened... just... yet... just co-published a report with CNAS' Shawn Brimley titled "20YY: Preparing for War in the Robotic Age." Their BLUF (from the executive summary): "The 20YY war-fighting regime is not the realm of science fiction. This report outlines why we believe this shift is coming, what it heralds for U.S. defense strategy and national security, and why and how the Department of Defense (DOD) should take advantage of this inevitable transition. There are profound opportunities to properly posture the U.S. armed services for this future if policymakers can make smart choices during the ongoing defense downturn. There are equally great risks, however, that poor decisions and a slow recognition of these powerful trends will put tomorrow's U.S. military at unnecessary risk."
Brimley, in a note to colleagues about the report: "We attempt to lay out the history of the move toward the guided-munitions regime, and lay out the implications of current trends driving us toward increasingly robotic systems. We think there are enormous implications for U.S. defense strategy, planning, and budgeting - some of which are already apparent. We feel so strongly about these trends that we have created a new multi-year initiative at CNAS that will explore this space, directed by Paul Scharre, who recently left OSD Policy and who has worked these issues extensively." Read the report here.
The story of how the head of a non-profit fell to his death during a ride in a California National Guard helicopter shows how it was preventable.Time's Mark Thompson, writing on Swampland: "A nonprofit volunteer, who the California Air National Guard improperly invited to fly aboard one of its Pave Hawk helicopters on a marijuana-cleanup mission, fell to his death after the plastic ring he had mistakenly clipped to the hoist while being lowered from the aircraft snapped. His rigging had been checked before he was sent outside. The death of Shane Krogen, executive director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew, last summer in the Sequoia National Forest, just south of Yosemite National Park, was a tragedy. But it was an entirely preventable one. It stands as a reminder of how dangerous military missions can be, and on the importance of a second set of eyes to make sure that potentially deadly errors, whenever possible, are reviewed and reversed before it is too late." A good read for anybody, here.
Does a weaker AIPAC make it easier to vote against Iran sanctions?National Journal's Sara Sorcher and Elahe Izadi: "The 59 senators who signed on to new Iran sanctions know President Obama opposes them-and they did it anyway. On the surface, the vote count-which includes 16 Democrats-looks grim for the White House, which strongly opposes the threat of new sanctions, in favor of diplomacy. But the tally is far from the 100-vote rebuke the Senate handed to the White House on the issue in 2011. The truth is that it is now easier to vote against Iran sanctions than it has been in years past-and to oppose one of the strongest, most influential lobbying groups in the country: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. For two decades, AIPAC has made pressuring Iran its top issue, driving Democrats today into an uncomfortable position, wedged between an adamant White House and a powerful lobby trying to equate support for sanctions with support for Israel." More here.
Afghanistan is cracking down on pro-U.S. commercials. Reuters' Hamid Shalizi: "The Afghan government, increasingly at odds with Washington, is cracking down on advertisements that promote keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 and has already shut down a spot aired by the country's most widely watched broadcasters. The commercials - some funded by a U.S. organization - have drawn official criticism because they urge President Hamid Karzai to abandon his refusal to sign a security pact with the United States that would enable the troops to stay."Read the rest here.
In search of Plan B: Some western diplomats have concluded Karzai won't sign the security agreement. The WSJ's Margherita Stancati and Yaroslav Trofimov: "...some of America's allies have begun exploring other ways to keep U.S.-led forces in the country after the coalition's mandate expires in December.
"Some U.S. military officials continue to express hope that the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement will eventually be signed by the Afghan leader. The Obama administration has said the BSA is a precondition for any American military presence here after this year. What hardened some diplomats' conviction that Mr. Karzai wasn't interested in easing tensions with the U.S. and signing the agreement was his reaction to Friday's Taliban massacre of international representatives in a Kabul restaurant. After cursorily expressing his sympathy for the victims, Mr. Karzai used his statement to criticize the U.S. and allied conduct of the war. A senior diplomat to the WSJ re: Karzai's statement: "He lost a lot of respect after that." Read the rest here.
A big veterans bill could restore the COLA issue for military retirees.Military Times' Patty Kime: "The Senate is poised to consider a massive veterans bill that not only would improve education, health and employment benefits for former troops, it would restore the cost-of-living adjustment reduction for military retirees set by the Bipartisan Budget Act. The 352-page Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration bill, or S. 1950, encompasses many previously proposed legislative initiatives, from requiring public universities to extend in-state tuition to any veteran using their GI Bill benefit to authorizing fertility services for severely wounded service members. But it also takes on the most contentious portion of the budget deal forged by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, R-Wash.: the reduction of the cost of living adjustment to military retired pay by 1 percent for retirees under age 62... The COLA reduction is expected to save the federal government $6 billion over 10 years. Sanders estimates that his entire bill, including the COLA cut repeal, will cost $30 billion over the next decade." More here.
A new policy will allow troops to seek waivers to wear religious clothing, seek prayer time or engage in religious practices. AP's Lita Baldor:"...Defense officials say the waivers will be decided on a case-by-case basis and will depend on where the service member is stationed and whether the change would affect military readiness or the mission. Until now there has been no consistent policy across the military to allow accommodations for religion. Now, for example, Jewish troops can seek a waiver to wear a yarmulke, or Sikhs can seek waivers to wear a turban and grow a beard. Others can request specific prayer times or ask that they be allowed to carry prayer beads or other items." The short story on this here.