Out of Damascus

With clashes between rebel force and loyalists going strong in Tripoli, the Libya Contact Group will have another meeting on Thursday in Istanbul. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to group members (including her counterparts in France, Germany and Turkey) yesterday about the situation in Libya, and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Philip Gordon, would be representing Washington.

A central topic of discussion yesterday was how to speed up the process of getting funds to the rebels in Libya. Nuland said that the aid would be “particularly for humanitarian needs, particularly for maintenance of essential services.” A plan is in place to release frozen Libyan assets to the rebels, but some legal obstacles are in the way, according to a Treasury official. Nuland said that Washington would prefer to work all of this out through the UN, “but if that cannot be done expediently, then we will continue to go on and see what we can do unilaterally.”

Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, made a surprise visit yesterday to Jassem, a town that has been central to many protests, and where fifteen were killed last week by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Ford reportedly spent some time walking around the city in a show of support for demonstrators there.

In Japan, Vice President Joe Biden sounded a positive note about the U.S. and Japanese futures, linking Washington’s struggle to overcome its debt problems to Tokyo’s post-earthquake/tsunami recovery. “While you’re struggling to deal with one of the greatest natural disasters any country has faced and we are dealing with getting our budget in order there are voices in the world who are counting us out,” Biden commented, adding that those detractors are “making a very bad bet.”