Out of Damascus and Withdrawal from Iraq

Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, is left Damascus because of security concerns. He departed the country over the weekend after “credible threats” were made against him. Ford has been very critical of the Bashar al-Assad regime and the government’s treatment of protesters, openly criticizing al-Assad and traveling outside of Damascus to show solidarity with demonstrators. Syrian state media has, in turn, published articles inciting people against Ford. Deputy State Department spokesman Marc Toner said, “At this point, we can't say when he will return to Syria.” Ford is currently on indefinite leave.

A decision has finally been made about the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. On Friday, President Obama said all soldiers will be out of Iraq by the end of the year, leaving behind some Marine guards and liaison officers. The following day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Tajikistan at the time, vowed that Washington would continue to support Baghdad even after U.S. troops are gone. As she put it, “America is with you as you take your next steps in your journey to secure your democracy.” She also offered some words of warning for “Iraq’s neighbors,” Iran in particular. “No one should miscalculate America's resolve and commitment to helping support the Iraqi democracy,” Clinton explained. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that after U.S. troops leave Iraq, Washington and Baghdad will then discuss U.S. involvement in the training of Iraqi forces. The two sides haven’t yet worked out “what kind of training do they need, what kind of security needs to they have.”

Clinton once again warned Islamabad that it needs to go after insurgents based within Pakistan’s borders that are launching attacks into Afghanistan. She said that there would be “dire consequences” if Pakistan didn’t curb the extremist groups, mentioning that there are “different ways of fighting besides overt military action,” like going after funding or couriers. And she told Tajikistan and Uzbekistan that by cracking down on religious freedom, important to the situation in Afghanistan as well, they risk radicalizing their populations.

Also over the weekend, the secretary of state backed Libya’s Transitional National Council’s decision to call for an independent investigation into the death of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. “Libya needs to start with accountability, the rule of law, a sense of unity and reconciliation in order to build an inclusive democracy,” Clinton said.

Asia’s on the top of the agenda for a few administration officials. Secretary Panetta was in Bali, Indonesia, yesterday for a meeting of Southeast Asian defense ministers. He took some time to praise and then criticize China. Yesterday, he lauded Beijing for its response to the U.S. sale of arms to Taiwan, but today, in an op-ed published in Japan, he rehashed some common criticisms about China’s military buildup: “China is rapidly modernizing its military, but with a troubling lack of transparency.” He also chided North Korea for its “reckless and provocative behavior.” North Korean and U.S. negotiators, including special representative Stephen Bosworth and his successor, Glyn Davies, met today in Geneva to start a two-day discussion about nuclear-disarmament talks.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns will be in Japan later this week and Assistant Secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell will arrive in Indonesia tomorrow. He’ll speak with officials about the APEC and ASEAN Leaders Meetings, among other things.