Report: Senators "eviscerate" Obama administration officials over Syria claims

Al-Monitor on Thursday reported that top House lawmakers are in the early stages of drafting terror-related sanctions - the outlet described any legislation as "a work in progress" - that would target Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors due to the group's global terror activities and its fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Al-Monitor that Iran could not be allowed to "blackmail" the United States via terrorist proxies, even and especially amid ongoing negotiations being conducted over Tehran's nuclear program. The outlet contextualized the effort as at least partially a response to the Obama administration, after the White House conducted a publicly controversial but nonetheless successful campaign to prevent lawmakers from moving forward on legislation that would have potentially imposed nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in the future should current negotiations fail. Mark Dubowitz, the executive director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, had assessed in late February that lawmakers would continue to investigate how to impose pressure on Iran, and that there would also be "strong momentum behind another push" should the six-month interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) expire without a comprehensive agreement for putting Iran's atomic program beyond use for weaponization. A report published earlier this month in Congressional Quarterly assessed that "groups on opposite sides of the Iran debate" were converging on the need for a strong congressional role in shaping Washington's diplomacy with Iran.

National Journal on Wednesday conveyed details of what the outlet described as an "explosive" hearing held that day by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which saw senators from both parties "eviscerate" Obama administration officials over what Sen. Bob Corker described as a "delusional" understanding of the Syrian conflict. Corker leveled the characterization at Tom Countryman, State's Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, after Countryman suggested that the Bashar al-Assad regime has sustained "actual losses" due to a deal in which the regime committed to giving up its chemical weapons arsenal. Statements made this week by Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, indicated that Syria will miss the deadline set by the deal for dismantling its arsenal. An exchange between Corker and Anne Patterson - the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs - also grew heated, after Patterson insisted that the Obama administration had a secret plan to deal with the Syrian crisis but that she wouldn't tell the committee about it during that session. Senators broadly criticized the administration for having objectively propped up the Assad regime by inking the chemical weapons deal, a concern that had been made early by skeptics of the White House's diplomacy but that had been brushed off. The hearing came amid the release of a U.N. report that assessed that "massive and indiscriminate use of violence" on the part of the Assad regime was the “single most important factor” impeding Syrian civilians from receiving access to humanitarian relief workers. Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters continued to make advances near the Lebanese border on Thursday, the latest in a series of campaigns that have seen the regime consolidating control along the Syria-Lebanon border and restrict the flow of materials to opposition forces.

Ars Technica on Thursday reported on an "administrative measure" implemented by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) shutting down access to YouTube, which the tech-oriented outlet noted was done in an attempt "to stem a flood of leaked audio recordings of government officials before elections this Sunday." The platform had been used by anonymous uploaders to post what seem to be leaked conversations between AKP elites, ranging from discussions of how to hide vast sums of money to ones outlining potential military measures against Syria. The restrictions on YouTube come roughly a week after a globally ridiculedlargely failed, and legally overturned decree banning access to Twitter, and Ars noted that it appears that Turkey's telecommunications authority had initially implemented both bans similarly, by changing the Domain Name Service listings for the targeted sites. Ankara had subsequently escalated how it prevented access to Twitter - specifically by instituting a block to the microblogging platform’s IP addresses - and Ars suggested that the Turkish government will eventually get around to similarly restricting YouTube. Hurriyet Daily News conveyed statements from U.S. and European Union officials condemning the new restrictions. The State Department called on Turkey to stop blocking both YouTube and Twitter, while Neelie Kroes - one of several vice-presidents of the European Commission, and bloc's European Commissioner for Digital Agenda - blasted what she described as "another desperate and depressing move" from Ankara.

"Killing sprees" in Iran and Iraq were responsible for a global rise in capital punishment in 2013, according to a new Amnesty International report described Thursday by a range of outlets. The Guardian prominently quoted Amnesty's secretary general declaring that "the killing sprees we saw in countries like Iran and Iraq were shameful," and noted that Tehran and Baghdad were responsible for at least 538 out of the 778 documented state-sanctioned executions last year. Tehran publicly admitted to executing at least 369 people in 2013 - roughly 15 percent more than in the previous year - but is widely suspected of having conducted another 250 or so executions in secret. The U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran has repeatedly emphasized - most recently last week - that there has been no fundamental change in the Islamic Republic's human rights approach since the inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and he has more specifically declared that its capital punishment policies "contraven[e] universally accepted human rights principles and norms." The assessments are in line with statements made by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Uzra Zeya, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Zeya expanded on the point, noting that the U.S. has “seen little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran under the new government, including torture, political imprisonment, [and] harassment of religious and ethnic minorities.”

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