Clinton Middle East advisor may join State team

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Rob Malley, a former Middle East advisor to President Bill Clinton, may join the State Department Middle East team, diplomatic sources tell the Back Channel.

Malley, currently the Middle East director of the International Crisis Group, may come on with the title of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, sources said. It’s not clear or decided yet, however, if his portfolio would focus on the peace process (Israel Palestinian Affairs) or possibly Syria, sources said. (Current DAS for Israel Palestinian Affairs David Hale, the acting Middle East peace special envoy, is expected to be nominated US envoy to Lebanon, The Back Channel previously reported, while US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who has been technically filling a DAS slot since the US embassy in Damascus closed in 2011, would like to step down this summer.)

Malley did not immediately respond to a query from the Back Channel Thursday. A former Clinton NSC official and aide to National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, Malley served as an informal Middle East advisor to the Obama campaign in 2008. He is also a frequent contributor of highly thoughtful analysis at The New York Review of Books. (See This is Not a Revolution, on the Arab awakening; and How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East, from 2009, both co-written with Hussein Agha.)

Earlier this month, Malley told National Public Radio’s Terry Gross the Syria conflict was becoming a regional, sectarian war that was seeping into Lebanon and Iraq.

“This is not a war that is being fought by nation states,” Malley told Fresh Air with Terry Gross June 4th. “Borders are being erased. Borders are becoming liquid in a way… So I think you have to think of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as one giant integrated area of conflict in which national boundaries count much less than sectarian concessional boundaries.”

Other key Middle East appointments expected to be announced soon, as the Back Channel previously reported: US envoy to Egypt Anne Patterson for Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs. (US Ambassador to Jordan Stu Jones is rumored to be in the mix for Cairo; another name that has come up is former US DCM in Iraq David Satterfield, who has served since 2009 as the Director General of the Multinational Forces and Observers supporting the Israeli-Egyptian peace.)

Frank Lowenstein is already working as the de facto successor to Hale, supporting John Kerry’s hands-on Middle East peace efforts. (Kerry sets off on his sixth trip to the Middle East since becoming secretary later this week.) Brett McGurk formally came on last month as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran and Iraq, and remains the go-to advisor on Iraq for top Obama administration officials, sources said. Barbara Leaf started last month as the DAS for Arabian Gulf Affairs.

Meantime, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones is scheduled to accompany Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman to Geneva next week for talks with Russian and UN counterparts about the Geneva II Syria peace conference, the State Department said this week