Appointments: Econ, Syria, NEA

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Who will oversee US Syria diplomacy, if Robert Ford, as we first reported, is tapped to succeed Anne Patterson as US Ambassador to Cairo?

US officials told us, as far as they know, the decision on that has not yet been finalized. Ford, in any case, “will do Syria for a few more months,” as he prepares to go to Egypt, one official, speaking not for attribution, said Tuesday.

“I think serious thought should be given to moving the position out of the Department and to the field, along with 'team Syria' currently cloistered in NEA”–the State Department Near East Affairs bureau, one former senior U.S. official told us. “A difference can be made in Turkey and Jordan with the opposition and in interacting with partners. Hard to do anything useful in Washington from inside the NEA bureaucracy.”

Syria needs a US government point of contact, who can “manage the whole inter-agency Syria process,” another current official said. That, in addition to “a seasoned diplomat who speaks Arabic and knows the region and could engage the Syrians.”

Meantime, US officials told the Back Channel that former Clinton White House Middle East advisor Rob Malley has been offered the job of National Security Staff Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs, but as yet has not agreed to take it. (The Back Channel previously reported that the current NSS Senior Director for Iran/Iraq and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar may be nominated to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.)

One possibility is that Malley may instead become a senior advisor on Syria to Secretary of State John Kerry, working out of the front office, a US diplomatic source told the Back Channel. Malley did not respond to numerous queries. He is said to be very close with Frank Lowenstein, Kerry’s deputy Middle East envoy.

Meantime, the Back Channel has learned of several other diplomatic appointments in the works:

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs (NEA) Elizabeth Jones may move to become the deputy to US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) James Dobbins, after her successor Patterson is in place, officials, speaking not for attribution, said. Secretary of State John Kerry last week named deputy SRAP James Warlick, a former US ambassador to Bulgaria, the next US envoy to the OSCE Minsk Group.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for NEA Elizabeth Dibble will become Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in London, US officials tell us. (She didn’t respond to a query.)

US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein is expected to become the next PDAS in the NEA bureau, officials said. Feierstein, who met with Yemen’s president in Sanaa on Tuesday, the State Department said, is expected to serve a few more months there before returning to Washington.

US Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin is expected to be nominated Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment, succeeding Robert Hormats, officials tell the Back Channel. “It’s a done deal,” one official said Tuesday, adding the nomination is expected to be announced the first week of September.

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Kerry, Rice brief Jewish, Arab American groups on Mideast peace talks

Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice hosted Jewish-American and Arab-American community leaders at separate meetings at the White House Thursday and Friday to try to bolster domestic support for U.S. Middle East peace-making efforts.

Also attending the meetings were new US peace envoy Martin Indyk and his deputy Frank Lowenstein, as well as the White House’s top Middle East strategist Phil Gordon, senior director for Middle East and North Africa Prem Kumar, and deputy national security advisor for communications Ben Rhodes, attendees told Al-Monitor.

The meetings-ostensibly off the record–come as Indyk and Lowenstein are heading back to the region to facilitate a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks next week. Negotiations will be held August 14th in Jerusalem followed by a meeting in Jericho, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Thursday.

“Obviously, they wanted to brief Jewish community leaders on their efforts with regard to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and also to appeal for the community to support their efforts,” Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union, told the Back Channel Friday.

“I think everybody were appreciate of their efforts and commitment and motivations,” Diament continued. “Obviously, there were some difficult questions asked. But it was a very cordial and civil and substantive discussion.”

“I would say both Rice and Ben Rhodes … made a point of stating President Obama’s commitment to this agenda item and also his appreciation for what Secretary Kerry is doing,” Diament said.

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NPR’s Deborah Amos reports on Syria from front lines


We are “two and a half years into” the Syria war, “and not even half way” through, says Deborah Amos, veteran National Public Radio Middle East correspondent, who has covered the brutal conflict that has killed 100,000 Syrians, and made almost 2 million refugees. “Everyone has to get used to that.”

The conflict’s battle lines have shifted in recent months, suggesting Syrian regime forces are moving to carve out a “little Syria,” and ensure its access to supply lines in Lebanon, Amos said in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor Friday (August 2) during a break in the United States.

“What you've got now” is a battle between regime and rebel forces “for roads and access,” Amos said.  “It used to be for checkpoints and military installations. But now, the regime has to be sure it has access from Lebanon into Syria.” The rebels, meantime, “focus on access to Jordan and Turkey.”

“This is what the war’s about now,” Amos said, describing the virtual four “walls” of Little Syria as including Homs to the north, Palmyra to the east, the Lebanese border and coast to the West.

The road to the Geneva 2 peace conference may be long, Amos said, observing neither side wants to go to talks when the other side has the upper hand, but is unlikely to negotiate when strong. “So nobody is willing to negotiate.”

“I think Bashar [Assad] has changed his definition of winning,” Amos mused, noting his recent proclamations of the past weeks, joining of Instagram, and visit to Dariya, which his forces have not been entirely able to take from rebels. Continue reading

Counselor

outgoing US Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon is likely to get tapped to become Counselor to Secretary of State John Kerry, senior US officials tell the Back Channel.

The job, currently held by Heather Higginbottom, is expected to open up if she is nominated to become Deputy Secretary of State for management and resources. The Back Channel previously reported that Higginbottom, former deputy OMB chief and White House deputy domestic policy advisor, is being strongly considered for the second Deputy Secretary post, previously held by Tom Nides and Jack Lew, and she appears to be the lead candidate.

Shannon declined to comment. The Back Channel previously reported that he was under consideration to be the next US Ambassador to Turkey, but plans have since changed, officials said this week.

US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone, Jr. is expected to stay on in Ankara for another year.

Secretary Kerry is expected to travel to Brazil this month

Ashton congratulates Iran’s Rouhani, urges renewed nuclear talks

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Tuesday sent a message congratulating new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on his inauguration, and inviting him to new nuclear negotiations as soon as possible.

“Mr President, I write to tell you that, together with the E3+3, I stand ready to continue talks to find a resolution as quickly as possible,” Ashton wrote. “I hope that we can schedule meaningful talks with your negotiating team as soon as practicable.”

Full letter below:

Dear Mr President
On the occasion of your inauguration as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran I offer you my congratulations. The people of Iran have entrusted you with a strong mandate to engage in dialogue and cooperation with the international community to seek a swift resolution to its serious concerns about Iran's nuclear activities.
Mr President, I write to tell you that, together with the E3+3, I stand ready to continue talks to find a resolution as quickly as possible. I hope that we can schedule meaningful talks with your negotiating team as soon as practicable.
The European Union hopes that under your leadership there will be new opportunities to work together to reduce regional tensions and promote respect for human rights.

HFAC staff moves


Several recent changes and promotions underway among the House Foreign Affairs Committee minority staff.

Daniel Silverberg, formerly deputy general counsel and a former Pentagon official, has been named general counsel of the committee minority staff, following the departure of Shanna Winters for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Janice Kaguyutan was promoted to chief counsel from deputy chief counsel.

Long time HFAC top Middle East advisor Alan Makovsky has left the committee staff, with plans to go teach in Turkey, according to two Hill staffers. His deputy Robert Marcus is expected to succeed him as top Middle East advisor upon his return from paternity leave, staffers say.

Daniel Harsha, recently back from paternity leave, has been made communications director.

Jason Steinbaum was named as staff director in January, after former Rep. Howard Berman’s staff director went over to Senate Homeland Security.

Meantime, two HFAC staffers have joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) staff: arms sales and non proliferation advisor David Fite, and former communications director Adam Sharon.

Staffers are overall upbeat about the committee, and say relations between chair Ed Royce (R-California) and ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-New York), are relatively smooth and professional.

Engel, in a letter Monday, critiqued the military options for Syria presented by top army officer Gen. Martin Dempsey, suggesting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may have overstated the costs and risks of limited air strikes.

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Ambassador to Egypt

U.S. Syria Envoy Robert Ford is likely to be nominated the next U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, two senior U.S. officials tell the Back Channel.

A State Department official said Thursday he had no information to provide on that.

The Back Channel previously reported that current U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is expected to be nominated the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. The unrest in Egypt the past month following the ouster of Egypt's Mohamed Morsi may have slightly delayed the announcement, but it is expected to proceed, maybe even before August recess, the officials said.

The Back Channel first reported that Ford has asked to step down from the Syria job, saying he is exhausted.

Ford, one of the preeminent Arabists in the US foreign service, previously served as U.S. ambassador to Algeria, as deputy US ambassador in Iraq, and as deputy chief of mission in Bahrain. A fluent Arabic speaker, Ford has previously served in Cairo, on the Egypt economics desk in Washington, and in the Peace Corps.

He could not be reached for comment Thursday. It's not clear who will be tapped to serve as the top US diplomat on Syria.

Secretary of State John Kerry has wanted Ford for Cairo, but Ford was previously said to be hesitant due to fatigue, one former official said, adding he assumes fatigue will have given way to Secretarial persuasion.

Update: President Obama late Thursday announced his nomination of Anne Patterson to be Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs.

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