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.

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G-8 urges Syria peace conference, France says Iran’s Rouhani could attend


G-8 leaders pressed Tuesday for Syria transition talks to get underway in Geneva “as soon as possible,” but Russia and western powers remain divided on other key issues.

Meantime, in a shift, France said Tuesday it would be willing to have Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani attend the Geneva II Syria peace conference, following the moderate’s surprise victory in Iran presidential elections last week.

“My position is that if he [Rouhani] can be useful, yes, he would be welcome” at the Geneva conference, French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, Agence France Press reported. France previously opposed Iran's attendance at the Geneva conference, while Russia has argued that Iran should be at the table.

A joint communique issued Tuesday by the G-8 powers-—the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia—”strongly” endorsed plans for the Syria peace conference to be held “as soon as possible,” to “implement fully the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012, which sets out a number of key steps beginning with agreement on a transitional governing body with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent,” the document states.

“We remain committed to achieving a political solution to the crisis based on a vision for a united, inclusive and democratic Syria,” it says.

The document calls for the al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front to leave Syria, but does not call on the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from Syria. It also does not mention Bashar al-Assad even once.

American officials pointed to its call for a transition body with full executive authority to be established out of the Geneva meeting as an important area of Russian-western consensus, as well as its demand that Syria give the United Nations access to investigate alleged chemical weapons use.

“There’s agreement with the Russians that there needs to be a path to political transition, that the status quo is unacceptable, and what needs to be focused on is stability for the Syrian people,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department press briefing Tuesday.

“Our position… is there is no role for Assad in Syria,” Psaki said. “However, there is a [place] for those in the regime who are willing to accept the end of Assad’s reign and work for a better future for Syria.”

Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones are due to hold another preparatory meeting with Russian and UN officials next week in Geneva, the State Department said Tuesday. It wasn't clear if the conference would be held in July, or would be pushed back. Continue reading

Israeli lawmakers, in letter, throw support to Kerry peace efforts

The head of a coalition of some three dozen Israeli lawmakers has written U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praising his Middle East peacemaking efforts and urging him to persevere, despite push-back from some members of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

“We are writing to you to inform you of the formation of the Knesset Caucus for Ending the Israeli-Arab Conflict, and to convey our gratitude and support to you for your continuing diplomatic effort to revitalize the Arab-Israeli peace process,” Israeli deputy speaker of the Knesset Hilik Bar wrote in the letter to Sec. Kerry, dated June 5th. The Caucus, formed last month, “stands ready as your willing and able partner in our shared mission to get to Two States for Two Peoples.”

Kerry, in remarks to the American Jewish Committee (AJC) this week, “asked the audience there to 'seize the moment'…; we here in the Knesset aim to do just that,” Bar's letter continued. “As you articulated so eloquently…Israel’s survival as a secure, democratic and Jewish homeland depends on the realization of a final-status agreement that creates two-states for people between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

Bar's letter, published in full below the jump, comes as a counter-point to remarks by Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon Wednesday, warning that the Israeli government would vote to reject any two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

“If you will bring it [the two state solution] to a vote in the government…you will see the majority of Likud ministers, along with the Jewish Home [party], will be against it,” Danon said in an interview with the Times of Israel Wednesday.

“What happens in the coming days will dictate what happens in the coming decades,” Kerry told the AJC in a speech Monday (June 3rd). “If we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.”

The Knesset pro two-state coalition currently counts about 40 members, from the Labor, Hatenu'a, Shas, Yesh Atid, Hadash, Hatnua and Meretz parties, according to a list provided to Al-Monitor. It has the support of Israeli cabinet ministers Tzipi Livni, Yaakov Perry and opposition chair and Labor party leader Shelly Yechimovich.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a query about whether Kerry had received the letter, or his reaction to it.

Kerry is expected to travel to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan yet again next week – his fifth trip to the region since becoming Secretary of State. Kerry, in his remarks to the AJC, highlighted the Arab League's reissuing of the Arab Peace Initiative last month, and its new position endorsing possible land-swaps in an agreement on the borders for a Palestinian state.

Newly joining Frank Lowenstein in aiding Kerry’s efforts in the State Department office of the Middle East peace envoy is former Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Pentagon Middle East advisor Ilan Goldenberg, sources tell the Back Channel.

Full letter from MK Hilik Bar to Sec. Kerry, not previously published, below the jump: Continue reading

Kerry urges support for Mideast peace bid


US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday signaled his determination to launch a new Middle East peace bid in the coming days, warning the time to get a two state solution is drawing to a close. But he offered few details of how new peace talks might avoid the pitfalls that have led earlier efforts to collapse.

“What happens in the coming days will dictate what happens in the coming decades,” Kerry told a Washington conference of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Monday, as the State Department said that Kerry planned to make his fifth trip as Secretary to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan next week.

“Time is running out,” Kerry waned. “If we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.”

Kerry, in his first major speech to a US Jewish audience since becoming Secretary of State, called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas peace partners, who shared his commitment to reach a negotiated two state solution. While saying he understands why many in the region are skeptical the time is right to achieve a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, Kerry warned of the consequences of delay.

“Before anyone gives up hope, you have to ask if you are willing to live with a permanent conflict,” Kerry said. “A realistic one-state solution simply does not exist for either side.”

Many plugged-in US peace process veterans said they had little understanding of the details of Kerry’s initiative, while some Israeli observers expressed wariness that a fragile new peace effort, without the proper ground-work, was liable to collapse, potentially leading to violence.

Kerry “seems to think just talking to leaders and making speeches will make things happen,” a former senior State Department official, speaking not for attribution, said Monday. “He shows no appreciation for creating conditions for talks, not has he shown any understanding of the need to build a team or a coalition. He confides in nobody, has no real staff that is empowered, no conceptual thinkers under him, and is starting to appear desperate. That said, I sure hope he knows what he’s doing. Based on what I’ve seen, I have no reason to believe so. ”

The Israeli leadership wants peace, but “may be split between those who don’t believe the other side can deliver, and those who in addition are not yet ready [or] willing to put on the table what they know they’re going to do one day,” one Israeli official, speaking not for attribution, said Sunday.

“What they also want,” the Israeli official continued, “is a way to legitimately blame the Palestinians and not get blamed if it doesn’t happen now, which, to be fair, most think it won’t.”

“My guess is [Kerry] has no illusions about Netanyahu, and he knows President [Obama] will not expend heavy duty capital to rein him in,” one veteran Israeli peace activist, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.

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Anne Patterson for Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs

As the Back Channel reported Friday, US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson will be the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, a senior US official confirmed to the Back Channel Saturday.

Patterson has been asked and has agreed to take the job if confirmed, the US official, who spoke not for attribution, said.

Patterson did not respond to a request for comment from the Back Channel.

It’s unclear who will succeed Patterson in Cairo, but US diplomatic sources suggested that US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones was likely to be considered. Continue reading

Jordan hails US-Russia plans for Syria peace conference


Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, meeting with US Secretary of state John Kerry in Rome Thursday, threw his support behind the US-Russian call for a Syria peace conference later this month. With over 500,000 Syrian refugees and 2,000 more coming every day, Jordan’s envoy said it’s imperative that a transition get underway to a political resolution that preserves Syria’s multi-ethnic society and borders.

“We are extremely encouraged by the results of the Secretary’s meetings in Moscow with the President and with the Foreign Minister and salute your achievements in that regard by identifying a path forward,” Judeh said at a meeting with Kerry at the US ambassador’s residence in Rome Thursday.

Jordan’s position, Judeh said, is that there “has to be a transitional period that results in a political solution that includes all the segments of Syrian society, no exclusion whatsoever…preserves Syria’s territorial integrity and unity, and…guarantees… pluralism and opportunity for everybody.”

Judeh said he was heading to Moscow Thursday for further discussions.  On Tuesday, Judeh issued a joint call  with Iran’s visiting Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi for both sides in Syria’s civil war to enter talks on a transition government.

Kerry, on the final leg of a trip to Moscow and Rome, said Thursday that he had sent US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford on to Istanbul to meet with the Syrian opposition and begin work to persuade them to come to the peace conference. They have expressed misgivings because it would get underway before any agreement on the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, although US officials insist US policy hasn’t changed and that they do not see any possibility where Assad could remain the leader of Syria. Continue reading

Iran, Jordan call for Syria transition talks


Iran’s Foreign Minister, on a rare visit to Jordan Tuesday, called on the Syrian regime and opposition to enter talks on forming a transitional government.

“We have called for talks between the Syrian government and the peaceful opposition to form a transitional government,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said at a joint conference with his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh in Amman Tuesday, Agence-France Press reported.

“We have advised the Syrian government to sit with the opposition but not with Al-Nusra,” Salehi added, referring to the Syrian offshoot of Al Qaida in Iraq, that has been listed as a terrorist group by the United States but been among the more militarily effective anti-Assad militias on the ground in the conflict.

Salehi’s two day visit to Jordan, a close US ally, comes amid a flurry of intensified regional and international diplomacy on the Syria conflict, and as the United States and Europeans consider stepped up measures to aide the Syrian opposition on the ground while pushing the two sides into transition talks.

“We’re working intensively with a range of partners to strengthen the Syrian opposition and help shift the balance on the ground, which is essential to any chance of shifting Asad’s calculus,” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said in a speech at Princeton University Saturday.

Secretary of State John Kerry was in Russia Tuesday for meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to try to find “common ground” on Syria. Kerry is due to meet with Jordan’s Nasser Judeh in Rome on Wednesday.

Salehi, meantime, was scheduled to travel on to Damascus later Tuesday for a meeting with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, IRNA and AFP reported. Qatari Prime Minister Hamad al-Thani, a key backer of the Syrian opposition, is due to make a rare visit to Iran next week.

Iran’s stepped up diplomacy on Syria in the wake of Israeli strikes in Syria over the weekend is part of Tehran’s “hedging” strategy, to ensure “the Islamic Reublic retains influence in Damascus irrespective of he outcome of the civil war,” Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney wrote at the Brookings Institution website Tuesday.

“Iran hopes to preserve at least a vestige of its ally Bashar, but has also sought a seat at the table in shaping post-Asad Syria in any formal regional dialogue,” Maloney wrote. Tehran also has “a genuine national interest in precluding the expansion of Sunni extremism.”

Iran has continued to be involved in a regional dialogue on how to resolve the Syria crisis with Egypt and Turkey, a member state diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told al-Monitor Monday. (Saudi Arabia has refused to attend the meetings of the regional ‘quartet’ because of Iran’s presence, the diplomat said.)

A high level US Defense Department delegation is also currently in Jordan for meetings of the US-Jordan Joint Military Commission, that got underway Monday. Continue reading

Obama administration calls for full investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria


The Obama administration notified Congress Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community has newly assessed that Syria probably used chemical weapons, but cautioned that further tests are necessary and said it is pressing for the United Nations to conduct a comprehensive investigation.

“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin,” the White House said in a letter to Congress Thursday.

The new assessment, announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the United Arab Emirates Thursday, was finalized in the past twenty four hours and received with evident reluctance by the Obama administration, which has expressed strong misgivings about the prospect of deeper entanglement in a new Middle Eastern conflict.

But the administration decided to publicly release the findings, which were contained in an assessment requested by some members of Congress, as several allied governments and foreign officials, including in Israel, the UK and Qatar, have made similar claims, to press for a comprehensive probe.

The US intelligence assessment “is based in part on physiological samples,” the White House letter said. But it cautioned that “the chain of custody” of the physiological samples it tested “is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.” Blood samples and soil samples are the type of physiological material that would be tested for chemicals, a western diplomat said Thursday.

“Precisely because the President takes this issue so seriously, we have an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria,” the White House letter said.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient,” the White House letter said, obliquely referring to past flawed US intelligence assessments that Iraq had WMD. Only “credible and corroborated” facts will guide US decision-making, it continued.

It’s important that any evidence be “air-tight,” a senior US official later echoed in a press call.

The White House said it was consulting closely with allies, particularly the UK and France, in considering possible next steps. Vice President Joe Biden was also meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Thursday. Hagel announced last week that the US was sending an additional 200 US troops there.

Earlier Thursday, a French official said the French government did not have conclusive evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but had strong concerns, and was also pressing for a broader UN probe.

“France does not have proof of the use of chemical weapons at this stage, but France is actively investigating with its partners,” the French official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists. Continue reading

Appointment RUMINT


The White House is expected to notify Congress as soon as tonight that it is re-nominating Carlos Pascual to be Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources, sources tell the Back Channel.

Probably not coincidentally, Pascual is due to join National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at the launch Wednesday of a new Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy.

A former US ambassador to Mexico and Ukraine, Pascual has been in the acting job for over a year, and the young bureau is eager to get the assistant secretary in place. His nomination last year was put on hold, rumored to be by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), and it’s unclear as yet whether he or others plan to maintain it. Pascual recently married the daughter of Francisco Rojas, the head of Mexico’s CFE electricity company and PRI politician, officials said.

Near East: Two US officials say they now believe that Stuart Jones, the U.S. Ambassador to Jordan and former Deputy Ambassador to Iraq, may be leading the pack of candidates to succeed Beth Jones as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. Other possibilities mentioned are US Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft, as well Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, and Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone.

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Arab League to meet with Kerry to revive Arab-Israel peace initiative


Members of the Arab League are expected to revive an Arab-Israeli peace initiative at a previously unreported meeting slated to take place later this month between the Arab League and Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, diplomatic sources tell Al-Monitor.

The meeting will take place in Washington on April 29 between Kerry and foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, as well as a representative of the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League Secretary General, a member state diplomat told Al-Monitor.

The State Department, in response to a query, told Al-Monitor it had “nothing to announce” on the meeting, which diplomatic sources say was agreed to during President Obama’s recent trip to the region.

The Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed by Saudi  then Crown Prince, now King Abdullah in 2002 in Beirut, offered full normalization of relations between Israel and all 22 members of the Arab League after Israel and Palestine reach a just agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state.

President Barack Obama “raised the possibility of using” the Arab Peace Initiative “as a framework for a regional peace accord at meetings in Israel, the PA and Jordan last month, McClatchy News reported  April 5th.

Kerry “has on his desk a proposal to replace the bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with a multilateral platform,” Akiva Eldar reported for Al-Monitor March 29. “Acceptance of the Arab initiative as the basis of a permanent arrangement between Israel and its neighbors will enable the renewal of the multilateral channels established following the 1991 Madrid peace conference on the issues of regional security, refugees, water and economic and environmental development.”

The Bush administration’s lack of recognition at the time of what the Saudi-backed Initiative signified “will go down in the annals of history as one of the biggest lost opportunities,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-florida), now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told an April 10th panel hosted by the Middle East Institute.

Attention to the initiative got overtaken at the time in Israel and Washington, however, by a devastating March 2002 Hamas terrorist attack in Israel known as the Passover Massacre.

But it “was no doubt an enormously important decision by Arab leaders [and it] went largely unnoticed and largely not acted upon by the United States, which allowed it to whither on the vine for ten years,” Wexler said.

“We have a peace plan … approved by all Arab countries,” Arab League Ambassador to the United States Dr. Mohammed Alhussaini Alsharif told Al-Monitor in an interview April 18. “The US realizes it missed an opportunity.” Continue reading