Ambassador to Egypt

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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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Envoy: US ‘appalled’ by reported killing of priest in Syria

A top US diplomat has strongly condemned the reported killing by rebels of a Catholic priest at a monastery in Syria's northwestern Idlib province earlier this week.

“We are appalled by reports that extremist rebels killed Father François Mourad earlier this week when they looted a monastery in Idlib province,” US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said in a statement posted Saturday to the US Embassy in Syria’s Facebook page. “This unprovoked violence against civilians is completely unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

“We call on all Syrians to protect and respect the rights of all civilians, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or religion,” Ford’s statement said.  “No matter how depraved the Asad regime is, committing atrocities under the guise of fighting is unjustifiable.”

Father François Mourad died June 24th at the Franciscan monastery of St. Anthony of Padua, in Ghassanieh, Syria, “where he had sought refuge some time ago,” the Pro Terra Sancta website, affiliated with his Franciscan of the Holy Land order, wrote June 25th.

The circumstances of his death are still not very clear,” the website said. “According to one version a bullet entered the monastery and struck the priest, while other sources maintain that the homicide took place while the monastery was being looted by rebels.” Continue reading

Kerry staff shifts as State appointments gather pace


One of John Kerry’s most experienced advisors has had to step back from his job as deputy chief of staff, but is staying on for now at the State Department, officials tell the Back Channel.

William Danvers, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director and a former Clinton and Obama administration national security official, had some medical concerns, but is apparently cleared to ease back into work. His role appears to have shifted however from deputy chief of staff to other assignments, officials said. Danvers declined to comment.

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Top US Syria envoy expected to step down


The top US diplomat on Syria Robert Ford plans to step down this summer, several US officials tell the Back Channel.

Ford, who was confirmed as US Ambassador to Syria in 2011 after serving there since 2010 under a recess appointment, saw his job transformed by the unrest that has long since escalated into a full scale civil war. Earlier this month Ford traveled into Syria from Turkey with a convoy of US food aid, to meet with Syrian rebel commanders and urge them to support transition talks planned to be held in Geneva next month.

Ford was again in Turkey Wednesday trying, along with his French, Arab and Turkish diplomatic colleagues, to push Syria’s opposition to agree to expand and diversify its leadership ranks.

He is said by multiple officials to be exhausted, including from his efforts trying to unify the fractious Syrian opposition. The Back Channel was unable to reach Ford Wednesday.

Ford is expected to stay on for the Syria peace conference in Geneva next month, and possibly step aside in July. (One source thought Ford might next take a job at the State Department Inspector General office, but that couldn’t be confirmed.) It is still unclear who will succeed him in the Syria job, or if the role might be revamped to create a special US envoy to the Syrian opposition, State Department sources said.

(The Back Channel previously reported that US Middle East peace envoy David Hale will be nominated to be the next US Ambassador to Lebanon. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East senior advisor Frank Lowenstein is expected to succeed Hale working the Middle East peace portfolio that Kerry has personally spearheaded. US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson will be nominated to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for the Near Eastern Affairs.)

Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones will travel to Geneva next week to meet Russian counterparts to prepare for the Geneva 2 conference, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki announced Wednesday.

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Middle East envoy Hale expected to be named Lebanon ambassador

US Middle East peace envoy David Hale is expected to be nominated to be the next US ambassador to Lebanon, two sources tell the Back Channel.

Hale, a former US Ambassador to Jordan and career foreign service officer, has served as the US special envoy on Middle East peace since the departure in 2011 of George Mitchell, for whom he served as deputy. Hale would succeed Maura Connelly, who has served in Beirut since 2010, and who is expected to spend a year as a fellow at a Washington think tank, sources speaking not for attribution told the Back Channel. We were unable to reach Hale Tuesday.

The Back Channel reported in February that longtime John Kerry foreign policy advisor and former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chief of staff Frank Lowenstein had moved into Hale’s office and was working as a senior Middle East advisor to the new Secretary of State.

The Hale nomination is one of several Near East bureau appointments expected to be announced as soon as this week, or more likely next week.

The Back Channel previously reported that US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson will be nominated to be Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Patterson returned to the United States late last week for two weeks of meetings and a few days of R&R, sources said. Patterson did not respond to a previous request for comment.

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NEA

Diplomatic sources say they believe that US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is again the Obama administration’s leading choice to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs nominee, but say she wasn’t anxious to come back to Washington.

In the unusually long second term transition shuffle, the rumor mill on top contenders to head the NEA bureau has cycled through a list that had Patterson at the top of the list a couple months ago, and also includes US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones, Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft, US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, among others. Most recently, some in the bureau wagered Beecroft would  get tapped. But in the past few days, several former senior US officials and diplomats say  they believe Patterson has returned to the top of the list yet again, for a few reasons, despite her rumored reluctance to come back from the field. Continue reading

Iraq advisor eyed for State DAS for Iraq and Iran

Brett McGurk, President Obama’s former nominee for Iraq ambassador, will likely be tapped as the next State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, current and former US officials tell the Back Channel. The State Department plans to fuse the two offices, officials say.

McGurk has been serving as a senior Iraq advisor at the State Department since withdrawing from consideration to be US ambassador to Iraq last summer. McGurk did not immediately respond to a request for guidance from the Back Channel.

The McGurk appointment, which several officials said is a done deal, is expected to be announced after Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Barbara Leaf is announced for her next assignment, which sources suggested may be deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Turkey. Former acting DAS for Iran Henry Wooster was made special Iran advisor to JSOC late last year, after he assumed helm of the office following the death of Philo Dibble.

McGurk, a trained lawyer who advised the last several US ambassadors to Iraq, developed a strong working relationship with Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki while negotiating the Status of Forces Agreement on behalf of Bush White House and later the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq for the Obama administration. He is said by sources to have particularly won the admiration of Antony Blinken, President Obama’s new deputy national security advisor and former national security advisor to Vice President Biden, who oversaw US Iraq policy in Obama’s first term. Continue reading

Big changes afoot in Obama Iran, arms control teams, as Samore departs

U.S. White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Samore, talks during a meeting at the Itamaraty Palace in BrasiliaA key member of President Obama’s Iran negotiating team is leaving. White House WMD czar Gary Samore will depart the administration to become executive director of the Harvard University Belfer Center, the center said in a press release Tuesday.

The departure of Obama’s top nonproliferation advisor comes as the United States and five world powers are aiming for new nuclear talks with Iran the last week of February, possibly in Kazakhstan, diplomatic sources told the Back Channel Tuesday.

Samore’s exit, at the end of the week, is only one of several anticipated changes to the Obama Iran, arms control and Middle East teams expected to shake out over the new several months, even as the administration has vowed not to let the transition shuffle cause any distraction from its Iran policy efforts.

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US Syria hand Fred Hof to resign

Veteran US diplomat Fred Hof, the US Special Advisor on Transition in Syria, is resigning his post, Al Arabiya Washington bureau chief Hisham Melham reports.

Hof’s last day at State is Friday, a former senior American official told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

Hof has “worked tirelessly to unify Syrian opposition,” Melhem wrote on Twitter Tuesday, calling the diplomat a “real Mensch,” and his departure a tremendous loss to the Syrian people.

Hof joined the Obama administration in 2009 as an advisor on Syria and Lebanon aiding the small team of US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, who resigned last year.

More recently Hof had been traveling in the region almost constantly, working in close coordination with US Syria envoy Robert Ford on a post-Assad Syria ‘day after’ transition plan.

Hof initially told Mitchell he would commit to two years in the job, but extended his work as the Syria conflict deepened, a source familiar with his decision to leave told Al-Monitor, adding Hof’s spouse was eager for him to return to civilian life.

News of the resignation comes as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in New York Tuesday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the new joint UN/Arab League Syria envoy. Brahimi reportedly gave Clinton a bleak assessment of the conflict.

“I do not have a full plan for the moment, but I have a few ideas,” Brahimi said Tuesday, Reuters reported.

“The situation in Syria is extremely bad and getting worse,” the Algerian diplomat continued. “There is a stalemate … but I think we will find an opening in the not too distant future.”

Syria’s top UK envoy defects: “No longer willing to represent this regime”


Syria’s top diplomat in the United Kingdom has defected and left his post at the Syrian embassy in London, the British foreign office said Monday. The defection of Syria’s UK Chargé d’Affaires, Khaled al-Ayoubi, is the fourth by a Syrian diplomat this month, and comes as talks are underway on a transition from Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

“Mr. al-Ayoubi has told us that he is no longer willing to represent a regime that has committed such violent and oppressive acts against its own people, and is therefore unable to continue in his position,” a British foreign office spokesman said in a statement Monday.

His departure is “another blow to the Assad regime,”  that “illustrates the revulsion and despair the regime’s actions are provoking amongst Syrians from all walks of life,” the spokesman said.

The UK-based diplomat’s defection follows those of three other Syrian ambassadors this month, including Syria’s ambassador to Iraq Nawaf al-Fares and Syria’s ambassadors to the UAE and Cyprus, a married couple, last week.

Various Syrian opposition representatives have been involved in transition planning talks  taking place in Cairo, under the auspices of the Arab League.

The United States is meantime expanding its assistance to the Syrian opposition, including non-lethal support to the armed Syrian resistance.

Among the new measures, the U.S. Treasury Department last week authorized the Syrian Support Group to provide financial and logistical assistance to the Free Syrian Army, Al Monitor reported last week. The authorization, contained in a letter from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and signed July 23, came as the Free Syrian Army military command issued a “Proclamation of Principles” pledging support for multi-ethnic pluralism and democracy.

US officials have stressed the need for Syria’s opposition to demonstrate such ethnic inclusivity, in order to encourage more defections and to avoid a sectarian bloodbath.  “The future will include all Syrians of all backgrounds,” US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said in a statement posted to the embassy’s website July 27.

The United States is also urging Syrian rebels and opposition groups to avoid seeking an Iraq-style disbanding of Syria’s army, the Washington Post reported.

However, Syria’s rebels don’t support one figure reportedly eyed as a potential Syrian unity figure who could hold the army together, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, a close family friend of Assad who defected this month.

Tlas’s “road map is slowly taking shape,” Sabah’s Erdal Safak reported in a piece translated and published by Al Monitor Monday. “Never mind that a part of the opposition says, ‘There is no place for Baath officials or generals in the new era.’  Syria’s friends, definitely the US, see the Syrian army as the sole guarantor of integrity and stability of the country.”

(Members of a Syrian refugee family, who fled the violence in Syria, are seen at a garden in Port Said Square in Algiers July 30, 2012. More than 12,000 Syrians fleeing the violence in their home country have sought refuge in Algeria, a source close to the Interior Ministry said on Sunday. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi.)