The Envoy
  • Then Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq in April 7, 2011. Amb. Jim Jeffrey is to Gates' right. (Chip Somodevilla/AP)

    Just over a month after the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Iraq, the United States plans to sharply cut the number of U.S. diplomatic personnel and contractors in the country. The move comes as Yahoo News has learned that the recently withdrawn U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, is being considered to succeed Jim Jeffrey as the next U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.

    Also on the short list are Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeff Feltman and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Barbara Leaf, the Iraqi and American sources said. Leaf formerly headed the Provincial Reconstruction Team in the southern Iraqi city of Basrah.

    The State Department announced Monday that it is withdrawing Ford and other U.S. government personnel from Syria and suspending operations of the U.S. Embassy in Syria amid worsening violence there. While the State Department said Ford would remain ambassador to Syria and would continue to meet with Syrian democracy activists abroad, one American and two Iraqi sources told Yahoo News that the Obama administration is considering tapping Ford as Washington's next envoy to Iraq--overseeing the largest U.S. embassy in the world.

    Ford, a former deputy U.S. ambassador to Iraq and fluent Arabic speaker, did not respond to a query from Yahoo News. Feltman, traveling in Morocco, also did not respond to a query.

    Jeffrey is currently in Washington for meetings at the State Department. His planned departure from the Iraq envoy job was first reported by the New York Times' Tim Arango Tuesday.

    American officials described plans to cut the 16,000 US personnel and contractors in Iraq by as much as half as a normal cost-saving measure. (The U.S. currently has about 2,000 diplomats in Iraq and 16,000 personnel including contractors posted to the country, the Times said.)

    But regional diplomats tell Yahoo News the United States is also under pressure from Iraqi Shiite leaders to reduce the American presence in the country.

    "This is what's happening," one regional diplomat told Yahoo News Tuesday on condition of anonymity. "First the U.S. gets the troops out. Then [the Iraqi Shiite] Sadrists say publicly, 'what kind of withdrawal is this, the Americans still have 16,000 diplomats in the country.' So first they force the military out. Now the anti-American elements force the diplomats out. This is what it is."

    Read More »from U.S. plans cuts in Iraq personnel, eyes Syria envoy as next ambassador
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman at their last meeting in Jerusalem in September 2010. (Yossi Zamir, Pool/AP)

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with hundreds of foreign leaders in the course of her daily work as Obama's top diplomat. Yet her meeting Tuesday at the State Department with her Israeli counterpart, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, was a rare occasion: it was their first face to face meeting in well over a year. This D.C. visit is only Lieberman's second visit to Washington since he became Israeli Foreign Minister three years ago; he and Clinton last met in Jerusalem in September 2010.

    Why the distance? Israeli domestic politics is one reason. Lieberman, who is also the leader of a right wing pro-settlements political party, is viewed as a political competitor on the right by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in whose government he serves. And it's not always clear Lieberman's expressed positions are in lock step with those of the prime minister. Then there's the fact that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has often stood in as an almost de facto foreign minister to Washington-a perhaps more comfortable if not unproblematic interlocutor given his pro-peace process positions are not quite in line with Netanyahu's.

    With peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians talks more or less on hold, however, such nuances were of less import, and Clinton met with Lieberman Tuesday in a visit that analysts surmised was likely more about the photo grip and grin than substantive discussions.

    "The meeting is the message," a former U.S. diplomat told Yahoo News Tuesday. "There is no reason not to meet with him, but it doesn't achieve very much. Then again, lots of diplomatic meetings don't achieve very much."

    "There is only one Israeli Clinton is more frustrated with than the Foreign Minister, and that's the Prime Minister," former State Department Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller told Yahoo News Tuesday. "Combined with Obama's comments Sunday that the United States is 'in lock-step' with the Israelis, this is making a virtue out of necessity."

    Read More »from Hillary Clinton holds rare meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman

  • The United States announced on Monday that it is closing its embassy in Syria and recalling U.S. diplomatic personnel amid some of the worst days of violence Syria has seen in Bashar Al-Assad's ten month crackdown against anti-government unrest.

    The U.S. embassy recall followed a major diplomatic setback, after Russia and China on Saturday vetoed a hard-fought UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to the Syria bloodshed. The defeated measure, introduced by Morocco on behalf of the Arab League, was backed by the United States, Europe, Turkey and Syria's Arab neighbors, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself traveling to New York last week to implore the UN to stand with the Syrian people or be complicit in the crackdown.

    Moscow, which  has billions of dollars in investments, including an estimated $5 billion alone in Syria's military sector, rejected the resolution, arguing against any Libya-style international intervention or regime change in Syria.

    And even as the measure was going down for defeat, Syrian security forces stepped up a brutal revenge attack on the restive Syrian city of Homs. Activists there report as many as 300 people killed and 700 wounded since Friday in the worst days of violence Syria's third largest has yet seen. That bloodshed adds to an estimated death toll of 5,400 people killed since last March cited by Clinton last week.

    Amid the mounting death toll and diplomatic setback, Yahoo News interviewed four experts about what they think the United States should do next on Syria. All interviews were conducted via phone unless otherwise specified.

    Elliott Abrams, former George W. Bush White House Middle East adviser, now with the Council on Foreign Relations:

    First, I think we should do one thing we have done: denounce the Russians and Chinese. Secondly, I think we should be helping at least indirectly the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council.

    There is a war going on now; they need arms. To me the secondary question is, [whether the United States help arm them] indirectly or directly. If there's not a political way out of this, to defeat Assad, help the people who are fighting.

    Bruce Jentleson, former senior adviser on Middle East issues at the State Department office of Policy Planning, 2009-2011, now at Duke University (via email):

    Flood the zone—Do lots short of military intervention: tighten sanctions, keep naming and shaming Russia and China, provide refugee relief. Don't arm the opposition, but don't kill ourselves stopping others from doing so if they so choose. No boots on the ground--but perhaps some Nikes on the ground (as there likely already are, whether US/French/Turkish or other).

    Find channels--probably quiet ones and not necessarily U.S. ones--to reach out to key Syrian elites like the business community that while having been pro-Assad, has its own interests which it may be starting to see as pointing in a different direction. And do all this without making it a U.S. issue. Call it 'lead with partners, lead for results" ... with the Arab League and individual Arab states out front.

    Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights activist, and leading member in exile of the Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council:

    The situation is deteriorating very quickly. This is why our main focus right now is to establish a Friends of Syria international coalition. Such an international contact group on Syria--like the one formed on Libya--can help Syria politically, financially and with humanitarian aid. It can have regular meetings about what is going on in Syria and decide next steps.[...]

    Read More »from Four experts on Syria: Advice on what the U.S. should do next, as embassy closes and death toll mounts


(679 Stories)
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