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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Tillerson's elimination of Syria and Muslim envoys reflects new US priorities

1US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined the plans in a letter to congress this week

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

The Donald Trump administration is moving in the direction of eliminating at least 30 special envoy positions from the State Department including those assigned to Syria, to the Muslim communities and to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

This move is “not unusual” according to former officials and an envoy who spoke to The National. Nevertheless, it reflects new priorities and shifting areas of focus for the Trump team.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined the plans in a letter this week to Senator Bob Corker, who heads the foreign relations committee.

"Today, nearly 70 such [envoy] positions exist within the State Department, even after many of the underlying policy challenges these positions were created to address have been resolved," Mr Tillerson wrote to Congress.

“I believe that the Department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus, and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose.”

Of the 66 positions, Mr Tillerson is planning to eliminate nine including the envoy for the six-party talks with North Korea and the US special envoy to close Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Instead of having an envoy to the OIC and a special representative to the Muslim communities, Mr Tillerson is opting to expand the duties of the ambassador at large for religious freedom.

The envoy to Syria (Syrian opposition) and those who deal climate change, implementing the Iran deal, global youth would be no more or integrated in other positions if the plan is approved by Congress.

Daniel Serwer, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former US Envoy himself to the Bosnian Federation (1993-1996), had no problem with Mr Tillerson’s plan.

“Many administrations in the past have come in and attempted to reshape the envoys positions” Mr Serwer told The National. “There are too many of them, and both previous Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama have reorganised these positions.”

“It’s not unusual to reshape which special envoys you want based on your policy priorities” he said.

But for lan Goldenberg, a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, the problem may not be the immediate act of reorganising or scrapping the envoys positions, rather what it means for the State Department.

“What Mr Tillerson is doing is eliminating envoy positions and claiming that this strengthens the bureaus, but if the Near East Affairs (NEA) bureau remains horribly understaffed than all he is doing is making the situation worse,” Mr Goldenberg said.

The problem would become in “giving the bureau new responsibilities that it has no capacity to carry out” he warned.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution only 18 per cent of political appointments at the State Department have been filled as of mid-August. Mr Serwer said the lack of political appointees might be a blessing in disguise for the department, “leaving power in the hands of the professionals and career service officials”.

Abolishing the Muslim community and OIC representatives, however, is an indication that the Trump team “is tone deaf when it comes to engagement with the Muslim world" said Mr Goldenberg.

"Especially in light of all the damage the administration has already done in terms of the President's anti-Muslim rhetoric” added the expert, who worked in the last administration for the US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

On Syria, abolishing the envoy is less of a concern for both Mr Serwer and Mr Goldenberg.

“If they eliminate the Syria envoy but keep Michael Ratney [current envoy] inside NEA as point on these issues it's the same thing” noted Mr Goldenberg. The plan is also to keep the US envoy in the campaign against ISIL, Brett McGurk.

Mr Serwer said the approach is in line with the Trump administration’s foreign policy outlook. There is less focus on Syria but more on countering ISIL, less on the Muslim world but more on the Gulf rift, he explained.

In that context, Mr Tillerson tasked retired General Anthony Zinni as a de-facto envoy to help resolve the Qatar crisis, while cutting other positions.

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