I was surprised to see Jeffrey Feltman as one of the two envoys Obama is sending to Syria to begin talks with President Bashir Al-Asad. Feltman, currently the acting assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs (he is rumored to be keeping the job), was formerly the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, where he cultivated a staunchly anti-Syrian reputation. Hearing his name still reminds me of the banner that used to hang across downtown Beirut: "Topple the Feltman Government," it read--a reference to his staunch support for the pro-West and anti-Syrian March 14 coalition. The group, which is the major opposition to Hezbollah in Lebanon, came to power in 2005 shortly after the Syrians were ousted from the country--elected in rushed polls that occurred without reforming the corrupt electoral system, in no small part due to pressure from Feltman.
I had the opportunity to interview Feltman, in 2007, when I was living in Beirut, and I was definitely impressed with his knowledge of the region and nuanced positions on Lebanese politics. His distinguished resume includes foreign service stints in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Tunsia, in addition to time spent as former Ambassador Martin Indyk's special assistant on peace process issues.
But I still find it curious that the Obama administration would send someone to Syria who is so closely identified with anti-Syrian partisans in Lebanon. Feltman himself became a character in the never-ending Lebanese political drama, his name becoming short-hand for the US's heavy-handed involvement there under Bush. Even the leader of Syria-backed Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah referred to the March 14 government as "Feltman's Government" after Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was blunter, saying that "Feltman should leave [Lebanon]; I'm prepared to pay for his vacation to Hawaii." As Mike mentions below, the Syrians were believed to be behind several attempts to assassinate him. Suffice it say, having Feltman representing the U.S. at the negotiating table might make things a bit tense.
But perhaps this is precisely the message that the new administration wants to send to Assad: We're open to dialogue, but we will not compromise on the question of Lebanese sovereignty. As one former Pentagon Lebanon specialist told me today, "I cannot think of a better guy to represent commitment to Lebanon and skepticism toward Syria, which is exactly where our policy should be. For negotiations to work, they have to know that we have serious concerns."
Alternately, as another Syria analyst suggested to me on the phone yesterday, it's very possible that Feltman has adjusted his views; developments in the year since he has left Lebanon--particularly the March 14 government's inability to maintain stability in the country--has definitely flipped some of its biggest supporters. Additionally, Feltman's new position at the State department means that he no longer has to be as narrowly focused on Lebanon.
His dispatching to Damascus this week is clearly not a one-off assignment; his meeting with Syrian ambassador to Washington Imad Mustafa last week indicates that he will be a key administration player on Syria. It will be interesting to see whether his complicated history in the region will be an asset or a hindrance to the administration's goals.
Photo: Lebanese students supporters of Hezbollah-led anti-government parties burn pictures of US ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman inside the campus of the Lebanese University in Beirut, 19 April 2007. The students staged a demonstration and burned the pictures after rumors that Feltman is visiting their university. (HAITHAM MUSSAWI/AFP/Getty Images)