Real Talk from Under Secretary General Jeffrey Feltman

In his role with the United Nations as the Undersecretary General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman’s portfolio covers the entire world’s political conflicts. As President Barack Obama’s former Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, it’s clear that the Middle East and North Africa is the area he’s most comfortable in discussing.

He’s getting the hang of the rest of it, however, and that was on display in a briefing to the press hosted ahead of his latest appearance before the UN Security Council. Speaking at the invitation of the Better World Campaign in Washington, DC, on Friday Feltman parlayed a sense of cautious optimism about many of the world’s hotspots.

Feltman had particularly hopeful words for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ahead of US President Barack Obama’s visit to the region. “Right now, we see a new opportunity to try and push again seriously for a final status agreement and we strongly encourage U.S. engagement,” Feltman said. He pointed to factors including the ceasefire in Gaza continuing to hold, the end of U.S. and Israeli elections and formation of a new government in Tel Aviv as reason why “we’re at a better time [for talks] than we’ve been in a few years.”

Regarding the situation in Mali, Feltman felt sure that the UN Security Council would indeed authorize a new UN peacekeeping force shortly. A UN assessment team is on the ground in Mali this week to gather information for a recommendation to the Council, Feltman said. The security gains achieved by France and African nations would not be enough to save Mali, Feltman cautioned, without addressing the underlying political issues as well. A new Department of Political Affairs mission was recently opened in Bamako to do just that, Feltman informed journalists. Its political functions would then be taken forward by any Security Council-authorized peacekeeping mission.

A new DPA office is also to be opened soon in the capital of Somalia, underscoring a time of change for the country. Thanks to improving security Mogadishu is undergoing a boom in construction and a “renaissance of sorts,” according to Feltman, who visited the country last month. Challenges are still present, however, including the inability of the state to provide many of the most basic service and the fragility of the current stability.

Feltman saved his most dire words for the ongoing catastrophe that is Syria. Speaking on the second anniversary of the first protests against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, he was sanguine about the odds of containing the disaster, highlighting the danger of Lebanon being drawn into the conflict as well. Feltman praised the efforts of Joint UN-Arab League Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in lobbying for a peaceful outcome, pointing out that the UN is ready and willing to serve as a facilitator in dialogue between the Syrian government and rebel forces.

Asked whether in his view the ‘Arab Spring’ has been a blessing or a curse, Feltman admits that he had never considered the idea. Instead, he said that while the UN supported the spirit of the revolutions against the old order, whatever replaces it “may take years to crystallize.”