Home The Washington Diplomat October 2011

U.S. Envoy Becomes Unlikely American Voice in Damascus

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When U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford ventured to the restive city of Hama on July 7 and 8, he received a response that was unusual for American officials visiting the region in recent years. Ford's car, driving slowly through a cheering crowd, was pelted with flowers and olive branches. The ambassador was declaring his support, without benefit of security, for the anti-regime protests that had erupted throughout the country since March. Ford's presence infuriated President Bashar al-Assad's government but endeared him to embattled Syrians.

For Americans, unaccustomed to seeing their government showered with adoration by people in the Middle East, it was a strangely unfamiliar yet undeniably powerful moment. In addition to a stream of statements Ford has issued via Facebook castigating the Syrian government, the event has thrust the low-key career diplomat into the international limelight, transforming his posting into one of the most consequential for Americans grappling with the Arab Spring — especially in a nation such as Syria, where the U.S. government has few connections and little leverage beyond sanctions and rhetoric.

For now, Ford's handling of the Syrian unrest has muffled the debate over whether the United States should have an ambassador in Damascus. Hawks argue that such a move essentially rewards bad behavior, and prior to Ford's proactive diplomacy, they urged the Obama administration to recall its ambassador — much like President Bush did in 2005 after suspicions that Syria was behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Now, however, some of those critics have softened their tone.

"Certainly I would say he has risen above expectations," Robert Zarate, a policy advisor with the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neoconservative think tank, said of Ford's performance. "So long as he continues to be provocative and an effective public advocate for the Syrian people, we support him being there."

What Ford's tenure has not done is resolve the long-standing debate over whether the United States should maintain a diplomatic presence in hostile countries and, by extension, engage or isolate their governments. That remains one of the most hotly contested questions in international diplomacy, and it shows no signs of abating anytime soon.

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Credit: White House Photo by Pete Souza
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford meets with President Barack Obama at the Oval Office on Aug. 1, 2011. While other nations have pulled their ambassadors from Damascus in response to the Syrian government's crackdown on protesters, Obama has said Ford will stay in place.

On the one hand, critics of engagement say diplomatic recognition is a vital tool in bilateral relations that can grant legitimacy to authoritarian governments and thus should not be given away lightly. They also argue that dialogue with certain recalcitrant regimes has its limits and can easily backfire, making the U.S. appear weak. Supporters counter that engagement does not equal appeasement, and having eyes and ears on the ground in adversarial nations helps the United States better understand what it's up against, allowing it to communicate not only with the authorities but with political opponents, NGOs and human rights groups as well. Moreover, they say diplomatic isolation can actually reduce leverage — case in point, decades of U.S. sanctions against Syria, Iran, North Korea and Burma have failed to dislodge those regimes and left them dependent on other nations.

If anything, Ford's behavior in Syria, and the response it provoked, has sharpened this divide and illustrated the high-stakes game of official diplomatic recognition. It's also a reminder that ambassadors (as well as embassies themselves) remain powerful national symbols whose mere presence or absence sends unequivocal diplomatic messages — as evidenced by the Turkish government's recent recall of its envoy to Israel to vent its rage over the Gaza flotilla confrontation, for example, or the switch in allegiance at embassies around the world as nations began recognizing Libyan rebels over the diplomats loyal to Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

The irony is that if the Senate had had its way, Robert Ford would never have set foot inside Syria. "He's only there because President Obama issued a recess appointment," points out John Limbert, who served in the U.S. Foreign Service for 34 years. The U.S. government officially severed ties with Syria in 2005, and many Republicans had no desire to extend a hand to the Assad government. In May 2010, Senate Republicans blocked a unanimous consent motion to appoint Ford. However, President Obama, who campaigned on a policy of engagement with antagonistic regimes, appointed Ford to a temporary one-year posting in December 2010.

His appointment soon became an even greater lightening rod for controversy. Ford's credentials were never in doubt. He had previously served as ambassador to Algeria, deputy chief of mission in Bahrain, and political counselor and DCM during two stints in Baghdad. A senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq once said Ford was "regarded as one of the best Arabists in the State Department."

However, once the Syrian government began cracking down on protestors in mid-March, Republicans began calling for Obama to recall Ford. In May, 12 GOP senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging a stronger U.S. response to the violence. "Words must be backed by clear, firm actions," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. "We should now sever ties and recall the ambassador at once."

For its part, the Obama administration made clear it was sticking with its decision. "Having an ambassador in Syria has allowed us to be in Syria," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "I think that has been a useful avenue for us to pursue in terms of communicating our points of view."

Indeed, Ford gave the United States an unlikely voice in Syria when his duties moved beyond traditional dialogue with the government and became an exercise in boldness. Interestingly, after he and other foreign diplomats took a trip to a northern town in late June that was organized by the Syrian government, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) complained that Ford was being used by Assad for "propaganda purposes." All that changed, however, with Ford's visit to the flashpoint city of Hama in defiance of a security crackdown that had left hundreds dead. The trip signaled to the Syrian people — more than any formal declarations from Washington ever could — that the United States supported their aspirations for democracy.

One activist said he "felt protected" by Ford's presence because he believed the Syrian military wouldn't fire on crowds with Western officials in attendance, according to the Wall Street Journal. But President al-Assad was not amused and called the trip an attempt to foment dissent, promptly slapping new travel restrictions on Ford and other foreign diplomats (including the ambassador of France, who had accompanied Ford). Shortly afterward, government-backed mobs also caused significant damage when they attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus.

It was a critical turning point. Just days later, Secretary Clinton definitively declared that Assad had "lost legitimacy" after months of hedging over whether the president should go — assuaging critics who said the Obama administration wasn't going far enough to condemn the brutal crackdown.

In the meantime, Ford himself hasn't backed down — even after he was confronted by an angry pro-government mob in Damascus. He's flouted the Syrian government's travel restrictions and continued to question its ability to enact "the deep, genuine and credible reforms" demanded by opposition protesters. In a letter posted on the U.S. Embassy Facebook page, the main venue he's used to convey his messages, Ford voiced his support for what he called the "courage" shown by demonstrators and criticized the killing of unarmed civilians exercising their right to peaceful protest, placing the blame for the violence squarely on the government.

Ford has also used Facebook to communicate directly with Syrians, answering and even rebuffing critics, a rarity in diplomatic circles. For instance, after one posting warned that he would be killed if he continued to challenge the government, Ford wrote: "I take his post to be a perfectly good example of the kind of intolerance that has provoked such discontent in Syria. Remember that I am one of the few international observers here on the ground; if only the Syrian government would allow international media to move around the country freely like we did in Iraq!"

The verbose ambassador (who has continued to meet with Syrian officials, according to the State Department) also acknowledged that some Syrian security forces have died in the violence, although he added that no one in the international community accepts the government's rationale "that those security service members' deaths justify the daily killings, beatings, extrajudicial detentions, torture and harassment of unarmed civilian protesters."

According to news reports, Ford was not specifically directed by Clinton or Obama to act in such a pro-active manner. Rather, he was ordered to simply speak out as he saw fit. "He has been very gutsy and forward leaning," one State Department hand told CNN. "But it isn't being pushed by [the department]. It's his personality. He is a gutsy guy."

At least for now, Ford has managed to satisfy both those in favor of engagement and those who worry it encourages repressive governments. By coming out in support of the protestors, Ford demonstrated that maintaining a diplomatic presence doesn't mean sacrificing principles. "Certainly I think Ford's presence is looking differently now, now that he is out there visiting towns," said Zarate of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

However, Zarate still believes that the utility of keeping embassies open in unfriendly countries is questionable. "It is totally conditional," he said. "If an ambassador is just going to be there and support the status quo, then it's just unproductive to have him there." Engagement for engagement's sake is of little value, he argues.

Critics also point out that reaching out to hostile governments can condone their hostile actions. "If engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long-range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior," the 12 Republican senators wrote in their letter urging Ford's recall.

Yet others contend that removing embassies from countries whose policies we don't agree with yields few, if any, benefits. "Diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends," Secretary Clinton said in April. "And negotiating with your adversaries wasn't a disservice to people who had died, if by talking you could prevent more violence."

For his part, Ambassador Limbert — who most recently served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran and who was one of the diplomats held captive at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis — agrees that "there is no one-size-fits-all" policy for ambassadors. "Recalling ambassadors and closing embassies is one step of showing displeasure, certainly," he said. However, he leans in favor of engagement, because even if the United States "expresses disapproval doesn't mean it will get a response." Limbert points out that the United States did not have an ambassador in Damascus for quite some time, and the Syrian government did not moderate its behavior as a result.

Going without an embassy is a "handicap" that limits a country's options, precluding it from gathering critical, on-the-ground information about adversaries, Limbert says. "After a while the host country shrugs it off, and you're left without the representation you should have at that level."

But a representative like Ford can convey a forceful message from the inside, Limbert says, praising the ambassador's "quiet professionalism ... bravery, tact and creativity in finding ways to bear witness to the protests and massacres occurring in the country over the course of this year," he wrote recently in the New Republic.

Unsurprisingly, Ford himself is firmly on the pro-engagement side of the debate. In an August interview with Foreign Policy magazine, he said, "It's really important now to give Syrians an ear and to amplify their voices especially when the international media is barred from Syria." Ford said he doesn't know if the Syrian government will expel him but that he is "not going to stop the things I do. I can't. The president has issued very clear guidance. It's morally the right thing to do."

The Senate must still confirm Ford if he is to remain at his post after 2011. Ford made a second attempt at confirmation by appearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in August. But after the bruising debt-ceiling debacle, only one of the 18 committee members made it to the hearing before Congress adjourned for the summer recess.

In September, the same committee approved Ford. He still has to be confirmed by the entire Senate, though it appears he may have an easier time this time around. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who opposed Ford's confirmation last year, now says he supports it and is urging his colleagues to do the same. But an aide to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has said the senator "continues to stand by his concerns," suggesting the confirmation is far from assured.

In any case, for Limbert, what's most striking is not how unusual the case of Robert Ford is, but how common it is. "Ford is not isolated case," he pointed out. "He is a particularly dramatic one in a particularly sensitive area right now, but he is performing in the same way and with the same high level of quality that so many unsung American diplomats do."

The question remains whether keeping them in their embassies is always the best policy.


About the Author

Jordan Michael Smith is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.

Last Edited on June 18, 2014