U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford recently made news when he traveled to the Syrian city of Hama and joined anti-government demonstrators in a protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian activists welcomed Ford and thanked him for his display of solidarity. One Syria expert here in the U.S. called Ford’s move “impressive” and a “significant statement.”
But all this may not have happened if many Republicans had their way. GOPers such as Marco Rubio and Tim Pawlenty were calling on President Obama to recall Ambassador Ford in the wake of the government’s violent crackdown. And on top that, the U.S. would not have an envoy in Syria at all if the Republicans in the Senate got what they wanted. Last year, Senate GOPers refused to confirm Ford because they saw sending an ambassador to Syria as a “reward” for bad behavior.
Indeed, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney recently countered Republicans calling for Ford’s recall, saying his presence there is “useful.” And there’s at least one person who agrees with that: Robert Ford himself. Over at Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch writes than in an interview, Ford “dismissed” the idea that he has not been able to engage with Syrians:
Ford dismissed the idea that prior to Hama he had been a captive in his Embassy, unable to engage with anyone. Quite the contrary. He has had access to both the Syrian government and to key sectors of Syrian society such as the business community. The threat of violent retaliation and intimidation of Syrians who meet with American officials is real, though, and he acknowledged that some had refused invitations out of this fear. Senior administration officials have told me several times in other conversations that Ford’s conversations were one of their most important sources of information in assessing the Syrian scene. This is one key reason why they considered his presence essential even before his electrifying visit to Hama persuaded most of their critics of his value.
Ford also told Lynch he can expect more Hama-like visits across Syria. “He plans to take further trips around the country, to continue to meet with as many Syrians as he can, and to push to open political space and to restrain regime violence,” Lynch writes. And Ford doesn’t seem to want to back down. “I’m not going to stop the things I do,” he said. “I can’t. The President has issued very clear guidance. It’s morally the right thing to do.”
And Ford has high regard for those challenging Assad. “I’ve met enough of them, and believe me, they are a lot tougher than anyone in the Washington Post or the U.S. Senate. They know exactly what they are doing,” he said.
But it’s unclear how much longer Ford can be in Syria representing the United States. The Washington Post noted this week that unless the Senate officially approves his post, Ford will be forced to leave Syria at the end of the year. But that might require Senate Republicans to admit that perhaps they were wrong. It is possible, however. As Brookings Middle East expert Shadi Hamid tweeted yesterday, “I previously said Obama admin should recall the US ambassador in #Syria. I was wrong.”