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Ambassador Ford Stands Up for Syrians

But do his words and deeds represent a policy shift?

Marc Tracy
July 15, 2011
Ford in Syria with a U.S. military officer in June.(Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)
Ford in Syria with a U.S. military officer in June.(Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

Exactly one week ago, U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford visited the Syrian city of Hama, which has been a stronghold of protest during the months-long uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime (which has in turn violently attempted to suppress the uprising). Ford’s courageous appearance prompted newfound bravery among the protesters and set in motion a chain of events that included Assad-backed Syrians’ storming the U.S. and French embassies and Secretary of State Clinton issuing the strongest statement against the Syrian regime of any high-ranking U.S. official. (The Obama administration’s position is still not clear: Mideast columnist Lee Smith, who was skeptical of appointing Ford—though not of Ford himself—has wondered whether Ford’s act was a harbinger.)

Most eloquently and inspiringly, Ford himself took to Facebook and published a fierce rant, in English and Arabic, noting “how ironic that the Syrian Government lets an anti-U.S. demonstration proceed freely while their security thugs beat down olive branch-carrying peaceful protesters elsewhere.” He declared, “Hama and the Syrian crisis is not about the U.S. at all. This is a crisis the Syrian people are in the process of solving. It is a crisis about dignity, human rights, and the rule of law.”

So, who is Robert Ford? An excellent Washington Post profile from earlier this week and an exclusive Foreign Policy phone interview yesterday by the tastefully named Marc Lynch help enlighten us. A modest Peace Corps vet who is married to a fellow diplomat, Ford emerged into prominence in the middle part of last decade when a group of respected State Department Arabists stepped in to try to manage the Iraq War after it had turned into a debacle. In January he was named the first U.S. envoy to Damascus since the previous one was recalled in early 2005, in response to the Syrian government’s suspected involvement in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister; because Ford’s was a recess appointment, it will expire at the end of the year without Senate approval.

To Lynch, Ford repeated that his mission is not about U.S. interests but those of the Syrian people. Alluding to the hopes, held for a long time by many, that Assad has the potential to be a reformer, Ford countered, “I have seen no evidence yet in terms of hard changes on ground that the Syrian government is willing to reform at anything like the speed demanded by the street protestors. If it doesn’t start moving with far greater alacrity, the street will wash them away.”

Most crucially, though, is to what extent Ford was acting on his own, as it were, and to what extent his actions represented the front-tip of new, more hard-line U.S. administration policy. Signs point to the latter. Lynch reports, “Ford’s sharp criticism of the Syrian government’s violence against peaceful protestors and detailed outline of multilateral and American diplomatic efforts to pressure the Syrian regime suggest that the recent U.S. rhetorical escalation does mark a new stage in the ongoing crisis.”

And Ford himself told Lynch, “I’m 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.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.