This past week, the Obama administration was once again questioned over the status of the US ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, as the reasoning behind keeping him there has become less tenable than ever. The Obama administration’s ever-shifting rationale, dubious to begin with, is now all but indefensible. In fact, by refusing to recall the ambassador, President Obama only continues to bestow legitimacy on the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
In late March, shortly after the uprising against Assad began, anonymous administration officials told the New York Times that Ford “has been quietly reaching out to Mr. Assad to urge him to stop firing on his people.”Ford’s task was not only an obvious failure, but even the description of it struck a dissonant note. The administration had been insisting that it needed an ambassador to send “tough messages” to Assad. “Quietly reaching out” in order to “urge” Assad gave the impression of feeble reticence rather than forceful outrage.That the message that Ford was delivering was hardly “tough” was evident in an interview he gave to Al-Arabiya in early May. Nothing in the substance of what Ford said could be characterized as “tough.” In fact, it was the embassy’s staff that was on the receiving end of the Syrian regime’s brand of “tough messages.”
In late April, the Wall Street Journal reported that an “American diplomat based in Damascus” was “hooded by Syrian security agents and ‘roughed up’ before being released.” The State Department reacted by “formally protesting” the incident to the Syrian ambassador to Washington.
But that aside, there are questions as to when was the last time that Ford actually met with high-ranking Syrian officials, let alone Assad (whom he reportedly only met once). In late April, Jacob Sullivan, head of Policy Planning at the State Department, told reporters that Ford had met with “senior Syrian officials” whose actual rank he could not specify, and it was unclear whether that was before one of the major assaults on the city of Daraa or afterward. Since then, Ford’s meetings seem to have been rather limited. The State Department’s spokesman, Mark Toner, has repeatedly told the press that Ford’s requests for meetings continue to be denied. In fact, a senior US official told the Washington correspondent for the Lebanese daily An-Nahar, Hisham Melhem, that the ambassador has not met with the Syrian Foreign Minister or his deputy “for some time,” and whatever meetings he’s had have been with “intermediaries.” As such, it’s difficult to make sense of Toner’s claim on Tuesday that having Ford in Damascus “sends a clear message” that the US is “going to continue to press the Assad regime to end its human rights abuses.”
That Ford hasn’t even been allowed to meet with Syrian officials has not been the only problem. The State Department also concedes that the ambassador’s movement is equally restricted, apparently confined to Damascus. This constraint calls into question the administration’s alternate argument that Ford’s continued presence is necessary in order to relay an accurate picture of what’s going on in Syria, given that international media is barred from entering the country. In addition, Ford and other officials have expressed reservations about relying solely on the videos streaming out of Syria by activists and dissidents.
However, at the time the Syrians “roughed up” the embassy’s diplomat, the State Department itself noted that such measures “have made it difficult for embassy personnel to adequately assess the current risks or the potential for continuing violence.” With all these constraints, one has to wonder what picture, exactly, the ambassador is relaying back to Washington.
Leaving aside why such a task requires an ambassador to begin with, there are more troubling questions surrounding Ford’s continued presence in Syria. Sources close to the Syrian opposition are claiming that the US ambassador has asked some dissidents (who, incidentally, are not even central players in the protest movement) what their conditions would be to lower the ceiling of demands to accept “reforms” rather than Assad’s toppling.
The administration’s argument for keeping an ambassador was always problematic, but if this story is true, then all of its claims about Ford's role are exposed as utterly hollow. This posture – the logical outcome of President Obama’s call on Assad to “lead the transition” – only legitimates the murderous Assad regime at a time when the US should be publicly declaring it illegitimate.
President Obama already lent American prestige to Assad when he decided to recess appoint Ambassador Ford. Awarding normal diplomatic relations with a superpower to a rogue regime is a legitimating act on its own. If the Obama administration is serious about ratcheting up the pressure against Assad, it should first state publicly that it is done dealing with the Syrian dictator, then follow that with a declaration that it is withdrawing the US ambassador from Damascus.