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Monday, October 24, 2011

US Ambassador Robert Ford leaves Syria (updated)

In June, I presented one argument to recall Syrian ambassador Robert Ford by Tony Badran:
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.

A few days ago, The New Republic gave the opposing argument:
Since the Syrian people began their uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Americans have been told repeatedly that there is little they can do about the situation. Experts in think tanks, universities, and the halls of U.S. government have been eager to remind us that the conditions in Syria—with its fractured opposition, brutal and loyal military forces, and fragile regional neighborhood—simply didn’t leave much room for Americans to make a difference.

But Robert Ford, our ambassador in Damascus, never seemed to accept this simplistic line of thinking. By bearing witness and speaking out relentlessly from inside the country, Ford has, at great personal risk, kept world attention focused on the crimes of the Syrian government. More so than either President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton, both of whom have been far too tepid in their public pronouncements, Ford has been an exemplary spokesman for liberal values and human rights.

Certainly Ford has not been shy about speaking out against the Assad regime in social media, but that is not the job of an ambassador. An ambassador is supposed to communicate US policy directly to the leaders of his or her host country, and Ford has been unable to meet with anyone important for months.

And the idea that Syrians love Ford may be a bit exaggerated as well:
US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was hit with eggs and tomatoes Friday while he was going to a mosque in the central al-Midan neighbourhood here, Xinhua reported.

The al-Midan neighborhood has witnessed anti-government protests over the past seven months.

Ford has visited many restive areas in Syria in a show of support to anti-government protesters. But the visits have angered many residents as well as the government.

On earlier occasions too, eggs and potatoes have been hurled at Ford.
Well, it looks like that may have been the last straw, as Al Arabiya is reporting:
The United States has pulled its ambassador out of Syria over security concerns that have arisen during a seven-month-old popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, Western diplomats said on Monday.

Robert Ford left Syria over the weekend, they told Reuters.

As many as 22 people were killed by the fire of security and military forces across Syria on Sunday, Al Arabiya reported on Monday citing the Syrian Local Coordination Committee, as Damascus welcomed to host national dialogue conference under the sponsorship of the Arab League.

The State Department only commented today about it, and made clear it was not for political reasons:

US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was brought back to Washington because of "credible threats against his personal safety in Syria," the State Department announced Monday.

"At this point, we can't say when he will return to Syria," deputy spokesperson Mark Toner said.

"It will depend on our assessment of Syrian regime-led incitement and the security situation on the ground."

By positioning this as a security concern rather than a strong protest against the Syrian regime, and by essentially burying this story, the White House has wasted another opportunity to convey a strong public message to Damascus. And as TNR noted:

Because he was named to his post via recess appointment, Ford will have to give up his ambassadorship if the Senate does not confirm him by December. The GOP line coming from senators like Marco Rubio and Tom Coburn is that we should punish the Assad regime by removing Ford from Damascus.
If this is Obama's plan on how to get Ford out of Damascus permanently - by citing "security concerns" and then relying on him not being confirmed by the end of the year - it is an example of passive-aggressive politics rather than leadership.

UPDATE: Syria pulled their ambassador as well
(h/t jzaik)