If there were Foreign Service action figures (and budding toddler foreign policy wonks out there, you know you would want one of these), then the Robert Ford one might well be the hot toy for this holiday season. For the last six months, Ford, the US Ambassador to Syria, has brought increased attention to President Bashar al-Assad’s escalating campaign of violence against anti-regime demonstrators. The toll has become harder and harder to ignore; to date, at least 2,700 have been killed and more than 20,000 have been detained. But so have Ford’s actions, meeting with activists and documenting the unrest, all the while facing blowback (sometimes severe) from those loyal to the regime. Until recently, though, he had been serving on a one-year recess appointment. Now, in lieu of an action figure, Ford has gotten the next best thing: on Monday, he was finally confirmed by the Senate to serve a full term as the Ambassador in Damascus.
Ford’s actions certainly eased his road to Senate confirmation, but it is worth remembering that the idea of sending an Ambassador back to Syria was a contentious one only less than a year ago. The post had been vacant since 2005 after Washington withdrew its ambassador following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and some contended that filling the post again was a bad move. When President Obama appointed Ford to a recess appointment last December, incoming Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen argued that it sent the “wrong message” and that “making undeserved concessions to Syria tells the regime in Damascus that it can continue to pursue its dangerous agenda and not face any consequences from the US.” Rather than a sign of strength, an American ambassador there was seen as a sign of weakness.
Instead, though, Ford has shown the benefit of having an American diplomatic presence on the ground, especially at a time like this. And it has certainly unsettled regime loyalists in the process. Ford has been attacked by pro-regime hooligans with everything from rocks to tomatoes to eggs, accused by Syrian TV of leading anti-regime protests, and essentially threatened by the pro-regime Al Baath newspaper, which asserted just days ago that “as long as the ambassador believes that diplomacy is the art of instigation against national regimes, he should anticipate unpleasant treatment.” If they viewed Ford as being a concession, their actions indicate otherwise.
Through his use of social media, Ford is also generating discussion about the situation on the US Embassy Damascus Facebook page. Even more importantly, allowing broad viewpoints to be represented within this space has, in turn, drawn an even starker contrast between the free speech treasured in American society and the lack of it under the Assad regime. As Ford recently posted:
“Outside the Embassy demonstrators complained about U.S. policy towards the Syrian government and my trip to Hama. As I have said before, we respect the right of all Syrians – and people in all countries – to express their opinions freely and in a climate of mutual respect. We wish the Syrian government would do the same – and stop beating and shooting peaceful demonstrators.”