WASHINGTON – Robert Ford told US senators at a confirmation hearing Tuesday on his nomination as the next US ambassador to Syria that the US would not relax sanctions on Damascus as long as the government continues to support Islamic militant groups.
Scrapping the sanctions is one of Syria’s top priorities, but Ford made clear such a move wasn’t currently in the cards, even as America reaches out to Damascus by returning an ambassador after a gap of five years.
“We will maintain sanctions on Syria as long as it supports terrorist groups like Hizbullah and Hamas,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He also argued that directly conveying America’s perspective to Syria was important to advancing US interests, and said, “Unfiltered straight talk with the Syrian government will be my mission priority.”
He then enumerated a number of issues he would be addressing with the Syrian regime upon confirmation, including its relations with Iran, Lebanese sovereignty and the importance of restarting peace talks with Israel. Indirect discussions were held under the auspices of Turkey until Syrian President Basher Assad called them off during the start of Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza last winter.
US Senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) suggested that talks with Syria could bear more fruit than the current stalled negotiations with the Palestinians.
“That avenue may offer more promise, at least initially here, than the relationships between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” he told Ford.
Ford himself pointed to significant progress during the Turkey-mediated process.
“My understanding is that the indirect discussions between Syria and Israel in 2008, conducted through Turkish mediation, made considerable headway,” he said.
He added that Israelis needed a clearer picture of
how committed Syria was to a different regional framework. Israel has insisted that the Syrians must break ties with Iran and Hizbullah as part of a move towards peace with the Jewish state – steps the US would like to see as well – but Syria has refused the demand.
“The Israelis want to carefully understand the Syrian commitment to what a peace agreement means, in terms of normal relations and Syria’s role in the broader regional stability question, and that is a fair question,” Ford said. “It is important therefore that we find a formula to get the Israelis and the Syrians back to these negotiations so that we can see how far the Syrian government is willing to go.”
The committee chairman, John Kerry, cautioned against raised expectations.
“All of us should be realistic about what engagement can accomplish,” he said at the beginning of the hearing. “A Syrian realignment won’t come quickly or easily.”
Critics of the return of an ambassador to Syria have argued that the move is a reward Syria doesn’t deserve, after showing little regard for American interests. A handful of senators have said they would oppose the nomination, but the appointment is expected to be approved.
Ford, a former US ambassador to Algeria and most recently the deputy chief of mission in Iraq, defended the approach of having an American envoy in the country.
“Returning an ambassador to Syria would not be a reward to Syria. Nor
would it mark a change in the fundamentals of our concerns with that
important country. Rather, it would mark a change in the way we try to
secure our national interests in Syria,” he argued. “Returning an
ambassador would mark a change in how we try to persuade, how we try to
The American ambassador was recalled in 2005
following the assassination of anti-Syrian Lebanese leader Rafik
Hariri, a crime widely believed to have been carried out at the behest
of Damascus. The assassination and UN investigation into its
perpetrators was not addressed at the hearing.