Robert Ford and Assad 390.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Sana Sana)
The US last week closed its embassy in Damascus and whisked Ambassador Robert
Stephen Ford, his staff and the diplomats’ families to safety. On the face of
it, this should have underscored the deepest American displeasure with Bashar
Assad’s slaughter of his own people.
It indeed would have, had an
American ambassador been resident in Damascus without interruption all along and
had the Syrian regime for most of that time given no cause for
Under such circumstances, the recall of the ambassador (and
entrusting the Polish diplomatic delegation in Damascus with responsibility for
emergency consular services for Americans) would have reverberated as a powerful
American rebuke, just short of severing all diplomatic contacts.
that’s not how it was. Assad’s dark side was long evident, while his country
remained on America’s “state sponsor of terrorism” list. The Bush administration
recalled its ambassador to Syria following the 2005 assassination of Lebanese
ex-premier Rafik Hariri.
A series of chargés d’affaires represented US
interests until, in January 2011, President Barack Obama could no longer abide
the downgraded relations with the Assad regime and appointed Ford to the vacated
post. This dubious policy of rapprochement was embraced despite substantially
deepened suspicions of Syrian complicity in Hariri’s assassination.
continued to flout UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and rearm Hezbollah to
the teeth. It continued to function as rogue Iran’s prime regional confederate.
Most of all, Syria hadn’t demonstrated obvious inclinations toward democracy
which might have justified rewarding it with upgraded diplomatic
Nonetheless, the Obama administration chose to conciliate an
autocrat who had demonstratively done nothing to deserve so much as the benefit
of Washington’s doubt. But the Obama goodwill gesture floundered right off. Ford
was dispatched to Damascus just as mayhem erupted throughout the Arab world,
Soon after Ford took up his appointment, Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton tried to fend off criticism by drawing a distinction
between Assad and Libya’s then still-embattled Muammar Gaddafi. Assad, she
insisted, is perceived by congressmen from both parties as “a
“What’s been happening there the last few weeks is deeply
concerning,” she admitted, “but there’s a difference between calling out
aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities,” as she
noted Gaddafi had done, and the Assad regime’s moves to quash resistance, which,
according to Clinton, amounted to “police actions that, frankly, have exceeded
the use of force that any of us would want to see.”
Thus, despite his
brutality, Assad was let off easy for nearly a year by the world’s sole
superpower, which had no business trusting him, much less hyping his bogus
This was exacerbated by subsequent flip-flops. Security
anxieties led to withdrawing Ford from Damascus last October but then sending
him back already in December.
Yet had fears for the American diplomat’s
well-being miraculously evaporated so quickly? Wasn’t it better to entirely
avoid the remotest impression of improvement in relations? Shouldn’t the message
have remained that Damascus’s dictator deserves diplomatic ostracism? Now, two
short months after its most recent policy reversal, Washington again recalls the
ambassador who shouldn’t have been assigned to Damascus in the first place. This
entire series of directionless zigzags proved an intense embarrassment, which
devalues the latest ambassadorial recall. It’s even less than much too little,
way too late.
Once Washington had no ambassadorial-level representation
in Damascus – and for exceedingly good reasons that hadn’t changed – it
shouldn’t have restored full relations without compelling rationale. To have
done so was to send Assad all the wrong signals and embolden him to shed blood
Moreover, it’s to this uninhibited tyrant that Israel was
pressured to cede strategic assets vital to its survival. Damascus’s
totalitarian ruler, whom America and the international community as a whole
misrepresented as an honorable interlocutor and peace partner, was nothing of
the sort. Yet this hadn’t prevented fellow democracies from demanding that
Israel risk its most existential interests to indulge Assad.
At the very
least, the gross mishandling of this episode should inspire profound second
thoughts in the White House.
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