Republicans blast Obama for posting new Syrian envoy

Decision to return envoy to Damascus indicates administration has not changed its engagement policy with Syria, Mideast expert says.

Obama serious 311 (photo credit: AP)
Obama serious 311
(photo credit: AP)
WASHINGTON ­ -- Republicans lashed out at the White House for making a recess appointment of Robert Ford as US ambassador to Syria Wednesday after efforts to have him confirmed by the Senate stalled.
Ford will be the first US ambassador to Syria since 2005, when the US ambassador then in place was recalled by the Bush administration following the assassination of the anti-Syrian Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri, widely suspected to have been done with the help of Damascus.
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"Using this Congressional recess to make an appointment that has far-reaching policy implications despite Congressional objections and concerns is regrettable," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), the incoming House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman.
"Making underserved 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," she said in a statement. "That is the wrong message to be sending to a regime which continues to harm and threaten US interests and those of such critical allies as Israel."
"Members of the House and Senate will be watching closely to make sure Ambassador Ford holds Syria's feet to the fire on a range of issues, from terror sponsorship to proliferation to Lebanon," said one aide to a GOP Senator.
He noted the Senate's traditional displeasure at recess appointments but added, "The appointment has been made and now it will be Congress's responsibility to hold the State Department accountable." US President Barack Obama tried to get Ford installed in Damascus earlier in the year, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in favor of the nomination after hearings in the spring. But Republicans balked at approving Ford's appointment because of the message it would send to Syria, and the full Senate hasn't moved on the nomination. With Congress out of session, Obama approved the appointment without confirmation, but it only lasts about a year through the end of the next session.
"Congress is not typically happy or pleased about recess appointments. It makes it very difficult for these people to be reconfirmed, so it's a one-year appointment," explained Syria expert David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
He said the decision to return an ambassador to Damascus showed that the Obama administration hadn't decided to change its engagement policy with Syria despite its role in transferring serious weaponry to Hizbullah and its unwillingness to comply with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency about its suspected nuclear site.
He added that the Obama administration was also eager to have an emissary in place before the UN tribunal handed down indictments in Hariri's murder, which are expected to be issued in the coming weeks against members of Hizbullah and could implicate Syria as well.
"They think this will help to calm or constrain Syrian behavior," Schenker said.
But he questioned how much the US had to gain from having an ambassador on the ground, given the intensive outreach from senior officials who have traveled to Damascus to communicate the American perspective.
"I'm not optimistic it will have any type of positive impact," Schenker said.
Others, however, were more hopeful about what could emerge from returning a US ambassador to Syria.
"Washington needs a high-level representative in Damascus, who will effectively represent America's interests vis-a-vis Syria with the objective of making Syria a more positive player in the region," said Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now in welcoming the move.
"Upgrading the US diplomatic mission to Syria is both in America's interest and in Israel¹s interest," he said.