The US and Assad

Ambassador Ford was dispatched to Damascus just as mayhem erupted throughout the Arab world, Syria included.

Robert Ford and Assad 390 (photo credit: REUTERS/Sana Sana)
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 umbrage.
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.
But 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.
Syria 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 ties.
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, Syria included.
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 reformer.”
“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 moderation.
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 with impunity.
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.