Senate should confirm Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria

In order to successfully address the numerous challenges facing the U.S. in the Middle East, returning an ambassador to Syria is a necessity.

Having recently returned from Syria, the perception of the country in the U.S. is a far cry from the intentions of many living in Damascus and Aleppo, who are eager to improve relations with the global community and the U.S. in particular.

Ford is an experienced diplomat who has worked with difficult governments and political issues having served as Ambassador to Algeria and Deputy Chief of Mission in Iraq. He is no neophyte to challenging diplomatic posts.

However, a dozen Republican senators are opposed to returning an ambassador to Syria, arguing against working relations with a state labeled by the Bush Administration as part of the “axis of evil.” In a March 5 letter to the State Department, eight of the senators wrote, “the U.S. pays a price for lending even a modicum of international legitimacy to a regime like Syria’s.”  

But the price of not having an ambassador in Damascus is even higher. Even more, the posting of an ambassador is not simply “engagement for engagement’s sake”—it is specifically designed to advance U.S. national security objectives at a very critical time in the Middle East.

Since the U.S. ambassador was recalled in February 2005 following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the highest U.S. representation in Syria has been the charge d’affaires in Damascus. As the U.S. downgraded relations, the Syrians followed suit, ensuring that the charge d’affaires’ access to senior officials is limited. While the U.S. charge d’affaires cannot meet the Syrian foreign minister or president – unless accompanied by a visiting Special Envoy or Congressional delegations – Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have free access to the ears of President Basher Assad and his government. Without representation in Syria, in the battle of ideas and influence in Damascus, the United States is not even on the battlefield.  In this regard, returning an ambassador would not be a reward for Syria’s bad behavior, rather it would send a message to Damascus, as well as to Hezbollah and Iran that the U.S. is joining the fight. Doing so would also enable the U.S. to aggressively promote our interests in Damascus, including employing both rewarding and punitive measures.

As Ford indicated in his March 12 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “especially at a time when the Middle East confronts increasing regional tensions, we must be talking every day and every week with top-level officials who have influence and decision-making authority. They need to hear directly from us, not from the media or third-party intermediaries, what are our bottom lines and the potential costs to them – and to the region – of their miscalculations.”

The opposing Senators are correct that the Syrian government has been a troubling source of instability, particularly in its support of Hamas and Hezbollah. But regime change in Syria is not in the cards, and our interests in Iraq, Israel and Lebanon are too important for the U.S. to remain on the sidelines.

It would be a shame to tie one of our hands behind our back as we seek to advance U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly as we face growing concerns with the rearmament of Hezbollah and with the start of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But that is unfortunately the position the United States is in at the moment.

Since 2005, U.S. engagement with Syria has consisted of occasional messages passed through visitors such as Senator John Kerry, yet has lacked the kind of sustained and strategic approach that would be necessary to change Syria’s calculus in the region.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group recommends that in order to avoid a conflagration along Israel’s border with Lebanon and Syria, the United States should “initiate a high-level and sustained dialogue with Syria aimed at defining both a clear and credible pathway toward improved bilateral relations and a compelling regional role for Damascus in the aftermath of a peace agreement (with Israel).”

This is exactly what the appointment of Robert Ford as Ambassador in Damascus is designed to do. It is time to give him the chance.

Jim Walker is a member of the Executive Committee of Israel Policy Forum (IPF).