The Dangerous Art of Diplomacy

The Water-wheels in Hama, Syria

The foreign service usually seems like a somewhat safer place than the military. But U.S. pilots flying NATO missions in Libya might be safer than Ambassador Robert Ford in Syria at the moment. Last Thursday, he and his French counterpart, Eric Chevallier, made a symbolic visit to Hama, site of the infamous 1982 Syrian massacre, and recent target of a crackdown by the Syrian government. They stayed into Friday, traditionally the most active day for protests. Demonstrators greeted them with smiles and roses, and they spent the day shaking hands and visiting hospitals in an expression of solidarity with the Syrian uprising.

The Syrian government was furious, and used the visit as fuel for their claim that the nationwide protests are orchestrated by Western powers. And on Monday, both embassies were attacked by violent pro-government protesters (who had curiously managed to evade the Syrian government’s otherwise tight security in Damascus). The protesters scaled the wall of the American embassy, draped it with a huge Syrian flag, and proclaimed Ambassador Ford a “dog.” I guess maybe they didn’t know that canine epithets don’t carry the dire connotations in English that they do in Arabic. Still, it had to have been somewhat unnerving for Mr. Ford, whose house they proceeded to attack next.

But Ambassador Ford is no stranger to danger. He served as the Political Advisor to the Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006, and then as Ambassador to Algeria. The United States has had no Ambassador to Syria since the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. President Obama nominated Ford as Ambassador to Syria last February, but the Senate failed to act on the nomination. So Mr. Obama used a recess appointment to put Ford in Syria in December, when the Arab spring was just a handful of protesters in a few dusty Tunisian towns. In hindsight, the President seems to have almost clairvoyantly sensed how crucial it would be for us to have an ambassador in Syria during this delicate and historic time. And the fearless Mr. Ford definitely seems to be the right man for the job.

Going back to what happened yesterday, the protesters were eventually driven off from both the Embassy and the ambassadorial residence by American marines. During a similar attack on the French Embassy, security guards resorted to tear gas and firing live ammunition into the air. Syrian government security, of course, made itself noticeably scarce during both attacks.

There’s been a lot of talk in the Arab world about a double standard on the part of the West when it comes to dealing with Middle Eastern dictators. After all, the Qaddafi regime has killed far fewer civilians than the Assad regime. But a multitude of factors make NATO/American military intervention in Syria (even if it were truly desirable) simply impractical. Ba’athist Syria is much larger, better armed, less politically isolated, and more geographically problematic than Qaddafi’s Libya. So caustic foreign ministry speeches, asset freezing, sanctions, and sending the ambassador into the midst of the fray are about as good as it’s going to get. Hopefully it’s good enough to let the Syrian people know that we are firmly on their side. I still believe that they have what it takes, and will be able to topple this government by themselves, just like the people of Tunisia and Egypt.

In the meantime, whether Ambassador Ford’s visit was his own idea or suggested to him by superiors, I think he is incredibly courageous. And when he visited the people of Hama, he was representing not only President Obama, but all of us in America who support the Syrian quest for freedom and wish we could be there too.

I, at least, would like to say thank you Mr. Ambassador, for your bravery in the line of duty, and for your truly-lived commitment to the democratic beliefs and aspirations we share with the people of Syria.

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