This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 26/01/2011
President Barack Obama’s bold decision to use the holiday recess to bypass congressional opposition and appoint a new U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has been widely misunderstood. In the United States, particularly on Capitol Hill, the administration has been severely criticized for this move. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chastised the administration for “making undeserved concessions” to the Syrians and sending them “the wrong message.”
In the Middle East, a vibrant debate is taking place about U.S. capitulation to Damascus, particularly as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon enters a heated period. Indeed, the chatter in Beirut is so loud that U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly had to issue a public statement emphasizing, “No step taken with Syria comes at Lebanon’s expense,” in the hopes of calming Lebanese fears that Ford’s appointment signaled Washington’s willingness to abandon them at a challenging time. This criticism and concern demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose served by a U.S. ambassador and why now is an appropriate time to dispatch Ford to Damascus.
Nearly six years ago, the U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many suspected that Syria was involved in – or at least had knowledge of – the assassination, and pulling the senior U.S. diplomat from the country sent a clear signal of American displeasure. For a few years following Hariri’s assassination (and, one should note, the killing of numerous other Lebanese political, military, and civil society leaders), most of the region’s governments, in addition to Washington and Paris, were united in isolating the Syrian regime.
This dynamic began to change in 2008 for a host of reasons, not least because Israeli and Syrian political leaders confirmed that Turkey had been conducting indirect peace talks on their behalf. This revelation devastated efforts to pressure Damascus. It became exceedingly difficult for countries in the region – and for many Lebanese – to speak critically about Syria’s destabilizing actions once the Israelis’ willingness to engage Syria became public. Further, this loss of regional support impeded Western efforts to sanction Syria. Since then, regional dynamics have quite clearly changed; the Syrian regime now regularly enjoys high-level visits from and consultations with many regional and European leaders.
Given the change from Syria’s previously isolated posture and, more importantly, the decision taken by the Obama administration to engage the Syrian regime, it is now critical to have a U.S. ambassador in-country. Even when the United States sought to isolate the regime, there was no shortage of individuals willing to fill the vacuum, posing real challenges to and undermining U.S. policy. From countless members of Congress to former U.S. government officials, the Syrian leadership managed to meet often with Americans, deeply undermining efforts to isolate Damascus. Since these many voices did not speak in unison, their visits enabled the Syrian regime to rave positively about its engagement with Americans while simultaneously ignoring any critical messages that were being sent.
Without an ambassador in Damascus, whose permanent appointment has been stymied by members of Congress for nearly a year, the U.S. is left with two options if it seeks to engage the Syrian government (whether or not it is prudent to do so is a different issue). It can use the Syrian ambassador in Washington, Imad Moustapha, as an interlocutor. But given Moustapha’s feckless reputation, his ability to appropriately convey messages from the U.S. to the Syrian regime is doubtful. Or, Washington can send a high-level envoy, such as the U.S. envoy, George Mitchell, or the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, each time it seeks to engage the Syrians. Doing so would not only be difficult given their busy agendas, but it would also regularly favor the regime with a high-level visit while inhibiting the U.S. ability to maintain a steady dialogue with Damascus. Clearly, neither option is appealing or beneficial for U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Having Ford in Damascus is not a reward to the Syrian regime. The Syrians in particular are in for a rude awakening if they expect that he will not continue to advocate for Syria to halt both its meddling in the region and its nefarious relationships with terrorist groups, among other issues. Instead, his presence will enable the United States to meet with regime members on a consistent basis, convey its desires and concerns with one voice, and perhaps most importantly, better assess the state of affairs in Syria. Such information will be crucial to any effort to prudently engage the Syrian regime.
As the Special Tribunal for Lebanon moves forward, the Obama administration will likely consider how to strike a balance between stability and justice in Lebanon. Garnering greater granularity on the Syrian regime’s thinking – to the extent possible – will be helpful at this critical moment in the Levant. On a separate note, the Obama administration’s efforts to reinvigorate the Israel-Syria peace track under Mitchell’s tutelage will benefit from having a consistent interlocutor in Damascus.
Syria continues to pose real challenges to U.S. interests in the Middle East that should in no way be underestimated. However, it is not possible to effectively engage the Syrian regime without senior diplomatic representation in Damascus.
Mara E. Karlin, a lecturer at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), served as the Pentagon’s Levant director. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.