Syria delighted with new US envoy By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - United States President Barack Obama's decision to name Robert Ford
as the new ambassador to Syria to fill a post that has been vacant since 2005
has been warmly received by the Syrians.
Although his appointment still needs senate approval, Ford is considered a
strong Arabist at the State Department, having previously represented his
government in Algeria in 2006-2008 and more recently in Iraq.
Once he arrives in Damascus, probably by mid-2010, the Johns Hopkins-educated
diplomat will have a multitude of issues piled on his desk, all related to
improving bilateral relations between his country and Syria. The Syrians want
to return to the pre-January
20, 2001, relations with Washington; the day before George W Bush was sworn in
as the 43rd president of the United States. This means engagement on critical
issues related to the Middle East, serious efforts to restore the Golan Heights
to Syria, no sanctions, and no media campaign against Damascus.
One thing that will make Ford's mission to Syria somewhat easier is that unlike
Bush, Obama is no longer interested in severing Syria's relations with
Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and Iran. On the contrary, he sees
them as a blessing in disguise, given Syria's heavyweight influence with these
groups, meaning that it can, when the need arises, influence their behavior.
That has already been evident on a number of occasions: when Damascus secured
the release of a French national under arrest in Iran last summer; and when it
talked Hamas into accepting the Arab peace initiative and allow US mediation in
the Palestinian-Israeli peace process once the siege on Gaza is lifted. Syrian
cooperation in the provincial elections of 2009 led to an impressive turnout
for Iraqi Sunni voters, even in the hotbed of the Sunni insurgency, and
Washington hopes for similar engagement during the elections next March.
Many expect Ford to jumpstart Syrian-Israeli peace talks, though this seems
increasingly unlikely from a Syrian perspective due to the hardline policies of
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the war rhetoric that has been
fired back and forth between top Syrian and Israeli officials over the past
Syrian-Israeli peace talks are not impossible, however, if Ford channels all
the right messages and Obama manages to pull the right strings with Netanyahu
by applying needed pressure for him to accept Turkish mediation and return to
talks, either directly or indirectly, with the Syrians. The Syrians have been
saying that peace is close to impossible with this current Israeli government,
but if any breakthrough were to emerge, it would need to be a collective Arab
one, under the auspices of the US and the international community.
A history of rights and wrongs in Syria Robert Ford will be the 16th US
ambassador to Syria since diplomatic relations were exchanged in 1942. His
immediate predecessor Margaret Scobey went to Damascus in December 2003 but had
her tenure terminated by the Bush White House in 2005, right after the
assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.
If he were to dig into the archives of the US Embassy and the Department of
State, he would find piles of documents dating to the 1940s that undoubtedly
would help him better understand the country and its inhabitants, where his
country went wrong, and where it succeeded in moving bilateral relations
One notable US diplomat who served in Syria was the first envoy, George
Wadsworth, from New York, who supported the Syrians when they achieved
independence from the French in 1946, lobbying with his government to back
Syrian claims for independence or face the danger of transforming Syria into a
"vehicle for Nazi penetration". Like Wadsworth, Ford knows the region well,
speaks the language and understands Arab grievances vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli
Wadsworth was brilliant at hearing out Syrian worries, not only dictating
American concerns, a trait shared by some of his notable successors. These
included Richard Murphy (1974-1978), Edward Djerejian (1988-1991) and
Christopher (1991-1998). These men are still remembered with fond words by
Syrian officials and the public alike, and today all of them are still welcome
They oversaw Syrian-US relations during the difficult Lebanese civil war, the
1991 Gulf War, the Madrid peace process and all peace talks throughout the
1990s. During this time they developed a sincere affection for the country,
along with respect for its leadership and citizens, and this was clearly
reciprocated by both the Syrian government and the public alike.
Ford should read well into the careers of two diplomats in particular to learn
from their mistakes - James Keeley (1947-1950) and James S Moose (1952-1957),
under whom relations hit rock bottom.
Keeley famously meddled in Syria’s domestic affairs, telling politicians what
to do and not to do, supporting a military coup that led to the toppling of
Syria's democratic and civilian government for the sake of passing American oil
pipelines from Saudi Arabia through Syrian territory and signing an armistice
agreement with Israel.
Moose did a poor job; when trying to curb communist influence in Syria he went
along with a plan to topple the Syrian government, which led to the expulsion
of three US diplomats from the embassy in Damascus in the summer of 1957. That
in turn led to the withdrawal of the Syrian ambassador to the US, Farid Zayn
Under Moose, a scenario took place that was very similar to the one of
2005-2008. Fearing the rise of communist influence in Syria and given the fact
that both the British and French embassies were already closed (due to the Suez
War of 1956), the US began to support ambitious officers in the Syrian army,
encouraging them to seize power by force. When that failed, although the
Central Intelligence Agency's top man Kermit Roosevelt was in charge of what
came to be known as the Stone Affair (named after the US diplomat Howard
Stone), the US accused Syria of supporting terrorist acts in Lebanon, which was
strongly denied by Damascus.
A series of explosions rocked Beirut and the US accused Syria of all the mayhem
in its tiny neighbor. It began encouraging neighboring states into meddling in
Syrian domestics, under Article 51 of the United Nations charter: self-defense.
Under the Dwight Eisenhower administration the two countries verged on war. The
Sixth Fleet was brought to the Mediterranean, Turkish troops were amassed on
the border with Syria and two Russian warships, the cruiser Zhdanov and
destroyer Svobodny, were brought into the port of Latakia to serve as a
deterrent to the US Army. During this time, because of US policies, then-Syrian
president Shukri al-Quwatli - for the first time ever in bilateral relations -
described the US as an "enemy".
In reading of that difficult period of Syrian-US relations, ambassador Ford
will realize that, generally, success for any US ambassador depends on two
things. One is the amount of engagement over the occupied Golan Heights, which
was, and remains, the highest priority for Syria. Another is the degree of
respect shown towards the host country, its people, systems and national
The fact that Ford represents a president who wants to engage with Damascus and
use Syria's influence to help solve issues in the region will certainly help
Ford. Although Ford will surely be well briefed and given plenty of
instructions by his superiors at the State Department, it would be wise for him
to read the papers and memos of men like Murphy, Djerejian and Ross, and follow
in their footsteps, given that they are still around to give professional and
friendly advice and tell their stories of how it was on the road between
Damascus and Washington in their times.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine and an author of the
forthcoming book The Damascus Tea Party: Syrian-US Relations 1919-1959.