The Administration’s Mixed Messages to Syria

Daniel Kettinger /

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is home following an informal and indefinite recall. The Obama Administration cited concern for Ford’s personal safety as the basis for this decision. A more likely explanation, however, is the failure of the Administration’s policy of “engagement” with Bashar al-Assad’s repressive autocratic regime. Assad’s unremitting violence caused the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership earlier this week, as the country continues its slide toward civil war.

The fact of the matter is, no U.S. ambassador should have been in Damascus in the first place—for the same reason the U.S. has no ambassador in Tehran, Havana, or Khartoum. Syria—like Iran, Cuba and Sudan—is considered by the U.S. government to be an official state sponsor of terrorism. Its moral and material support for Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas is unquestioned.

President George W. Bush formally recalled the U.S. ambassador to Syria in 2005 because of its suspected collusion in former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination.

President Obama reversed course in December 2010 in keeping with his campaign promise to meet with hostile foreign leaders without preconditions. Meanwhile, nothing of substance had changed in Syria. Like Iran, Syria is a brutal authoritarian regime; its ruling Baath Party embraces the same pan-Arab socialist agenda as Saddam Hussein. Like Iran, it wants a complete evacuation of U.S. military forces out of the Middle East and an end to any U.S. support for Israel. That is a tall order that the U.S. cannot countenance.

On this basis, any U.S. engagement with Syria without preconditions amounts to appeasement.

Ambassador Ford’s presence in Syria was self-contradictory and awkward from the start. This was exacerbated by Ford’s surprisingly frank and courageous criticism of Assad as well as his personal engagement on behalf of peaceful protesters being mauled by the regime’s security forces. Ford even personally met with grassroots opposition leaders and paid condolences to the family of a slain activist. These are unconventional things for an ambassador.

The Obama Administration formally called for Assad’s departure only after much hesitation during five months of bloody civil unrest. It showed far less forbearance for America’s former Egyptian ally, Hosni Mubarak, calling on him to give up power after mere weeks of protests.

This ambivalent approach does not make sense. It is also unconvincing.

Ford’s subversive actions against Assad’s regime are representative of what the U.S. should be doing on a wider, more official scale. Indeed, what he has done is exemplary. The point is that he should not be the one doing it—not as an ambassador. Otherwise, the messenger is undermining his own message. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R–FL) emphatically made this point prior to Ford’s Senate confirmation hearings last August. Recalling the U.S. ambassador from Damascus would demonstrate that the Administration is serious in saying Assad has lost the legitimacy to rule. It would also be symbolically significant to the opposition’s cause.

Assad never trusted Obama enough to take his policy of engagement seriously. For his part, Ambassador Ford himself wrote that no one in the opposition movement or the international community should trust Assad’s promises of change, either. The Syrian leader has neither the desire nor the ability to implement the profound reforms necessary for his country’s well-being.

It is time for the Obama Administration to permanently recall the ambassador and to follow his example of a clear, courageous, and principled opposition to this despotic regime threatening the security of its own people and the U.S. as well.

Daniel Kettinger is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: