Last week U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford visited Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city. Demonstrations in Hama against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime have been growing for weeks amid larger protests that have gripped the country since March of this year.
Hama has a significant place in the modern history of the Middle East. It was there in February 1982 that the regime of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, crushed an antigovernment insurgency with artillery, tanks, and mass executions. As many as 30,000 civilians are believed to have been killed.
Ford’s visit to Hama, along with the French Ambassador Eric Chevallier, was clearly meant to signal solidarity with demonstrators exercising political speech, and to warn the regime against a repeat of the 1982 crackdown. A video showed that “protesters holding olive branches tossed roses onto the American ambassador’s car in Hama’s central Aasi Square.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that Ambassador Ford left Hama before the day’s protests got underway in order “not to become the story himself.”
Some in Syria, however, saw Ford’s visit as an unacceptable gesture in support of protesters. Yesterday, angry crowds attacked the U.S. embassy in Damascus, apparently in response to the ambassador’s trip to Hama.
“The Syrian attackers managed to penetrate several layers of embassy security by climbing a high fence that guards the fortress-like compound,” reported The Huffington Post. “Some managed to get onto the roof of a few of the embassy buildings and rip down embassy signs, replacing the American flag with a Syrian one.”
In response to the attack on the embassy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the first time voiced support for Assad’s removal. “President Assad is not indispensable and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power,” Clinton said following a meeting with her European Union counterpart, Catherine Ashton, in Washington. “Our goal is to see that the will of the Syrian people for a democratic transformation occurs.”
Many conservatives criticized President Obama’s December 2010 decision to recess-appoint Ford as envoy to Damascus in the face of Republican opposition. Five years ago, the George W. Bush administration recalled its ambassador in protest of the Syrians’ suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Some have continued to criticize President Obama’s decision to keep Ford in Syria rather than recall him, once again, in protest. “The Obama administration erred badly by sending an envoy,” former Bush administration Middle East advisor Elliott Abrams wrote when the Syrian uprising began in March. “We should pull our ambassador … and unveil a hard-hitting political and human rights campaign against a bloody regime whose people want it gone.”
Interestingly, Abrams himself recently recognized Ford’s visit to Hama as a “significant public move” against the Assad regime. But it was only possible because the Obama administration rightly ignored earlier calls to bring the ambassador home.
The time may very well come to recall Ambassador Ford. But his visit to Hama sent a subtle but clear message of solidarity to the protesters, and a warning to the Assad regime. It was an appropriate use of an important diplomatic tool. In tandem with other measures adopted by the United States and its partners, such as sanctions against Assad and other regime figures for human rights abuses, and Secretary Clinton’s recent comments, the pressure is steadily being increased on Assad.
The Syrian situation is a complicated one. The United States has limited leverage, and there are serious questions as to what would come after the end of the Assad dynasty. The administration has therefore been wise to resist the impulse to declare goals it cannot achieve, and to work with regional partners such as Turkey to determine what goals it can accomplish. The Assad government would love nothing more than to transform its current crisis of legitimacy from a Syria issue into a U.S.-Syria issue, and to present itself as protecting Syrian national interests from U.S. interference. The Obama administration should continue to deny him the ability to do that.
Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst and Director of Middle East Progress at American Progress.
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