America's Undiplomatic Diplomat in Syria
CNN "Security Clearance" blog
September 8th, 2011
Typically, U.S. ambassadors serving abroad consider insulting their host government a definite no-no.
Not the American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. Rather than working to strengthen the U.S. relationship with the government of Bashar al-Assad, Ford has been dubbed by some U.S. officials as the "ambassador of change."
Since the Syrian government began cracking down on anti-government protesters earlier this year, the U.S. ambassador to Damascus has traded diplomatic niceties for tough talk about the regime.
The regime sees him as an activist, working to knock it out of power - especially after Ford sparked a diplomatic firestorm in July when he traveled to the restive city of Hama to express support for demonstrators. He was welcomed with flowers by local residents who had suffered a brutal crackdown by government forces. Al-Assad's government called the trip an attempt to foment dissent.
Since then, Ford has continued to serve less as a traditional diplomat and more as a provocateur. On Tuesday he called into question the Syrian government's capability to enact "the deep, genuine and credible reforms" demanded by opposition protesters.
In a sharply-worded letter posted on the U.S. Embassy Facebook page this week, Ford voiced his support for what he called the "courage" shown by demonstrators and slammed the killings of unarmed civilians protesting peacefully, placing the blame for the violence squarely on the government.
"Given the extent of the government's brutality, neither the Syrian protest movement nor the international community will believe that this Syrian leadership desires or is capable of the deep, genuine and credible reforms that the Syrian people demand," Ford wrote.
Officials tell CNN that Ford has not been directed to speak so harshly in public by the State Department, but that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has given him the leeway to speak out as he sees fit.
"He has been very gutsy and forward leaning," one State Department colleague said. "But it isn't being pushed by (the department). It's his personality. He is a gutsy guy."
The Obama administration has faced criticism for not recalling Ford. The chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, has called for the United States to recall its ambassador as a signal that the Obama administration does not support the al-Assad government. But senior officials, including Clinton, have said he has an important role to play on the ground, including showing U.S. support for the opposition.
While the State Department insists publicly that Ford continues to meet with members of the Syrian government, privately, senior officials concede his interaction with senior members of the regime in recent weeks has been minimal at best. Considering that Washington has called publicly for al-Assad's ouster, these officials say there aren't too many reasons for regular meetings with the regime, except to protest the violence.
Instead, Ford has been increasing his outreach to the Syrian opposition and civil society groups. He is also on the lookout for members of the government who could be persuaded to abandon the regime.
"He's open to anyone that is willing to whisper in his ear," one senior U.S. official said.