- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2011


The State Department this week rejected demands for the recall of Ambassador Robert Ford from Syria, coming from top members of Congress who claimed his presence in Damascus is being used for “propaganda” by the Syrian regime to deflect attention from its brutal crackdown on dissent.

Mr. Ford is “doing useful work in Damascus,” department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Monday, after the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee added her voice to the growing appeal for diplomatic action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Ms. Nuland defended Mr. Ford’s visit last week to a northern flashpoint town on a trip arranged and closely controlled by the Syrian government.

“We did think that his trip up north, even though it was organized by the Syrian government, allowed him to convey our messages,” she said.

“So we still see his role there as useful and helpful to our ability to have a stronger understanding of what’s going on inside Syria.”

On the visit to Jisr ash-Shughur, Mr. Ford and other foreign diplomats found the town deserted and devastated, Ms. Nuland said. Syrian troops seized the town on June 13, after Mr. Assad’s regime accused anti-government residents of massacring Syrian soldiers.

Mr. Assad’s army has killed about 1,400 people in his three-month assault on anti-government demonstrations, according to opposition leaders and human rights advocates.

On Tuesday, Ms. Nuland noted that Mr. Assad took a “move in the right direction” by allowing about 160 dissidents, including many former political prisoners, to hold a meeting on Monday to discuss the upheaval in Syria.

“Much more needs to be done,” she added. “We want to see an end of violence.”

Before Ms. Nuland defended Mr. Ford at the Monday press briefing, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the trip to Jisr ash-Shughur showed the Assad regime is using the ambassador for “propaganda purposes.”

“Ambassador Ford’s recent participation in a regime-organized tour of northern Syria provided legitimacy to a ploy aimed at covering up the regime’s violence against the Syrian people,” the Florida Republican said.

“It compromised U.S. credibility with freedom and pro-democracy advocates within Syria at a critical time.”

As chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen is one of the most influential members of Congress to demand the recall of Mr. Ford.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also have called on President Obama to pull Mr. Ford out of Damascus.

Mr. Rubio in April noted that the Senate had refused to confirm Mr. Ford and criticized Mr. Obama for appointing him during a congressional recess in December.

“As ill-advised as it was to restore diplomatic relations with Syria by sending an American ambassador to Damascus last year, we should now sever ties and recall the ambassador at once,” Mr. Rubio wrote in an article for Foreign Policy magazine.

Mr. Ford, a career diplomat, is the first ambassador to Syria since former President George W. Bush withdrew Ambassador Margaret Scobey in 2005 to protest suspected Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The Democrat-controlled Senate had refused to confirm Mr. Ford because many senators believed the restoration of full diplomatic relations would send the wrong signal to Mr. Assad.

The demand for Mr. Ford’s recall also appeared on the liberal Huffington Post website last week in an article by Richard Grenell, who described himself as the longest-serving U.S. spokesman at the United Nations.

He compared Mr. Ford’s “silence” since arriving in Damascus in January to his promise of “unfiltered straight talk” with the Assad regime, during a confirmation hearing last year before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Ford’s stiff upper lip seems exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State [Hillary Rodham] Clinton want,” Mr. Grenell wrote.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or email jmorrison@washingtontimes.com. The column is published on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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