So Much for 'Engagement': Syrian Regime Freezes Out U.S. Envoy

By Patrick Goodenough | June 13, 2011 | 4:37 AM EDT

A Syrian refugee child in a new tent compound in Boynuyogun, near Turkey's border with Syria, on Sunday, June 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Selcan Hacaoglu)

(Update: State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday he believed the last time Ambassador Ford had been able to meet with Syrian officials was “in late May.” Toner said the ambassador continued to report back to Washington on the situation in Syria – an important undertaking given the lack of media access – but also conceded that “our own perspective is somewhat limited due to restrictions on travel.”)

( – Five months after the Obama administration sent a new envoy to Damascus, Ambassador Robert Ford’s lack of access to Syrian leaders shows the limitations of Obama’s policy of seeking to engage hostile regimes.

For the past couple of weeks, attempts by Ford to meet with government officials to discuss the deepening political crisis have been blocked, according to the State Department.

“He continues to request meetings with the Syrian government, and those continue to be denied,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Friday.

Three days earlier, Toner told a briefing that the situation had not changed since the previous week.

“He’s had requests in to meet with the Syrian government … and those requests have been deferred, denied – I don’t know how you want to put it,” he said. “He had not been granted access, I believe, as of last week.”

President Obama appointed Ford during a congressional recess last December, after the nomination early in the year met with strong opposition in the Senate. Some Republicans argued that sending an ambassador would amount to rewarding Assad for bad behavior.

The ambassador’s post had been vacant since President Bush withdrew the U.S. envoy after the Feb. 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, killed in a suicide truck bombing in which Syria was implicated.

Following the recess appointment Ford took up his post in mid-January, just weeks before anti-Assad protests began. In the middle of March the government began to crack down on the dissent, triggering a crisis that worsened significantly over the ensuing weeks and months.

As the repression worsened, calls for Obama to withdraw Ford came from several Republicans, among them Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former Minnesota governor and presidential hopeful, Tim Pawlenty, as well as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.)

Engagement advocates dismissed the calls, and the administration defended the decision to keep Ford in place, with State Department director of policy planning Jake Sullivan saying in late April that the ambassador was “engaging with senior Syrian officials on a fairly regular basis.”

During a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing last month, State Department official Michael Posner was asked about Ford remaining on post. He justified his continuing presence there on the basis of the need to deal both with the government and with the opposition and ordinary citizens.

“Ambassador Ford has been, for us, a vehicle, an individual who can reach out both to the Syrian government at the highest level but also to reach out to people on the receiving end of this violence,” he said.

Posner, who is assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, elaborated on the latter role – reaching out to the opposition – but had little to add regarding any dealings with the regime, at the “highest” or any other level.

In situations of repression, he said, “people want to know that governments like the United States are there, meeting with them, aware of what they are facing and trying to help them in a day-to-day way. Ambassador Ford, that’s what he’s doing every day. He’s spending long hours helping families, meeting with victims, meeting with human rights advocates, meeting with journalists, trying to mitigate what is a terrible situation.”

“It’s right for us to have a presence there,” Posner continued. “It’s right for us to have a senior diplomat whose role it is really to be our advocate-in-chief, in Damascus and in Syria, fighting for the very principles of human rights that you and I are talking about.”

On June 1, Toner confirmed that Ford had met with “his Syrian interlocutors” the previous day, although he was unable to indicate at what level the meeting was held.

“That’s one of the reasons he’s there in Damascus and remains there, in order to go and engage with them to express our concerns,” he said.

Since then, the State Department has confirmed that Ford’s attempts to engage with the government are being stymied. Contacts with the opposition are continuing, however.

Asked last week how useful diplomatic pressure was if the ambassador was not even able to meet with Syrian officials, Toner said Ford’s presence in Damascus went beyond “conversations, or delivering … our message to the Syrian government.”

“It also includes outreach to the Syrian opposition, to Syrian activists, to the human rights community.”

Toner also suggested that the reason Ford was being denied meetings was because U.S. actions including sanctions were beginning to “bite.”

The administration on May 18 announced sanctions – an asset freeze and a ban on business dealings with U.S. citizens or companies – against senior Syrian officials including, for the first time, Assad himself. Earlier, sanctions were limited to three other regime officials as well as two security organizations, one Syrian and one Iranian.

Troubled resolution

In its strongest-worded response yet to the ongoing violence, the White House in a statement Friday called for “an immediate end to the brutality and violence.”

“We stand by the Syrian people who have shown their courage in demanding dignity and the transition to democracy that they deserve,” it said, but stopped short of questioning Assad’s legitimacy or urging him to step down.

The statement reiterated U.S. support for a U.N. Security Council resolution, currently being discussed, condemning the Syrian government’s actions.

Russia has repeatedly made clear that it will not support any resolution against its Syrian ally, even though the draft circulated last week by European member-states is described as relatively mild.

Several non-permanent council members, including Lebanon, South Africa and Brazil, have also expressed reservations. Passage of a resolution requires at least nine votes in the 15-member council, as well as no veto from a permanent member.

U.N. diplomats said neither Russia nor fellow permanent member China attended a meeting called by the resolution’s European drafters on Saturday to discuss the matter.

At a reception in the Russian Embassy in Damascus on Monday, marking Russia Day, Russian ambassador Sergei Kirpichenko reaffirmed Moscow’s support for Syria, based on principles of self-determination, sovereignty and “non-interference in states’ internal affairs,” Syria’s official SANA news agency reported.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow