I was wrong. I was one of those who criticized the Obama administration for returning a US ambassador to Syria after a five-year absence without getting any clear pro-quid-pro from Bashar Assad. It would be interpreted as a sign of weakness by the Syrians as well as Assad's Iranian allies, I wrote at the time.
Republican opposition in the Senate ran so strong that the President made a recess appointment late last year and dispatched Robert Ford to Damascus as the acting ambassador. Supporters of the move pointed out that without an ambassador the Syrians had cut off direct American access to Assad and his senior officials, and Damascus' man in Washington was unreliable and useless at best.
Talking to Amb. Imad Moustapha is a "waste of time," said a source who has met with him repeatedly. "You can't rely on him to deliver any messages, especially if he thinks it is something they don't want to hear back in Damascus."
Amb. Ford, it turns out, was not afraid to tell Assad things he didn't want to hear. He got the access Washington wanted, even if it was so both sides could yell at each other, the source said. He has traveled to hotspots like Hama to give support and encouragement to the demonstrators, been unafraid to embarrass the regime, which has sent its thugs to attack him and the U.S. Embassy.
Ford's year in Damascus has won over his critics and on Monday the Senate unanimously confirmed his appointment.
"It didn't take much to win the Senate's approval. All Ford had to do was get attacked by pro-regime thugs while attending a meeting of Syrian lawyers, attend a funeral of a Syrian activist right before it was attacked by Syrian government forces, and get his car pelted with eggs, tomatoes, concrete blocks, and iron bars as he was chased by a violent mob after visiting a Syrian politician," reported Josh Rogin in The Cable.
Instead of conferring legitimacy on Assad's regime, Ford has exposed its brutality and put the United States at the forefront of those pressing for an end to the violence and calling for Assad to step down. With foreign media banned from entering Syria, Amb. Ford has "shed important light on the brutality and helped us better understand the emerging opposition," Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said.
In his most recent Facebook posting, Ford described the latest attack on him:
"Protesters threw concrete blocks at the windows and hit the cars with iron bars. One person jumped on the hood of the car, tried to kick in the windshield and then jumped on the roof. Another person held the roof railing and tried to break the car's side window. When the embassy car moved through the crowd, the man fell off the car. Americans understand that we are seeing the ugly side of the Syrian regime which uses brutal force, repression and intimidation to stay in power."
The Al Baath newspaper, a mouthpiece of the Syrian regime, warned Ford earlier this week "If you want to avoid rotten eggs" and more “unpleasant treatment,” the U.S. should shut up and stop meddling in Syrian affairs.
But Assad is not without friends. Russia and China this week vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution backed by the US and the Europeans condemning Syria for its brutal crackdown on protesters. An angry American Amb. Susan E. Rice walked out of the Security Council meeting in protest when the Syrian ambassador accused the United States of being a "party to genocide" through its support of Israel, the Washington Post reported. The British envoy joined her exit.
Russia and China have been Assad's primary enablers, giving diplomatic protection to his killing machine and being his principle arms suppliers. It's understandable; the last thing either of those autocratic governments wants to see is a home-grown freedom movement, and neither has demonstrated a reluctance to brutally crack down on dissenters.