This morning I attended a hearing on the Hill to confirm the nomination of the new Ambassador to Syria, Ambassador Robert Ford. This will be our first Ambassador to Damascus in five years, (when in 2005 diplomatic relations became strained following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister), and Ambassador Ford seems perfect for the job. He served as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) to Bahrain, head of the Political Section in Iraq, Ambassador to Algeria, and he is currently DCM in Baghdad. In addition to his experience in the Middle East, he also speaks Arabic and Turkish and seems well versed on the issues facing this troubled region.
The hearing began with a short statement by Chairman Kerry. He started out by bringing up some of the regional issues that Syria has a hand in, including: the flow of fighters into Iraq, the transportation of weapons, the support for terrorist organizations, and the failure to cooperate with the IAEA. And he brought up the importance of negotiations with Israel over the Golan and the need to protect Lebanese sovereignty. But most importantly, he stressed the need for engagement and diplomacy to show Syria the benefits of modifying its behavior. He stated,”…If we do succeed, it could be transformative in galvanizing the Arab-Israeli peace process and dramatically improving the situation for our friends in Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and the West Bank. In short, this presents us with an opportunity to change the strategic landscape in the Middle East that we cannot afford to ignore.”
Ranking Member Dick Lugar followed Senator Kerry and seemed more skeptical and cautious about the process. He spent most of his time criticizing Syrian policy, but ended by stating that, “Given these factors, we should temper expectations about what can be achieved diplomatically with the Syrians in the short term. Nevertheless, declining to post Ambassadors to countries, though sometimes necessary, rarely serves U.S. interests for long.” You can read his statement here.
Ambassador Ford finally had his chance to speak and he laid out four priorities in dealing with Damascus. The first priority is getting Syria more involved in stabilizing Iraq. He believes that it is in Syria’s best interest to have a stable Iraq, and to stop the flow of foreign fighters. He does not believe that Syria’s interest align with Iran’s. Second, he argues that Syria must respect the sovereignty of its neighbors, particularly Lebanon, which includes curtailing its support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. Third, he would like to get Syria to cooperate with regional and international actors. This means moving forward with negotiations over the Golan, supporting peace between Israel and Palestine, and cooperating with the IAEA investigation of the nuclear site at al-Kibar. And the last priority is respecting human rights. Ambassador Ford acknowledged that the path may not always be easy or smooth, but he emphasized that we must be firm and patient.
The last part of the hearing was the question and answer section. Nothing new or exciting came up, just a general explanation and reaffirmation of the Ambassador’s priorities.
In the end, it seems like the Obama administration is making an effort to improve its standing in the Middle East. By sending an Ambassador to Syria we are opening up new possibilities for dialogue and sending the message to other actors that diplomacy works and negotiations are possible, if you are willing to cooperate. Whether our relationship with Syria will improve is unclear at this point, but our intentions are clear and our message has been sent.