The American decision to withdraw Ambassador Robert Stephen Ford from Syria should raise eyebrows, not only because it represents a fundamental fear for his safety, but also because of what he has come to represent.
Through Ford’s courageous use of personal diplomacy, travelling to the most dangerous areas of Syria to show support for the protestors, he has carved out a niche for himself in the region, defying stereotypes about what diplomats can and should do. On the face of it the ambassador’s position and biography don’t necessarily lend themselves to this type of action. A career diplomat , Mr. Ford, born in Denver, Colorado in 1958, is considered one of the foremost Arabists in the State Department.
He served in the Peace Corps and obtained a BA and MA from Johns Hopkins University before entering the US foreign service in 1985. Since 1985 he has been posted throughout the Middle East, most notably in Iraq after the American invasion and in Algeria from 2006 to 2008. His posting to Syria in late 2010 was considered important because the US had withdrawn its ambassador to Syria in 2005 after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister.
Ford’s work in Syria has almost all taken place against the backdrop of the “Arab Spring.” During his confirmation hearings with the US Senate, before being posted to Damascus, Ford had promised that “unfiltered straight talk with the Syrian government will be my mission priority.” It is interesting that through June of 2011 he was in fact criticized for doing little to show support for the protestors that Bashar Assad’s regime was gunning down in the streets. Richard Grenell, writing at the Huffingtonpost.com, asked, “Shouldn’t Ford be calling attention to and showing the violence coming from Assad’s government?” He also thought the US should withdraw its ambassador to protest the crackdown.
In early July, however, Ford made an important and visible statement against the actions of the Syrian regime when he visited Hama with the French ambassador, Eric Chevallier. After his factfinding trip, which brought temporary respite to the besieged protestors in the city, he told media that “the violence that the Syrian government is inflicting on Syrian protesters, from our point of view, is grotesque. It’s abhorrent.” He also articulated a new type of “muscular” diplomacy: “I don’t particularly care [if Syria is angry], because we have to show our solidarity with peaceful protesters. I’d do it again tomorrow if I had to… I’m going keep moving around the country. I can’t stop.”
Since July, Ford has been active in articulating opposition to the Syrian regime’s methods and showing support for those who oppose Assad. In September he travelled to meet with Hasan Abdel-Azim, an opposition figure. Pro-Assad protestors surrounded the ambassador’s vehicle, pelted him with tomatoes and eggs and temporarily interdicted his motorcade. Stephen Ford is not the first US diplomat to find himself in harm’s way. One hundred and eleven US diplomats have been murdered or come to a bad end since 1780. Many died in Pakistan as a result of terrorism and most were not of ambassadorial rank.
One of the most famous cases of an American diplomat being murdered while at his post was that of Vice-Consul Robert Imbrie. Imbrie was beaten to death by a mob in Teheran in 1924 after being mistaken for a member of the Bahai faith. Local Islamists had whipped themselves into a rage, convinced that Bahais had poisoned a well .
Cleo Noel, US ambassador to the Sudan, was killed by Palestinian members of Black September in 1973. The US ambassador to Beirut, Frances Meloy, was murdered in 1977. Adolph Dubs, the US ambassador to Afghanistan was killed in 1979 when terrorists tried to kidnap him. Ford’s departure from Syria is apparently based on credible intelligence that certain elements wanted him to meet a similar end.
The kind of blunt, heroic diplomacy that Ford has come to represent is a departure from the long-standing practice of US State Department functionaries, especially those considered Arabists, of toeing the line when it comes to dictators and human rights abuses.
Especially in the Middle East, US diplomats have been stricken with what is often termed “clientitis”; staying in a country too long and becoming too attached to it, rather than representing US interests. US ambassadors in Saudi Arabia have been loathe to condemn killings in the Qatif region, in the Gulf states the US representatives do little to speak out on the mass human rights abuses, which amount to slavery, against foreign workers.
In Iraq, where it has just been announced that Iran and Turkey are both cooperating to suppress the Kurds, including incursions into Iraq, the US has remained silent. There is obviously a question as to what constitutes going beyond the diplomatic mission’s purview, such as meeting with illegal opposition figures. But Mr. Ford’s personal investigation of abuses and his shows of support for protestors is a welcome sign, one that the US State Department might consider repeating in the future.
The writer received his PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute of Market Studies.