U.S. envoy given hero’s welcome by Syrian protesters in Hama

Laura Rozen
The Envoy

Even before anti-government unrest erupted in Syria this March, neoconservative critics had long chided the Obama administration for appointing an envoy to the repressive Syria regime. Such detractors had derided the idea of diplomatic engagement with Damascus as an undeserved reward for the Bashar al-Assad regime. Assad's government has provided weapons to Lebanon's Hezbollah, maintains a close alliance with Tehran, and has failed to take sufficient measures to halt insurgents crossing its border into Iraq, critics charged--all reasons the United States should deny it the honor of a full-fledged ambassador.

Officials with the Obama administration have countered that diplomatic engagement with America's adversaries is hardly a reward. Instead, they argue that diplomacy is a key tool to advance America's national interests and values.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it at a Berlin memorial service for the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke in April: "Diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends," Clinton said. "And negotiating with your adversaries wasn't a disservice to people who had died, if by talking you could prevent more violence."

So it's likely that senior White House hands were gratified to see the hero's welcome that anti-government protesters granted to U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford in the Syrian city of Hama today. You can see the remarkable display in the video below posted by a Syrian blogger to YouTube.

In a similar vein, Syrian pro-democracy activists took to Twitter, Facebook and other Internet sites to thank Ford effusively for his return to the city today, as well as that of the French ambassador to Syria.

"Thank u Mr. Ford, US Ambassador, in Hama among the protesters, and welcomed with flowers," Syrian activist Malath Aumran, who describes himself as "tweeting the police state in revolt," posted to Twitter. He added, "Arabic Tweets saying we need US Ambassadors for every city in #Syria."

Ford, an Arabic-speaking career diplomat and former deputy U.S. ambassador in Iraq, went as a recess-appointed ambassador to Damascus early this year after Senate Republicans refused to confirm his nomination, along with the nominees to be U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Azerbaijan and Czech Republic. He is the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005.

Ford went to Hama yesterday ahead of the large Friday protests today, the State Department said.

"You should know that Ambassador Ford is in Hama today," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at the State Department press conference Thursday. "He has spent the day expressing our deep support for the right of the Syrian people to assemble peacefully and to express themselves."

"We've talked for a number of weeks here about the role that an ambassador can play in a country like this at a time like this," Nuland continued. Given Hama's role "in the history of free expression in Syria," Nuland said, referring to Hama being the site of a brutal government massacre thirty years ago ordered to quell anti-government unrest, Ford's visit there now "expresses in physical terms, not to mention political terms, our view that the people of Hama have a right to express themselves peacefully and that we are concerned about the posture that the security forces have taken."

(French ambassador to Syria Eric Chevallier is also in Hama today -- "one of the many visits he has made on the ground," a French diplomat told the Envoy. "He went to Hama's hospital and met with the medical team, some of the wounded and their families.")

Skeptics of Washington's engagement policy with the Damascus regime expressed respect for Ford's visit to Hama today.

"It's impressive, though not surprising," said David Schenker with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, referring to the video of Ford's reception in Hama. "It's the regime that's anti-American, not the Syrian people.  In any event, this is the first unambiguous demonstration of US support for the people of Syria."

"One wonders whether this important and well-received gesture will be accompanied by an unambiguous [White House] policy statement laying out the Administration's vision for the future of the Asad regime," Schenker continued.

For his part, Syrian blogger Aumran dismissed concerns that some activists have aired that the Syrian regime might try to claim, as leaders in other recent uprisings in the Arab world have, that anti-government protesters are conspiring with the United States. "Guys It's not smartness to consider any solidarity with our cause is a conspiracy," Aumran wrote.