Syria today declared today that foreign diplomats must seek approval to travel outside Damascus. The move comes after the U.S. and French ambassadors' recent travel to the restive city of Hama ahead of major planned protests. The Associated Press reports that Syria's foreign minister warned if the U.S. and French envoys disobey the order then all diplomats will be banned for leaving the capital...
U.S. officials say Ambassador Robert Ford has plans to travel again this week, but there's no word yet on when he'll go. An opposition group suggested last week that he would visit Deir Ezzor in the east last Friday but it didn't happen.
The visit to Hama was, as far as I can tell, the only good thing Ambassador Ford has done in his tenure -- and, as I said last week, the sort of thing he should be doing regularly. Ford should disobey the FM and go ahead with his travel plans; if the regime follows through and keeps him in Damascus, he should be withdrawn. Then we can send Imad Moustapha and his staff at the Syrian embassy in Washington packing. That would make it harder for them to threaten anti-Assad activists in America, something that is seriously worrying the FBI.
Any chance the administration will do this? This LA Times story, headlined "U.S. softens its criticism of Syria," does not inspire optimism. Noting that the administration has backed off from Hillary Clinton's statement that Assad has "lost legitimacy" (which we now know was unplanned) -- the Secretary of State has since slung some more nonsense about hopes that Assad might stop the violence and institute reforms -- the LAT paints a picture of an administration that still can't make up its mind:
The change in tone reflects the continuing debate over whether Syria's ruler is likely to survive the current turmoil, and how best to use the limited diplomatic tools available to pressure him.
For now, a State Department official said, it's unclear whether the administration will ramp up the rhetoric and officially call for Assad's departure.
"Whether we take it farther will depend on events on the ground," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. "We need to think through carefully what we say."
Whoever is on the make-nice-with-Assad side of this internal debate should be ignored, and preferably cashiered. The problem, I would guess, is that advisers who fantasize about the efficacy of diplomatic engagement with tyrants are telling the President exactly what he wants to hear.
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