Today’s New York Times ratifies what I sensed yesterday: The White House is waking up and turning against Assad. They’re even starting to consider some of the diplomatic moves against Syria that they should have been pursuing months ago. One thing they’re not considering though, is withdrawing Ambassador Robert Ford:
Administration officials said Mr. Ford’s visit to Hama, where he was met by welcoming crowds, showed the value of sending an envoy to Syria – something members of Congress have criticized. While the officials said they could not prove Mr. Ford’s presence there averted a violent assault by security forces, one said: “It’s very possible. A lot of people were expecting Hama to be very ugly.”
Sending Ford to Damascus with a recess appointment in December (as I said at the time) was shameful. If he had to be sent, he should have been withdrawn months ago in protest of Assad’s brutality (as I said in April). In pushing for “dialogue” between the regime and the opposition, Ford has been effectively aiding Assad (as I said earlier this month). But clearly the administration has no intention of withdrawing him, and indeed the unnamed officials have a point that Ford probably did some good with the trip to Hama. In fact, in the immediate wake of the attack on the embassy Monday, withdrawing Ford (as Aaron suggested yesterday) might be somewhat counterproductive; while it would signal Assad’s diplomatic isolation internationally, the regime might be able to spin it domestically as a victory for the “get out of Syria” demonstrations they’ve been inciting.
Just to be clear, Ford’s presence in Syria can be of net value if, and only if, the administration has truly made a clean break from its engagement fantasies. Reuel Marc Gerecht writes in the current Weekly Standard that “the Obama administration should be… deploying the American ambassador in Damascus as a shield and voice for the opposition (if Ford gets expelled, he gets expelled)”; presumably that was written before Ford’s visit to Hama, which is of course the sort of thing Gerecht is suggesting. More of this — and not encouraging more “dialogue” with the regime — is what Ford should be doing. If there must be an American Ambassador in Syria, let’s make Assad wish there wasn’t.