Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was supposed to be a democratic reformer, someone who could usher in a period of peaceful, pro-Western engagement.
That, at least, was the hope of many U.S. officials and observers in the Jewish community, who thought that by appointing a U.S. envoy to Syria earlier this year, Assad would turn over a new leaf.
Instead, he’s orchestrated a bloody crackdown on his own citizens, murdering close to 2,000 demonstrators in the past few months.
Why, then, is the Obama administration still engaging with the murderous regime via its ambassador to the nation, Robert Ford? That’s what many Jewish observers and political insiders are wondering as the violence in Syria worsens.
President Barack Obama’s “strategy of engagement with Syria was a gamble, and it clearly has not paid off,” said William Daroff, who heads the Jewish Federations of North America’s D.C. headquarters. “It was predictable that Assad would reveal his true colors and that no American diplomat, regardless of his skills, would be able to change Assad’s ways.”
In January, the White House put its faith in a policy of engagement by nominating Ford, a career diplomatic, to represent U.S. interests in Damascus. The decision was controversial from the get-go, and Congress refused to sign off on the move, leading Obama to quietly appoint Ford while lawmakers were on vacation.
“The administration’s approach here was tragically naive,” said Josh Block, a former Clinton administration official who is now a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. “Assad was giving tons of weapons to Hezbollah, including Scuds, and all of the while we were pretending he was ready for a peace process with Israel. That was nonsense – just like the idea that he was a reformer.”
In the past several weeks, Assad has used his powerful army to kill and maim peaceful protestors throughout the country, according to news reports. On Tuesday, the United Nations reported that nearly 10,000 Palestinian refugees had gone missing after an attack on their refugee camp in Latakia, a city located near Syria’s Western coast.
However, this isn’t the first time America has had trouble with Assad.
The United States originally withdrew its ambassador to Damascus in the wake of the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hairiri, which many attributed to the Syrian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah.
Some Jewish officials, though, defended Obama’s attempt to re-engage Assad, maintaining that in January, there was no way to anticipate the government’s deadly turn.
“It doesn’t make sense to apply hindsight,” said Hadar Susskind, J Street’s director of policy and strategy. Susskind supported the White House’s call in January, and still believes the administration had a good idea.
It “was the right answer” at the time, Susskind said. “I don’t think the fact of whether we appointed an ambassador or not impacted” events in the region. “I don’t think you can say that, looking back, it was a terrible mistake because bad things have happened because of it.”
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, disagrees. He said that “the administration looks foolish – a person doesn’t turn from a reformer to a dictator in six weeks; [Assad] was always one.”
A longtime observer of the region, Halber added that “in some cases engagement works, but in this case, I don’t think it’s worked.”
As Assad’s crackdown on anti-government protestors continues, many are wondering when the White House will say “enough is enough.”
Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have removed their representatives from Damascus as a sign of protest. Ford, however, remains, and the decision to keep him stationed in a crumbling nation has perplexed some experts.
“When Saudi Arabia has more moral clarity than the U.S., it’s a sad day,” said Matthew Brodsky, director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center, a think tank affiliated with the Republican Jewish Coalition.
“It’s a little ironic that Syria’s neighbors have recalled their ambassadors,” but the U.S. has not, noted Block, a former official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
At least one lawmaker, however, has called on the Senate in recent weeks to finally confirm Ford as the official envoy to Damascus.
Writing last week in The Wall Street Journal, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) explained that Ford can serve as a representative to the Syrian people.
“Rather than being an envoy to Assad, Mr. Ford is now first and foremost our ambassador to the Syrian people and a bridge to the democratic transition they demand,” Lieberman wrote. “This is a role for which Mr. Ford – an innovative and tough diplomat with extensive experience in the Middle East – is uniquely well-suited.”
Others on Capitol Hill are wary of this logic.
“If you want to continue to communicate with opposition groups and dissidents, we have people on the ground in Syria who can do that job,” said a Republican Senate aide, who was not authorized to speak on record. “To confirm an ambassador and send him forward as countries around the world are recalling theirs will send confusing signals to our allies, to regional neighbors and, most importantly, to Bashar al-Assad.”
With Ford still stationed in Damascus, others see an opportunity to bolster the anti-Assad forces.
“You can use the ambassador as an instrument” to foster discontent and prove that the U.S. supports peaceful revolutions, said Brodsky.
Added Block: ”Put [Ford] to good purpose or revoke our ambassador. … If we’re going to have him there, the goal should be to create confrontation.”