The Obama administration announced Monday that, due to security concerns, Ambassador Robert Ford left his post in Syria over the weekend. The regime in Damascus, engulfed in a fight for survival, responded by swiftly removing its ambassador, Imad Moustapha, from Washington — signaling heightened tensions in the already very strained U.S.-Syrian relationship.
Mr. Ford filled the ambassadorship this year in an effort to improve relations after President George Bush severed ties with Syria in 2005 in response to the bombing assassination of Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon – an operation widely believed to have Syrian and Hezbollah fingerprints. Despite Ford’s return to Washington, the U.S. embassy in Syria remains staffed and operating.
Ambassador Robert Ford visiting a province in northern Syria in June.
Ford’s removal comes as Western states try to increase pressure on Syria’s Asad government over its brutal repression of its citizens. It is estimated that more than 3,000 people have been killed since the uprising began. The State Department stressed that Ford had not been formally recalled, but his return “will depend on our assessment of Syrian regime-led incitement and the security situation on the ground,” as State Department spokesman Mark Toner noted.
Indeed, prompting the administration’s decision were several incidents of intimidation directed at the ambassador. According to reports, last week Ford was hit with eggs and tomatoes while visiting a mosque, and last month he was held up in a building for about three hours after Asad supporters tried to force their way into a meeting he scheduled with a prominent opposition figure. His Facebook posts have reportedly been responded to with death threats.
Recalling the American ambassador should turn a new page in the Obama administration’s approach to Syria. Moving forward, however, the president should use NATO’s success in Libya to re-focus the international community’s attention and efforts on the regime in Damascus where the stakes are high.