Robert S. Ford, the American ambassador to Syria, left the country on Saturday over what American officials say were “credible threats to his personal safety.” During the past seven months, Ford has visited several key sites of the anti-government protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. He has also defied a government ban on foreign diplomats leaving the capital of Damascus, traveling to Hama, a hub of protest, and attended the funeral for a slain activist. On his Facebook page and on the embassy’s website, he has criticized the government crackdown, and been harshly rebuked himself by both the Syrian government and by the pro-Assad television station al-Dunia.
Ford’s outspoken criticism of Syria has been in contrast to the relative silence of the US embassy in Bahrain, where at least 35 have been killed in anti-government, pro-democracy protests and hundreds detained. Indeed, Ford’s shows of public support for the Syrian protesters has been “one of the more unusual roles in recent years of an American ambassador” in an Arab nation, a region where there is still much resentment about the US and its policies, especially over American support for Israel.
After Ford’s visit to Hama in July, supporters of Assad attacked the embassies of both the US and of France in Damascus and also tried to force entry into Ford’s nearby residence, but were unable to. Last month, while Ford visited with Hassan Abdul-Azim, an opposition figure in Damascus, his convoy was attacked by Assad supporters throwing tomatoes and wielding pieces of concrete. While Ford held his meeting, crowds tried to break into the building. Following that attack, Ford — challenging the government’s claims that foreign conspirators are behind the protests — wrote on the embassy website:
“Syria’s problems come not from foreign interference but from intolerance – the same kind of intolerance we saw in front of Abdul-Azim’s office. Unfortunately, those problems now are growing worse and more violent.”
During his July visit to Hama, Ford and the French ambassador, who had travelled with him, were greeted with residents throwing roses. Weeks afterwards, a prisoner who had been released reported that government interrogators had demanded the names of Syrians seen escorting Ford’s car in videos.
Also in July, the US had summoned Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the US, after reports that his embassy was carrying out surveillance of Syrian dissidents at anti-Assad rallies in the US. The Syrian ambassador has since not been allowed to travel outside Washington D.C..
Ford, described as a “seasoned diplomat and Arabic speaker,” was appointed by the Obama administration earlier this year to fill the post, which had been vacant since 2005, in the hopes of persuading Syria to change its policies towards Israel, Lebanon and Iraq, as well as towards extremist groups. The US State Department has designated Syria as a “state sponsor of terrorism” and has been seeking a United Nations Security Council resolution to increase pressure on Syria “dramatically” after months of bloody crackdown on protesters that have left over 3,000 civilians dead, as well as over 1,000 government forces.
Earlier this month, the US Senate had confirmed Ford’s appointment to Syria, commenting that it was “a tough message” to Assad as well as a sign of the US’s “solidarity with the Syrian people.” The US says that it does not have plans to expel the Syrian ambassador to Washington “at this time” and that Ford has not been officially withdrawn, but called back regarding the concerns about security. Haynes Mahoney, the embassy’s new charge d’affaires in Damascus, will act in Ford’s post in Damascus while he is gone; Mahoney said that no date has been set for his return.
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