Nearly four months into the uprising against Bashar Assad’s regime, U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford took a drive from Damascus to the rebellious city of Hama, where cheering residents greeted him with roses and olive branches.
At the time, the trip was portrayed as a courageous act of solidarity with anti-Assad protesters. Officials in Washington quickly seized upon the popular narrative of an audacious, Arabic-speaking U.S. diplomat taking a jab at Assad on his own turf.
In retrospect, however, Ford’s headline-making trip was the beginning of a string of U.S. actions in Syria that were hastily planned, based on the incorrect assumption that Assad would soon fall. The move, like many others that would follow, gave Syrian protesters the false sense that a superpower was in their corner, when in fact the Obama administration was deeply divided over their rebellion and what role, if any, the United States should play.
The largely untold back story of Ford’s visit to Hama, a symbolic moment in the administration’s early Syria response, encapsulates what former officials now view as a crucial misstep: the Obama administration giving little thought to the possibility of Assad remaining in power, and to the potential ramifications of that scenario should the United States throw in with the opposition.
“Ford went to Hama because Ford wanted to go to Hama. Nobody in the government felt strongly enough to stop him. Nobody even really knew he was going,” said a former senior official, one of three who spoke on condition of anonymity so as to freely describe Syria policy debates. “People were willing to allow those sorts of demonstrations because it was assumed that the outcome was already preordained, so we might as well look good as part of the outcome.”
Ford had sent only a heads-up email to a superior at the State Department, and had yet to receive a reply, when he climbed into the back seat of a beige Land Cruiser on July 7, 2011, and rolled through government checkpoints to a hero’s welcome inside Syria’s fourth-largest city.
One seldom-mentioned aspect of the Hama trip is the personal benefit it brought Ford at a critical time. Although he was a veteran Arabist who had spent two years at the U.S. embassy in wartime Iraq and earlier had served in Algeria and Bahrain, Ford had failed to win Senate confirmation when he was nominated in early 2010 as the first American ambassador to Syria in five years.
By that December, with no confirmation in sight, President Barack Obama resorted to installing him through a recess appointment, which meant that Ford could serve as ambassador for a certain time period but eventually would need Senate approval to continue. By the time he went to Hama in July, he’d already served for seven months and the clock was ticking on his post.
Immediately after the overnight trip to Hama, the Assad government, furious over what it regarded as Western meddling in internal affairs, summoned both Ford and the French ambassador, who’d also visited the city in support of the activists. Syrian state media blasted the trips as a dangerous “escalation” and an affront to state sovereignty. Payback was in store.