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National Security

A hastily planned visit to Syrian protests had long-term consequences

WASHINGTON

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.

Like many of the administration’s early steps in Syria, little thought had been given to the potential ramifications of Robert Ford’s visit to Hama or to the possibility that Assad would remain in power.

“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.

He knew that the Syrians were disappointed in the U.S. and that American policy had failed the Syrian people.

Abu Salim, Syrian activist

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.

Hama, Syria

U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford visited Hama, Syria, in July 2011. The trip signaled support for anti-Assad protesters which may have been premature and over emphasized.

 

Four days after the trip, Syrian authorities allowed – many diplomats believe orchestrated – pro-government toughs to attack the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus. The mobs threw eggs, tomatoes and rocks before trying to storm into the heavily secured compounds. At the French embassy, guards fired live ammunition into the air to disperse the crowds, news agencies reported at the time.

At the U.S. embassy, according to Ford and other officials, U.S. Marines managed to repel a surge of rioters, but not before the Syrians had made it so deep into the compound that the Americans were bracing for a shootout.

“They used a battering ram!” recalled a former senior official who’d monitored the Damascus attack from Washington as it was unfolding. “We were sweating bullets.”

The State Department spokeswoman at the time, Victoria Nuland, dismissed the notion that Ford had provoked the attacks by visiting Hama.

“Ambassador Ford is doing his job as a witness, as an observer,” she told reporters right after the episode. “Our main concern here is that the Syrian government, rather than dealing with its own problems, and rather than addressing the grievances of its own people, is seeking to make distractions around our embassy.”

Senior officials in Washington were incensed that Assad would allow attacks on U.S. facilities and became more vocally supportive of Ford’s defiant stance. Ford recalled that career ambassador William Burns, who that month was named deputy secretary of State, made sure to call him with praise on an unsecured line that the Americans suspected the Syrians were monitoring.

After the trip, Ford said, he was seen in a new light by influential Republicans who’d opposed his nomination for ambassador. The State Department, sensing an opportunity, renewed lobbying for his confirmation, holding up his trip to Hama and subsequent pro-opposition gestures as proof that he was no Assad sympathizer.

“Ambassador Ford has shown admirable courage, putting himself on the line to bear witness to the situation on the ground in Syria,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in remarks on Sept. 29. She added that she urged the Senate to support Ford by “confirming him as soon as possible, so he can continue, fully confirmed, his critical and courageous work.”

Days later, on Oct. 3, 2011, the Senate confirmed Ford as ambassador to Syria, by unanimous consent. A Foreign Policy piece that month explained that, in short, “the Senate finally saw that Ford was more of an irritant to the Syrian regime than a concession to them, and so the GOP foreign policy brain trust reversed itself and supported his confirmation.”

Assad supporters were euphoric. To them, the visit meant America stood with them.

Ford would only stay in Damascus for a couple more weeks before he was recalled over “credible threats” to his safety; he retired from the State Department in February 2014 and is now with the Middle East Institute policy center in Washington.

Ford was asked point-blank whether his trip to Hama was behind the lawmakers’ change of heart.

“Oh, for sure,” he said. “That’s not why I did it. But yeah, in retrospect, yeah.”

That visit – to just the right place at just the right time – initially galvanized the peaceful protest movement. Four bloody years later, however, few Syrian activists remember the moment with fondness.

Abu Salim, a well connected Syrian opposition organizer from Homs who goes by a pseudonym for security reasons, recalled the euphoria among protesters at the news of the American and French ambassadors charging into Hama with little or no security. First, he said in an interview during a recent visit to Washington, the trip signaled the support of “two major powers who champion human rights and democracy.” Second, he said, the peaceful reception of the envoys, with jubilation and olive branches, dispelled the regime’s assertion that the protesters were a bunch of extremists.

“A year later, I met with Ambassador Ford in New York and I asked him a very direct question. I told him, ‘A year ago, you visited us in the streets and the people of Syria welcomed you. If you go now again, do you think they would welcome you in the same way?’ He said, ‘No, I don’t think so,’” Abu Salim said. “He knew that the Syrians were disappointed in the U.S. and that American policy had failed the Syrian people.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam

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