"Syria welcomes the appointment of new U.S. ambassador to Damascus" read, with some irony, the Israeli daily, Ha'aretz. The irony is that the appointment of Robert Ford, as the first United States ambassador to Syria in more than five years, can be seen as an inappropriate reward to Damascus, one of the main foes of the U.S. in the region, particularly for Syria's ties to Iran and Hezbollah.
President Obama made the decision to appoint the new ambassador to Syria while the Congress was in recess to push through nominees that Republicans had previously blocked, avoid the normal Senate confirmation process. The appointees will serve without the approval of the Senate for the remainder of Obama's first term, until 2012. "Using this congressional recess to make an appointment, that has far-reaching policy implications, despite congressional objections and concerns is regrettable," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), incoming chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee.
Under the Bush administration, the ambassador from Syria was withdrawn in February 2005, in protest over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq al-Hariri. The United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the assassination is expected to name Hezbollah - the Iranian and Syrian-backed group, which has a strong presence in Lebanon's political establishment -- as one of the parties complicit in the assassination.
Obama, however, apparently indifferent to the slaps in the face he received from the Iranian regime as a consequence of his policy of extended hands and unconditional overtures, seems to be trying the same approach with Syria. Nobody questions the importance of Syria in the balance of powers of the Middle East region, but the problem is that the US President puts the cart before the horse: rewards first, hoped-for reciprocity later --presumably with no adverse consequences for Syria if there is never any reciprocity.
As columnist Michael Young writes in Lebanon Now, "Obama has a wish list." Obama seems to hope that peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis will make some progress, and would like to have a person in Damascus to facilitate the process of rapprochement. He could, however, only have agreed to send Robert Ford to Damascus only in exchange for real concessions. For instance, Young suggests, Syrian President Assad could have accepted the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], which his regime still rejects, or have Syria return to direct negotiations with the Israeli government.
The Obama administration would like Syria to sever its ties with its allies; this is something that Damascus is totally unwilling to do, probably out of fear that doing so would debilitate the strength of its regime to the point that its survival would be endangered. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has always wished that Washington would renounce to all conditionality for resuming normal diplomatic relations; he has never offered anything serious, or even unserious, in exchange. By sending Robert Ford to Damascus, President Obama jumped voluntarily into a trap prepared by the Syrian leader: "Making underserved concessions to Syria tells the regime in Damascus that it can continue to pursue its dangerous agenda and not face any consequences from the U.S. That is the wrong message to be sending to a regime which continues to harm and threaten U.S. interests and those of such critical allies as Israel," remarked Ros-Lehtinen. She might have added that Syria also jails its dissidents.
Back in the U.S., however, some members of Congress and officials of the Obama Administration are defending the president's decision by saying that the appointment of a new ambassador is going to allow Washington to forward better its messages to Damascus. This does not make much sense: during the last five years, ever since the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, Assad's regime has remained completely deaf to any call to engage itself in the solution of issues that are deemed important by the U.S.. Syria has also sponsored extremism in Iraq; reasserts its influence in Lebanon, and keeps on rejecting peace with Israel, not to speak of its thickening alliance with Iran and Hezbollah.
So, what prompted President Obama to send an ambassador to Syria in such haste? Were there signals that Assad was willing to show some openness on the many issues at stake with the U.S.? Not to anybody's knowledge. Wishful thinking? Inexperience in international affairs?
Besides, what is Robert Ford going to do in Damascus? Very likely, not much. In the meanwhile, Assad is going to be most satisfied by the fact that the presence of an American ambassador to Syria will boost international clout for his regime. Further, as columnist Michael Young writes, Assad will be able to play an endless waiting game with Washington with no fear of ever being either embarrassed or rebuked.