Foreign Policy Blogs

Update on Syria

In the midst of Israeli accusations that Syria has been sending long-range Scud missiles to Hezbollah, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, testified last week in front of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, pushing for U.S. diplomatic efforts in Syria. In a hearing entitled “Neither Appeasement nor Improvement? Prospects for U.S. Engagement with Syria,” Feltman said, “I would argue it’s part of our diplomatic job to show the Syrians why it’s in their interest to change their behavior on a number of fronts, from Lebanon to Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinians.”

Chairman of the Subcommittee Gary Ackerman (D-NY) echoed some of Feltman’s statements, adding that characterizations of the Obama’s Administration’s efforts to engage with Syria, most recently by nominating an American ambassador to Damascus, as “appeasement,”  were “shameless nonsense” and “more empty words.” He did urge, however, for the administration to provide a clear explanation of this new American policy towards Syria to show that, “trying diplomacy with Syria is not a betrayal of either our values or our friends.”

While others, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, John Kerry, also support engagement with Syria and the reinstatement of an ambassador in Damascus, critics have argued that this route would merely be “engagement for engagement’s sake,” citing Syria’s human rights record and foreign policy as reasons not to deal with the country diplomatically at the highest level. In addition, recent reports of possible Scuds sent to Lebanon by Syria have some concerned about possible results of United States-Syria diplomacy. (Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has denied these reports and Egypt’s Foreign Minister called the accusation “laughable.”)

In mid-February, President Obama nominated career Foreign Service Officer, Robert Ford, to be the United States Ambassador to Damascus. In March, Ford testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In his testimony, he argued:

“Especially at a time when the Middle East confronts increasing regional tensions, we must be talking every day and every week with top-level officials who have influence and decision-making authority.  They need to hear directly from us, not from the media or third-party intermediaries, what are our bottom lines and the potential costs to them – and to the region – of their miscalculations.”

Ford would be the first American ambassador in Damascus in five years; the United States withdrew Ambassador Margaret Scobey from Damascus in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri. The Lebanese contended that Syria was involved in the murder, an accusation Syria has denied.

UPDATE: On May 3, President Obama announced to Congress that the United States would renew sanctions against Syria due to the country’s ongoing support of terrorist groups and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Ford continues to await Senate confirmation.



Alexandra Raphel

Alexandra Raphel recently returned from the hot and sandy Gulf State of Qatar, where she worked for the Brookings Doha Center, a project of the Brookings Institution. Prior to moving to Doha, she interned for the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings in Washington. Alexandra has also worked for the Iraq Study Group, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She survived four winters at the University of Chicago, where she obtained a B.A. in Political Science. She now works for a global international development firm based in Washington, D.C. and enjoys football (watching, not playing), perusing art museums, and learning to ride her bike.