Foreign Policy Blogs

A New Sheriff in Town

With a new Ambassador in town I wanted to get some fresh ideas and opinions represented here on the FPA Syria blog. So I asked the two most interesting people I could think of to comment on the new Ambassador.  It has been a bit lonely writing solo these past months and I wanted to include some other voices and opinions to compete with my own. I am nothing if not inclusive.Without further ado let me welcome Rhea Myerscough & Stephen Starr to the FPA Syria Blog. Stephen Starr is a freelance journalist and founder and editor in chief of Near East Quarterly, he’s also one of the most interesting guys to have a beer with in Damascus. Rhea Myerscough is an independent researcher based in Damascus.  Her work has appeared on, ISN Security Watch, and in the Baltimore Sun. Rhea’s many talents also include stitching christmas stockings, a killer cornbread stuffing recipe, and the creation of alternative athletic disciplines. I think we have a good group.


I’ve invited you two “experts” to join me in discussing the big news of the day–that is the appointment of Robert Ford as US Ambassador to Syria. As I covered here, I feel the arrival of an American Ambassador fills a significant void in the US-Syria relationship and has the potential to jolt some life into bilateral relations on several fronts. I am fairly optimistic compared to the general consensus though. This NYT article sums up the accepted wisdom on the issue, as most don’t see any major changes coming out of the appointment.

A New Sheriff in Town

Ahlan wa Sahlan Mr. Ambassador

I feel like this can be a big step, what am I missing? Doesn’t everyone stand to gain from a thaw? It seems to me that the US has plenty to gain from better relations with Syria, most importantly, more influence and insight vis-a-vis Lebanese affairs, and increased access to Syria’s relationship with Iran. Syria for its part also would seem to benefit from closer ties to Washington. Reducing, or eliminating outright, US sanctions against Syria would have to be high on any list of Syrian goals, and warmer relations with the US could also prove helpful in any future negotiations over the Golan. Plus, seeing as Ford’s initial term will be short due to the nature of recess appointments, don’t both sides want to show progress in the short term in order to increase the chances of his nomination to a full term next year?

This feels like a bit of a gimmie–sorry Steve, I mean a piece of piss–to me. I ask again guys, what am I missing?


Perhaps, one item in terms of who gains what from the ‘thaw’ is that there may be a raised level of expectations from the Syria side, though don’t expect them to openly show this. For a long time they have been very coy in committing public statements that show they are elighted with what Obama is essentially trying to do. And it has paid off for them.

While I’m not exactly privy to the ongoings of politics in Washington, it sounds like partisan politics will play a considerable role in how ties between Damascus and the US develop going forward — in the longer term I’m not sure if or when relations will progress.

But for sure having Ford in Damascus will allow easier cooperation between American diplomatic representation between Damascus and Beirut, which in the coming months will be extremely important given what may take place once the names of individuals indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon are made public. For this reason alone, this is an important and timely move.


I think the collective shrug in response to the appointment is due to the fact that an extension of the appointment seems unlikely, and without more time for diplomatic relations to develop, we’re unlikely to see a real thaw.

There are gains to be made on the borrowed time that Ford’s been given.  Steve mentioned the benefits of increased diplomatic coordination in the event of tribunal developments.  Additionally, once Ford arrives, the Syrian government won’t be able to beg off high-level meetings for reasons of protocol as it’s able to do while the embassy is headed by the chargé d’affaires.  This gives Ford a chance to participate in some valuable information sharing during the coming year.

However, these gains might not be enough to buy Ford more time.  Congressional opponents are already calling the appointment a “major concession” to the Syrian regime and I think a lack of appropriately “major” Syrian concessions (or any whiff of Syrian dealings with Hezbollah) will be all too easily painted as an indictment of engagement as a whole.  Further, the Senate of 2012 looks to be even less friendly than the Senate of 2010, which sunk the nomination last spring.

I’m curious as to what Ford might be able to produce that could serve as a credible told-you-so to opponents of engagement.  But whether Ford has anything to show for his troubles next December will ultimately depend on whether the Syrians see any long-term gains from renewed diplomatic relations that are worth making short-term concessions.

Stay tuned for more from the experts…



Walter Raubeson

Walter spent the last two years living and working in Damascus, reporting on the Syrian social, political, and cultural scene. Recently returned to the US, Walter continues to monitor Middle Eastern events with verve, and also gusto.

Having graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science- International Relations-in September 2008, Walter's MA thesis analyzed the Lebanese political system; focusing on the impact of foreign intervention within Lebanon, particularly the roles of Iran, Israel, Syria, and the US.