U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the single senator that attended his confirmation hearing today that while the administration's sanctions on the Syrian regime are working, newly proposed congressional sanctions probably won't do much good.
Ford, who was sent to Damascus under a recess appointment because he could not be confirmed last year, was back in Washington for one more confirmation push before his recess appointment expires on Dec. 31. The U.S. envoy was expected to face harsh criticism from a number of GOP senators who believe the Obama administration has not been tough enough on regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But after the debt ceiling vote was done, most lawmakers patted themselves on the back and immediately skipped town. Only Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) was left by the time Ford's hearing begun.
Ford played it cautiously for most of Casey's questioning, repeating administration calls for a transition to democratic rule in Syria, condemning the brutality of the regime against its people, and praising the Syrian opposition while being clear-eyed about the challenges that the opposition faces.
"It's a diverse group, they're not very well organized. That's not surprising," Ford testified, explaining that he meets with opposition representatives constantly. "It's important for the Syrian opposition to develop their ideas, Syrian ideas, for their democratic transition."
Ford also joined the meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Syrian activists earlier today at the State Department.
"It's really important now to give these Syrians an ear and to amplify their voices," he said at the hearing. "My job is to help establish the space for Syrian activists ... to develop and organize the political transition that must occur if Syria is to be stable again."
When asked about the prospect of new congressional sanctions, Ford indicated that the bill introduced today by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), might not be the best way to put pressure on the Assad regime. Their bill would authorize President Barack Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria's energy sector, purchase the country's oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.
"Unilaterally, additional American measures probably aren't going to have that big of an impact," said Ford. "The big companies working in the energy sector in Syria are from Europe or Syria's neighbors."
"We would look to find ways to with our partners to enhance our [existing] sanctions," he added, adding that those discussions are underway. "The challenge is getting targeting that works and really has an impact."
However, Ford did make a point to emphasize that the administration's Syria sanctions, which have designated several Syrian regime officials as targets for asset freezes, are effective. More such designations are expected in the coming days.
"The [administration's] sanctions do bite. We do see more business people slowly shifting sides, and that's important," he said. "So we do think sanctions are having an impact."
Clearly, the senators who sponsored the bill disagree with Ford's assessment that additional sanctions will not have an impact.
"The United States should impose crippling sanctions in response to the murder of civilians by troops under the orders of Syrian President Assad," Kirk said in a release. "The Arab Spring will sweep away this dictatorship, hopefully with the help of American sanctions similar to those leveled against the Iranian regime."
Kirk and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) have been among the most critical senators of the administration's approach to Syria. Both argue that Ford's presence there represents an unwise concession to the government. The Cable caught up with Kyl in the Senate hallways on Tuesday and asked him if he will try to thwart Ford's nomination.
"I don't have any plans with regard to his nomination," Kyl said.
We predicted that the senators on the committee might not show up for the hearing, so we caught some SFRC members earlier in the day to see where they stood on the administration's strategy of slowly but surely increasing pressure on the Assad regime.
"I think we do should everything we can to ratchet up our pressure on Syria," said SFRC member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). "The administration has made a series of good movements seeking to tighten the noose economically and anything we can do to enhance that will have my support."
"I don't understand their Syria policy," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a SFRC member who is calling for a tougher administration stance. "I wish there was a little more clarity on it, I'm sorry there isn't."
At the hearing, Casey praised Ford and recounted reports of the Syrian authorities torturing children. He said that Assad "must step down" and that more can be done to pressure Syria in international bodies.
"Ambassador Ford's recent trip to Hama was a testament to his commitment to represent the values of the United States," Casey said.
Ford speculated that the members of the U.N. Security Council were now more ready than before to take action on Syria. He also said that while Hezbollah continues to support the Syrian government, the group has been silent recently due to the anger their pro-Assad statements aroused among the Syrian people.
On the core issue of whether Assad should go, Ford stuck with the administration's position that Assad has lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people, but stopped short of calling for him to step down now.
"Our conclusion is that this regime is unwilling or unable to lead the democratic transition the Syrian people are demanding," he said. "And there's really no difference between unwilling or unable as far as we're concerned."
Before Ford's hearing, half a dozen senators showed up for the confirmation hearings of two more sitting ambassadors who have to go through the process again because they received recess appointments: Ambassador to Turkey Frank Ricciardone and Ambassador to the Czech Republic Norm Eisen.
Wednesday's scheduled hearing for Wendy Sherman to become undersecretary of State for political affairs was outright cancelled because no senators were going to be there.
Ricciardone no longer has to worry about the complaints of now-retired Sen. Sam Brownback, but he still faces potential opposition from Kirk and Menendez. Kirk doesn't want the administration to make a missile defense deal with Turkey and Menendez wants the administration to refer to the destruction of the Armenian population during and after World War I as "genocide."
Eisen, who left his post as White House ethics czar in August 2010, was held up last year by Finance Committee ranking Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) over alleged actions and misrepresentations related to the June 2009 removal of Gerald Walpin as inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Eisen said that representing the United States in the Czech Republic had special meaning for him, because his mother was born there but was forced to flee due to Nazi persecution. Lieberman, who is not on the committee, showed up to introduce Eisen and commended those in attendance for not being part of the "the herd of senators who fled town after the vote."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.