U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford went on another trip outside Damascus to view the anti-government protests on Tuesday, this time in direct violation of travel restrictions placed on him by the Assad regime.
"Ambassador Ford went down to Jassem, which is about 70 kilometers south of Damascus, to see for himself what was up there," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at today's press briefing. "This has been another town that has been engaged in peaceful protest. He was there for about four hours. He had a chance there to talk to a number of Syrians, including those in the opposition, and then he drove back to Damascus."
Sounds like a nice little trip: another example of Ford's commitment to justify his continued presence in Damascus -- against the opposition of many congressmen and foreign policy pundits -- and a useful means of engaging with the Syrian opposition.
But after Ford's trip to the city of Hama last month to observe the unrest there, the Syrian government slapped travel restrictions on the U.S. envoy and his team, barring them from leaving Damascus. The State Department in turn retaliated with similar restrictions barring Syrian diplomats from leaving the Washington area.
Of course, Ford could have requested permission to leave Damascus, but instead he chose to tell the Syrian government about his trip only after he returned to the U.S. embassy.
"In this case, he informed the Syrian Foreign Ministry after the visit, and he made clear to them that the reason that he didn't inform them before the visit was because they haven't been approving any visits by anybody, anywhere," Nuland said. She explained that Ford had requested permission three times over the last six weeks to go to the city of Aleppo, but was denied in all three cases.
"So is he trying to get expelled from the country?" one member of the State Department press corps asked Nuland.
"He is trying to do his job, which is to be able to maintain broad contacts with a broad cross section of Syrians and to make sure that they know where the United States stands," she responded. She added that Ford had received the support of State Department leadership in advance of the trip.
Meanwhile, Syrian ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha, who has been neglecting his blog lately, has returned to Washington after spending some time back home. Moustapha is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly using Syrian embassy resources to spy on Syrian-Americans in Washington with the aim of intimidating them and threatening their families back in Syria.
How would the State Department feel if Moustapha just ignored the U.S. government and began hopping around the United States without permission? Nuland said that he would be granted permission if he requested to travel somewhere, and that some Syrian officials had recently been granted permission to travel to California.
After the briefing, a State Department official held a little gaggle with reporters on a background basis, as is the post-briefing custom. One reporter pressed the official to acknowledge that, if the tables had been turned and a foreign ambassador didn't follow rules laid out by the U.S. government, he would be expelled.
All the official would say is, "In this case, after he was turned down three times, we just felt he needed to do his job."
Ford's expulsion from Damascus would actually solve a tricky problem for the State Department, which is facing a tough confirmation fight for him this fall. Ford was sent to Damascus last year under a recess appointment, which expires at the end of the year. The only way for Ford to stay in Damascus longer than that is for the Senate to confirm him.
Though Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) reversed himself and now supports keeping Ford in place as ambassador, there are still multiple GOP senators who have no intention of letting Ford's nomination get through the Senate.
Given these dynamics, Ford's unauthorized visit to Jassem represents a win-win scenario for the State Department. On the one hand, it bolsters the State Department's case that Ford is a crucial link to the Syrian revolution. And if he gets thrown out of Syria, State can avoid a messy confirmation fight they are almost sure to lose.