U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford's once unlikely bid for Senate confirmation gained traction this week, as multiple GOP senators and a host of conservative foreign policy leaders changed their tune toward his nomination.
Placed in his post via a recess appointment last year, Ford would have to return to Washington at the end of December if the Senate does not vote to confirm him. Over the summer, Ford has actively engaged with Syrian opposition groups and has put himself at personal risk by attending meetings of opposition leaders and funerals of Syrian activists. These efforts have convinced a large portion of the GOP, which stymied his confirmation last year, that his presence in Damascus is a useful way of confronting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and not a concession to the brutal dictator.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) was the first critic of Ford's presence in Syria to reverse himself and come out in support of Ford's confirmation. Now, several GOP senators who have criticized Obama's Syria policy are following suit.
"Robert Ford has shown personal bravery and increasing effectiveness for advancing human rights in Syria and I am in support of his nomination," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told The Cable.
Congressional Quarterly reported on Thursday that Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who voted no on Ford during committee consideration in July, is now a supporter. "He's demonstrated very clearly that he can handle the tough job he's doing in Syria," Inhofe said.
Also, a group of conservative pundits, under the banner of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), released a statement supporting Ford's confirmation. FPI is led by Bill Kristol, Bob Kagan, and Jamie Fly.
"Whatever reason people had for wanting to withdraw our ambassador from Damascus before -- and they were legitimate -- circumstances have changed," Kagan told The Cable. "Ford is, very bravely, acting as a kind of U.S. representative to the opposition in Syria and is making clear to the Syrian people that the US stands with them and against Assad."
"It's pretty clear the Republican tide is now turning in Ford's favor," a senior Senate aide close to the issue told The Cable. "The reason, ironically, isn't because Republicans have been persuaded by the administration to support a policy of engagement. It's because the administration has been persuaded, by the facts on the ground, to abandon engagement... Everyone realizes Ford is now in Syria not as a bridge to Assad, but as a bridge to what comes after Assad."
The State Department senses that the tide is turning on the Ford nomination as well, and is pushing Ford out to the media this week. He conducted on-the-record interviews with The Daily Caller¸ the Huffington Post¸ and with your humble Cable guy.
In a phone call with The Cable, Ford laid out the reasons he believes that he should be allowed to stay in Damascus.
"When an ambassador makes a statement in a country that's critical of that country's government, when that government visits an opposition or a site where a protest is taking place, the statement is much more powerful -- and the impact and the attention it gets is much more powerful if it's an ambassador rather than a low-level diplomat," Ford said.
Ford said he still meets with Syrian Foreign Ministry officials, as has as recently as last week, but only about routine diplomatic business and not about the regime or overall U.S. policy. "There really is not a lot that we need to say to the Syrian government," Ford said. "We don't need to discuss their reform initiative because we don't take it seriously."
Ford said he is definitely not trying to get himself kicked out of Damascus, as some in Washington believe. He is also meeting frequently with Syrians who are "on the fence," and could be turned against the Assad regime, such as business leaders, government employees, Christians, and the Allawite community, which has until recently been loyal to Assad.
Amid discord between various opposition groups inside and outside Syria, Ford's message to the Syrian opposition is that it should unite and put together a plan for transitioning to a new government. "Otherwise it's just going to be very bloody and bad later," he said. He is also urging them to keep the protests peaceful in order to maintain international sympathy.
There has been some discussion in Washington about why Ford doesn't announce his activities in Syria or post about them on his Facebook page, which he has used to criticize the Assad regime. Ford said his activities are well-covered in Syria and around the region by the Arab language press.
"I'm thinking much more about my audience here in Syria; I'm not so worried about the Washington repercussions," he said.
What's clear is that Ford has had some close calls. In addition to being assaulted by a pro-regime thug, the funeral he attended of slain activist Giyath Matar was attacked by regime forces just after he left. In fact, he said, he was only a block away in his car when the attack occurred.
At first, the crowd at the funeral was chanting, "God, Syria, freedom, and that's all," Ford remembered. He and the other seven ambassadors at the funeral left, however, when the crowd started shouting, "The people want to bring the downfall of the regime."
"I don't want to be an American ambassador encouraging a crowd to bring down the regime. That would be incitement, that's the red line," Ford said.
It seems that Ford's actions are getting under the skin of the Syrian regime. Ford said that after trashing Matar's funeral, Syrian forces spray painted on the side of Matar's house, "The Matar family is an agent of the American ambassador."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.