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In Praise of Robert Ford, the Saving Grace of America’s Syria Policy

Since the Syrian people began their uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Americans have been told repeatedly that there is little they can do about the situation. Experts in think tanks, universities, and the halls of U.S. government have been eager to remind us that the conditions in Syria—with its fractured opposition, brutal and loyal military forces, and fragile regional neighborhood—simply didn’t leave much room for Americans to make a difference.

But Robert Ford, our ambassador in Damascus, never seemed to accept this simplistic line of thinking. By bearing witness and speaking out relentlessly from inside the country, Ford has, at great personal risk, kept world attention focused on the crimes of the Syrian government. More so than either President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton, both of whom have been far too tepid in their public pronouncements, Ford has been an exemplary spokesman for liberal values and human rights.

Now, Ford is facing the prospect of being forced to return to the United States, not because the Syrian government might throw him out, but because Republicans in Congress might essentially recall him. This is insanity.

FORD’S WORK HAS BEEN invaluable for any number of reasons. For one thing, the directness of his rhetoric has helped to clarify what is taking place in Syria: “What the government is doing now is, it’s literally going house to house and it’s rounding up people,” Ford told Christiane Amanpour in August. “It’s frightful. It’s abominable.”

He has also made uniquely powerful gestures of solidarity with the opposition. On July 7, Ford made an unscheduled visit to the western city of Hama, where in the preceding week, tens of thousands had taken to the streets to protest, and more than a dozen had been murdered by government security forces. As the ambassador’s car inched down a mobbed street, protestors greeted him with roses and olive branches. (Pro-Assad thugs, in response, attempted an attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus a couple days later.)

Moreover, Ford has worked to counteract the regime’s propaganda by communicating directly with Syrians through Facebook and Twitter. “This isn’t about Western military intervention,” he wrote in a September Facebook note. “This isn’t about oil (many governments have banned its import). This isn’t about Israel or the West wanting to dominate the Arab world (an old, discredited government line). This is about basic political freedoms from the United Nations’ Human Rights Charter—signed by Syria, don’t forget—which calls for freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly.”

The ambassador’s willingness to anger Assad and put himself at risk has made him a hero among some protestors. As The New York Times quoted one activist saying during Ford’s July visit to Hama, “Residents feel a kind of protection with the presence of the ambassador. The authorities wouldn’t dare react with violence.” That sense of protection is sometimes quite literal. The turn of events at a September funeral for a murdered activist suggests the government is unwilling to act violently in his presence: Not typically shy about murdering mourners at public funerals, Assad’s security forces waited until Ford had left before raiding the wake.

Through it all, Ford has remained a steadfast advocate of non-violent protest. He has warned the opposition that if they choose to take up arms, it could lead to a civil war akin to the Sunni-Shia conflict that wracked Iraq in 2006. (Assad’s Alawite Shia minority is vastly outnumbered by the country’s Sunni population.)

The onus is now on Republican senators to allow Ford to remain in Syria. Because he was named to his post via recess appointment, Ford will have to give up his ambassadorship if the Senate does not confirm him by December. The GOP line coming from senators like Marco Rubio and Tom Coburn is that we should punish the Assad regime by removing Ford from Damascus. But by doing so, we’d only be punishing its opponents—and preventing a heroic American diplomat from continuing to do his important work.