The Nation – Roadblocks to Damascus

July 2, 2010 – The weekend before Memorial Day, Senator John Kerry visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus—his third such trip as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and second in as many months. He was there, by all accounts, to defuse tensions and clarify Syria’s response to Israel’s unconfirmed accusations, echoed by the United States, that Syria had delivered Scud missiles to its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

With past visits by special envoy George Mitchell, Under Secretary of State William Burns and a stream of other officials, the presidential palace has been busily receiving guests at its perch above Damascus—and that’s only the Americans. The French and German foreign ministers were in town the same weekend. Assad has become one of the region’s busiest hosts in the past year, as he maneuvers Syria out of the diplomatic cold by talking to everyone: friends (Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey), enemies (America) and cool neighbors (Saudi Arabia) alike.

High-profile American statesmen may go to Damascus, but not—at least not yet—an ambassador. In early May Senate Republicans blocked a motion to confirm career foreign service officer Robert Ford as the first American envoy in Damascus in five years, since Margaret Scobey was recalled to protest presumed Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. A week later, twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threatening to prevent Ford’s nomination from going to a full vote in the Senate. Their letter warned that “if engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long-range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior.”

Read the rest of the piece at The Nation.

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America’s First Consul in Damascus, a Brief History

From Historical Travel on The Faster Times.

First Obama named the first ambassador to Damascus in five years. Then the State Department lifted its travel warning for Syria – though not the 30-year State Sponsor of Terrorism tag. In a week of overdue warming, some observers might look to business next, even if Obama renewed economic sanctions last year.

Syria’s economy is ripe after years of being closed. As Josh Landis recently wrote, “Syria has been hosting one delegation of American and European businessmen after another as Western banks scramble to get in on the bottom floor of the Syrian economy.” Tourism is a quickly developed and expanding market already, even if it’s Middle Eastern and European investments pouring in and not American dollars.

Almost monthly for the past year or so, a travel section somewhere chalks up Damascus as the next Marrakesh, promotes Aleppo as a historic crossroads once again welcoming Westerners, or sings about Palmyra, Zenobia’s desert city on the silk road near Iraq. Americans visit, though in far fewer numbers than the French or Belgian, though the end of the State Department travel warning for Syria might change things. Or not… mind the reasoning of State:

“The current series of travel warnings were enacted in September 2006 following an attack against the Embassy, and were not based upon Syria being designated as a State Sponsor of Terror. Being a State Sponsor of Terrorism is not a basis for a travel warning.”

Syria has other designations, though, like history, something I wrote about at length in the Faster Times back in December. Travel dispatches from there can reference so many things, though they almost always hinge on the same: anecdotes of the old and exotic East, quite Orientalist pictures of ancient markets and mosques.

Syria has those, sure. It has a lot of other things, outside the cities, beyond the Crusader castles that represent more than a “reminder that conflict between Islam and the West stretches back centuries.”

A somewhat shorter historical view – the 19th century – presents a more immediate bit of Syrian travel and history in light of the news that an American envoy will return to a state for decades at odds with the US. The Embassy has been without its head since 2005, when the US withdrew Margaret Scobey to protest suspected Syrian involvement in the car-bomb death of Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri.

It’s a story about a Christian notable from Lebanon who became America’s first consul in Damascus in 1859. He witnessed a massacre of Christians in Damascus in 1860, a sordid event in the city’s long history.

Read the rest at Historical Travel on the Faster Times.

Image via Wikipedia Commons: “Anonymous Venetian Orientalist painting, ‘The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus,’ 1511, the Louvre.”

Obama names Ford

Finally, after leaked names and anonymous diplomatic sources and wide spread reporting (including some of my own for The Nation), Obama has formally nominated Robert Ford as the first US ambassador to Syria in five years.

More news to come, I hope, to support this bit of optimism. Let’s hope he is confirmed and the Senate doesn’t grandstand too much on the overdue diplomatic thaw between Syria and the US.

1859 Photo of the American Vice Consul to Damascus, Mikhayil Mishaqa, via MidEastImage.

Back to Damascus?

With the long overdue news that the US is sending an ambassador back to Syria, I wrote a short piece for this week’s issue of The Nation. It’s behind a subscriber firewall online, so eschewing the idea for paid online content, I’m pasting the story below. Although you should probably just go out and buy the magazine if you can. Mostly to read Lawrence Lessig’s cover story.

BACK TO DAMASCUS? Washington has nominated Robert Ford, a career Foreign Service officer, as its ambassador to Syria, a post that has been vacant since the United States withdrew its envoy in 2005 to protest alleged Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. (Syria denied any involvement.)

Ford, currently deputy ambassador to Iraq, was ambassador to Algeria from 2006 to 2008. He ran a Coalition Provisional Authority office in Najaf in 2003, and from 2004 to 2006 he was a political officer at the US Embassy in Baghdad, where he helped draft Iraq’s new Constitution, establish the transitional government and oversee elections in 2005.

The appointment of a career officer who speaks Arabic represents a shift for Obama, who has often chosen well-heeled friends and contributors for ambassadorial posts. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of November twenty-four nominees were high-profile campaign “bundlers” who corralled more than $10 million for Obama. About half of all ninety-nine nominees either donated to Obama, other Democratic candidates or the Democratic Party.

Sending Ford to Damascus is part of the administration’s effort to back up Obama’s fleeting Cairo oratory. The London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat quoted an unnamed American official saying, “Washington wants to help in launching direct peace negotiations between Syria and Israel in the next few months.” But Joshua Landis, a regional expert who runs the popular Syria Comment blog, is not so sure. “The Syrians I have spoken to are skeptical that [negotiations] can lead to anything but frustration,” he said. “Netanyahu is not giving any ground to the Palestinians and there’s no reason to expect him to give ground to the Syrians.”

Reopening the ambassador’s residence is a step, not a solution. After all, last year Obama renewed harsh economic sanctions on Syria that were imposed by George W. Bush. And Syria holds the dubious distinction of being Washington’s oldest designated state sponsor of terrorism–since 1979.   FREDERICK DEKNATEL

From The Nation.