The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s confirmation hearing of Robert S. Ford, a first rate foreign service officer now serving as ambassador to Syria under a recess appointment, was held Tuesday, August 2nd. If the United States is to have an ambassador in Damascus, Ford is an excellent man for that post. But the senators should use the confirmation process to extract a far better understanding of U.S. policy toward Syria. Because most of the Senate left town immediately after the debt limit vote, only one actually attended the Ford hearing—meaning that it was not a serious examination of American policy toward Syria and Ford's role in it.
Here are a few questions worth posing, in writing, before the committee votes on Ford's nomination.
1) Why does the United States not call for Assad’s departure, given that we did call for that of our long-time ally Hosni Mubarak? Doesn’t the refusal to call for an end to the Assad mafia’s rule in Syria convey the wrong message to Syrians—a message of uncertainty, wavering, and indecision? Is it not clear to you that the Assad family must have zero role in Syria’s future if the country is ever to emerge from the current nightmare? If that is clear, why not say it?
2) Doesn’t it seem that the longer the violence goes on the greater the chance of sectarian conflict? If that is so, isn’t the obvious conclusion that Assad must go sooner rather than later? Again, then why not say so?
3) What is the United States doing at the United Nations, with Turkey, and with Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Iraq to support a regime change in Damascus now?
4) As your movements in Syria are restricted, should the United States not immediately impose equal limits on the movements of the Assad ambassador here, Imad Mustapha? What ability do you now have to get out of Damascus?
5) Can you think of a symbolic action the United States might realistically take that would more clearly demonstrate our break with Assad and his clan, and would more clearly show that we want him out, than recalling our ambassador?
6) Your visit to Hama was the most effective action you’ve taken in the few months you have been at post. If the Assad government is now going to prevent you from repeating that visit, why should you stay in Syria?
7) As we assume your every movement is covered by the Syrian secret police and every visitor to the embassy is noted by them, can you actually engage with the opposition to the Assads? Has it become too dangerous for them to meet with you? If that is so, why should you stay in Syria?
8) Whether you are confirmed or not, you are now stationed in Damascus and don’t believe you should be recalled. Tell us when an ambassador should be recalled. Your movements are limited and your embassy has been attacked. Isn’t that enough? If they attack the embassy again, would that do it?
9) According to news reports in late April, an American diplomat was detained, hooded, and “roughed up” despite his diplomatic immunity. How did the United States respond to this? Another demarche? Again, given that the embassy has been attacked and a member of its staff has been illegally detained and assaulted, when do we rightly say, “enough is enough,” and pull the ambassador? If we do not, isn’t the lesson that such conduct may be conducted with impunity?
10) The president justified the NATO military effort in Libya by saying, “we saw the prospect of imminent massacre . . . Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed.” But in Syria we are seeing such massacres, now at about 2,000 people and climbing very fast. What can the United States do to prevent Assad from provoking sectarian violence? What can we do to reassure Christians, Druze, Kurds, and Alawites that they will not be targeted if a Sunni-led government wins power, or persuade Sunni groups to offer many more and more persuasive reassurances?
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.