Globe Editorial

Lebanon crisis proves the need for a US ambassador in Syria

January 20, 2011

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COMING JUST weeks after President Obama appointed veteran diplomat Robert Ford to be US ambassador to Syria, the collapse of Lebanon’s coalition government at the behest of Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian backers highlights the importance of returning an ambassador to Damascus after an absence of five years.

Syria is a key player in the Mideast’s most dangerous conflicts. As a rare Arab ally of Iran, President Bashar Assad exercises an influence grossly out of proportion to Syria’s size and resources. Syria is, among other things, a potentially trouble-making neighbor of Iraq, a host to militant Palestinian groups, the main power broker in Lebanon, and the sole Arab state still seeking to recover occupied land from Israel.

So Washington has only hobbled itself by going without an ambassador in Damascus since 2005, when the Bush administration sought to punish Syria by pulling its envoy. Dispatching the occasional administration official or legislator to meet Assad is no substitute for an ambassador who can act daily as the eyes and ears of America, gauging the difference between Assad’s public stance and what he might be willing to do under diplomatic pressure.

To put Ford to work as ambassador, Obama had to appoint him without a confirmation vote during a Senate recess — not because senators doubted his qualifications, but because too many of them shared Bush’s view that merely having an ambassador in a country ruled by an unsavory government would signal some kind of accommodation. That’s hideously wrongheaded, given the stakes involved for the United States, its allies in the Middle East, and innocent people in countries like Iraq and Lebanon.

Nonetheless, the new chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, gave voice to that sentiment when she decried the recess appointment of Ford as “a major concession to the Syrian regime.’’

It’s nothing of the kind. The United States and its partners in the Mideast share an overriding interest in prying Syria from its alliance with Iran, fostering an Israeli-Syrian peace accord, and enabling Lebanon to solve its domestic conflicts free of Syrian dominance. To achieve these goals, Washington needs an ambassador reporting back from Damascus on the strengths, weaknesses, and ulterior motives of the Assad regime.