Swimming with Sharks in Damascus: Ambassador’s New Role as Bait?

Via the State Department’s Daily Press Briefing:

QUESTION:  Are you concerned at all about his safety?  There’s been some reporting that he’s been harassed and ridiculed on Syrian television.  Are you concerned at all about that?

MS. NULAND:  I think you’re referring to this YouTube video that’s going around.  Just to clarify that incident for all of you, Ambassador Ford was invited by some lawyers who were having a sit-in at the Syrian bar association to come and witness their protest.  Ambassador Ford was not the only member of the international diplomatic community invited to do that.  Some of the EU ambassadors were also invited and attended.  Ambassador Ford went, he stood quietly outside, he was not involved in any disruptive activity, but some pro-government thugs came and tried to interrupt his bearing of witness and then put it on YouTube as a cynical effort to portray him as an agiteur, when in fact, they should have been paying attention to their own lawyers protesting peacefully at the bar association.  We continue to believe that he is doing very, very important work there, and the fact that he was asked by the Syrian opposition to come and bear witness to their peaceful protest speaks to his influence and the importance to the opposition of having outside support.  I think this effort to put it up on YouTube is going to backfire, because it just allows more public understanding of what the lawyers were trying to say to their own government.

QUESTION:  Just to follow up on that point —

MS. NULAND:  Yeah.  Lach.

QUESTION:  — the video showed one of the protestors, or maybe the pro-Syrian thug that you referred to, go up to the ambassador and try to cover him in a poster.  Does that indicate he might be in – under – in danger of any kind?

MS. NULAND:  I think if you watch the video to the end, or if they’d shown it to the end, the ambassador’s guard force was able to handle the incident, and it ended peacefully, and he left the scene.  So from that perspective, it was a feeble attempt to divert the world’s attention from what’s really going on in Syria with the Syrian people.

QUESTION:  You were aware of this incident last week, I believe?

MS. NULAND:  Which incident?

QUESTION:  The harassment of the ambassador.

MS. NULAND:  You’re talking about this particular case?


MS. NULAND:  We were.

QUESTION:  And you didn’t see – worth mention or condemning the Syrian authorities last week?

MS. NULAND:  Again, what we’re more interested in is making sure that the world knows that there is a strong Syrian opposition that wants to live a different way and is demanding its rights to influence its government and take its country in a democratic direction.
QUESTION:  So what other activities Ambassador Ford is doing?  For instance, has he been in touch with the Syrian artist, Ali Ferzat, who is laying in a hospital?  Has he – what kind of activities is he doing today, for instance?

MS. NULAND:  For security reasons and to protect those that he works and speaks with, we don’t name names in terms of his contacts.  I will simply say to you that he maintains on a daily basis, as does his staff, a broad cross-section of contacts across Syria in the opposition and those in the regime and in the military and elsewhere who also have questions about what Asad is up to so that he can give us a full report and so that he can represent accurately to the people of Syria our support for their democratic cause.

QUESTION:  It does appear, though, that you are intentionally antagonizing the Syrian Government to the potential risk of Ambassador Ford.

MS. NULAND:  It is the Syrian Government that is responsible for the violence, and we have to take steps to tighten the noose on them.

QUESTION:  But Ambassador Ford is also accredited to the Syrian Government.  He’s not accredited to the Syrian opposition.  So if you’ve basically – you’re going after the Syrian Government, not just the top leadership but the people that the ambassador would meet with presumably on a regular basis, does that not leave you concerned that he will no longer be welcome?

MS. NULAND:  The Syrian foreign minister and the others sanctioned on this list are key members of the regime’s inner circle and part of this campaign of violence that is ongoing.  With regard to posture of Ford and the foreign minister in the future, I can’t speak to that.  But simply to say that we felt it was important and we will continue to look for other opportunities to tighten the political and economic noose, and this is just the latest step in that regard.

I should note that when the United States slapped the Gaddafi family and top officials with sanctions in February this year, US personnel at the embassy in Tripoli was evacuated prior to the announcement. Last month, the US slapped three senior Syrian officials (including its Foreign Minister) with sanctions, and the U.S. Embassy in Damascus is still open for business. I am concerned for the safety of our personnel in Syria. Although the embassy has security guards, their main security in country is afforded them by the Syrian Government. What happens when the Assad regime withdraws that protection?

There is also the question of how much longer will Ambassador Ford be allowed by the Syrian Government to stay in Damascus before he gets PNG’ed.  He has been called an activist ambassador, but like the idealized expeditionary diplomats who boldly go to the most difficult places in the world, he is/they are subject to the whims of the host country where they are sent to represent the United States.

It seems that the ambassador’s role, at least in Syria has crossed into new territory – as bait in the administration’s effort to affect change in that country. What happens next?