If you’re wondering what diplomats can do in an era of pulverizing military force and instantaneous communications, consider the case of Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria. He has been meeting with the Syrian opposition around the country, risking his neck — and in the process infuriating the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Ford is an example of the free-form diplomacy the United States will need as it pulls back its troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s projecting American power quietly — through counseling the protesters and networking — rather than trying to wrap the opposition in the American flag, which would be the kiss of death for them.
I spoke with Ford last week by telephone, which is, at the moment, unfortunately the only way that most U.S. journalists can talk to him. He outlined the basic advice he has offered in meetings with opposition leaders, which is to remain peaceful and resist the slide toward sectarian violence.
Ford summarizes his message this way: “Don’t be violent. That’s crucial. If you do that, you’re playing into the hands of the government.”Ignatius then describes the current situation in Syria and provides some anecdotes and examples of what is occurring there. To be short, it includes, blood feuds, killings, and civil war. Then, he continues
Ford’s mission has been to encourage the internal opposition to get its act together politically. The two strongest groups of street protesters are known as the “Local Coordination Committees,” headed by a human rights lawyer named Razan Zeitouneh, and the “General Organization of the Syrian Revolution,” led by Suhair al-Atassi, the daughter of a prominent political family. The significant role of these women should help lessen Western worries that this movement is simply a creature of the Muslim Brotherhood.
What the Syrian opposition needs is political space in which to mature — and to develop a unified, nonviolent resistance to Assad. A U.N. Security Council resolution that might have provided monitors inside the country unfortunately was vetoed last week by Russia and China.
To meet the protesters, Ford has taken considerable personal risks. When he defied the government and bravely traveled to the embattled city of Hama in July, his vehicle was showered with roses by grateful protesters. But he was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by a pro-government mob when he visited an opposition leader in Damascus last month. And the U.S. Embassy itself was attacked by pro-government thugs in July.
Wherever he goes, Ford asks practical questions — pressing the activists about incentives for Syrian business or about reforming the government budget. He counsels the embattled protesters against military action — which would only bring on a vicious civil war. He thinks time works against Assad, if protesters can avoid the trap of sectarian conflict.I thought it was interesting to read a major publication discussing the role an Ambassador plays in guiding foreign policy and trying to help their local populations. You really don't hear much about how Ambassadors complete their missions and serve their countries overseas. You certainly don't hear much about the foreign service in Syria and the sacrifices they make. I wanted to pull out Ignatius's final sentence because I think it's something we often forget.
It’s a narrow ledge that Ford is walking. But it’s good to see an American diplomat in the lead for a change, instead of the U.S. military.It is good to see a diplomat leading instead of the military. It's not that our military isn't competent, but in terms of the Arab Spring, I think it's a much more effective approach to lead with diplomats.