Envoy to Syria inches closer toward confirmation


U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, left, in Syria earlier this summer. (Louai Beshara — AFP/Getty Images)

Ford came a step closer to that goal on Tuesday, with his nomination passing out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a voice vote. However, four Republicans on the 19-member committee asked that their vote be recorded as negative.

Now the nomination goes to the full Senate.

Ford got a “recess” appointment in December after Republicans withheld support, arguing that sending an ambassador would be a reward to Syria’s hard-line ruler, Bashar al-Assad.

There had been no U.S. ambassador in Damascus since 2005, when the Bush administration pulled Margaret Scobey because of suspected Syrian involvement in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

In recent weeks, Ford has been a high-profile critic of Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. A career Foreign Service officer and fluent Arabic speaker, he has traveled twice to Syrian cities to show support for the protesters, once in defiance of government restrictions.

“Most people don’t have a problem with Ford specifically. He actually is pretty good,” said one Republican staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss deliberations among Republicans. “There’s been a deeper question of the administration’s having a clear, consistent, coherent policy on Syria.”

“That’s really what’s driving the concern of a lot of senators on the Hill,” the staffer said. “I think, from that perspective, you could potentially anticipate a number of senators putting holds on Ford.”

Still, he said, while about 10 senators were opposed to Ford’s nomination earlier in the year, about half have changed their minds. They include Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who voted for Ford on Tuesday.

Any senator can block a nomination by putting a “hold” on it. If Ford is not confirmed by year’s end, his posting to Syria expires. Those voting against his confirmation on Tuesday were senators James Risch (Idaho), Mike Lee (Utah), Jim DeMint (S.C.) and John Barrasso (Wyo.).

The administration has argued that Ford plays an important role in communicating U.S. policy to Assad’s government and encouraging the democratic opposition.

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