Administration point man for Syria likely to retire later this year

(FILES) -- Ambassador Robert Ford at a Senate committee hearing in 2010 on his nomination to be ambassador to Syria. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Ambassador Robert Ford  in 2010 (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

The administration’s point man for Syria, Robert Ford, has told friends he is likely to leave the State Department later this year, our colleague Anne Gearan reports.

On paper, Ford is still the U.S. ambassador to Syria, but his job has been to lead the U.S. policy of supporting the Syrian opposition movement since the embassy in Damascus shut down two years ago this week. Here’s his live broadcast Jan. 28 on Orient TV to the Syrian people from Geneva, where peace talks are taking place.

Click here to watch the video.

The first round of talks ended without any visible progress, and with U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi saying so publicly. An effort to build confidence by opening a limited humanitarian route to the besieged city of Homs did not materialize, despite Ford’s back-room efforts. A second round is set to begin next week, so Ford will be back in Geneva.

A career foreign service officer, fluent Arabic speaker and well-regarded former top official in the Baghdad embassy, Ford was in line to become the next ambassador to Egypt. The nomination died before it was born, however, when officials of the interim military-backed government in Cairo nixed it, according to several people familiar with the unusual decision.

Ford was an indirect casualty of the coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood-backed elected president, Mohamed Morsi, last summer. Although widely liked by many Egyptian officials, Ford’s vocal support for the Syrian opposition movement and close ties to Persian Gulf nations made him suspect to the Egyptian military that has held de facto power since July, current and former U.S. officials said. Egypt’s opposition was first reported by Foreign Policy magazine.

Ordinarily, career officers named to major posts in friendly capitals have no trouble winning “agreement,” the diplomatic term for the acceptance of one country’s choice for ambassador. But the Egyptian military, which long considered the Muslim Brotherhood movement a political enemy, feared that Ford was too close to Islamist political movements across the Middle East, U.S. and Arab officials said.

Ford’s nomination had been planned for January, U.S. and other officials said. The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because neither Ford nor the White House have spoken publicly about the doomed plan. Instead, the embassy No. 2, deputy chief of mission Marc J. Sievers, was promoted to charge d’affaires Jan. 21.

“Robert Ford has not been nominated for a new position. Beyond that, we don’t have any comment on personnel,” said Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman.

Those interested in comparing career foreign service diplomats to mega-bundler ambassador appointees might want to compare Ford’s TV chat with the testimony last month of two Obama White House contributor- nominees to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.
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