By Rahul Ravi
In what seems to be a spontaneous burst of soft power machismo, US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford traveled today to Hama in an effort to show solidarity with the protest movement. At least that is what the State Department is saying in its official statement. In response, the Syrian government has retorted with its typical conspiracy laden accusations. “See,” the government of Syria says, “these protests are nothing but American and Israeli manipulations.” While that may ring with those conspiracy types in Syria, it didn’t stop the protestors in Hama from shelling the American ambassador’s car with olive branches and roses. Furthermore, Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy’s Passport blog makes a perfectly valid argument: Assad has been making the foreign conspiracy argument since the protests began, and they just kept growing. Obviously it doesn’t hit a chord.
The thing that strikes me in this episode is Ambassador Ford’s willingness to step outside the bounds of the embassy walls and actually do something. The United States has very little leverage on Syria. Washington cannot make good on military threats because it is spread too thing. Furthermore, Syria has been sanctioned for so long that the US has almost no economic leverage on Damascus. It is the conundrum that comes with isolating a country: when the time comes to apply pressure, there is no conduit to do so. The same could be said of North Korea. Pyongyang is all alone except for patronage from China and some support from Syria. So Washington can’t get the Dear Leader to do with Washington wants but China can (sometimes). With Syria, we have basically abdicated any influence to Turkey and Iran. Is that really the goal of isolating a nation?
Ford’s march to Hama reignites, to a certain extent, the maxim that America should lead in principal. This has been lacking recently in the Middle East. But Ford’s actions today in support of the Syrian people’s right to freely assemble and protest their government gives practical weight to President Obama’s assertion that the United States stands behind the will of the Syrian people. Furthermore, to go to Hama of all places, solidifies American displeasure with the violence exhibited by the Assad regime thus far. What better way to show up Damascus, and specifically Assad, to attend protests in a city where Assad’s father killed 10,000 people in a political crackdown? All this isn’t to say that Friday, July 8th will be the day Assad rues from whichever place of exile he’ll end up. But it is certainly refreshing to see an Ambassador do his job in a country that is currently in the throes of a democratic movement.