Our embattled man in Damascus, Ambassador Robert Ford, is threatened not only by the Syrian regime but by Republican senators who are dragging their feet on confirming his appointment. Their opposition, which is founded on the premise that we should not dignify Bashar Assad's regime with an ambassador, is understandable but misguided. Ford has been a profile in courage in opposing Assad.
This should be no surprise to anyone who has followed the low-key Arabist's career. A lifelong Foreign Service officer and fluent Arabic speaker, he performed admirably in Iraq in a variety of roles under trying conditions. He has done even better since the beginning of protests against the Syrian regime in March.
Assad has sent the army and security services into the streets to kill thousands of people. A different sort of diplomat might have stood on the sidelines or delivered mealy-mouthed official demarches. Not Ford. He has traveled across the country in spite of the government's attempts to restrict his movements. He has met with opposition leaders and spoken out forcefully against Assad's repression. Just last week he was at the funeral of a prominent human rights activist before it was attacked by security forces. The U.S. Embassy has been assaulted and Ford has been threatened with death, but he has not desisted.
I spoke with Ford on Wednesday. During our conversation, he expressed his conviction that although the Assad regime is not in imminent danger of dissolution, its days are numbered: "Will the regime fall tomorrow? Probably not. Is it stable over the long term? Probably not."
In support of his conviction that the regime could be overthrown within the year, he cited the willingness of the Syrian people to risk death by continuing to protest, and the growing international isolation of the regime. The European Union has joined with the U.S. to impose strict sanctions on Syria's most important export: oil. Even if another buyer such as China wanted to step into the void, it would be hard-pressed to do so because Syria produces heavy crude that requires costly, specialized facilities to refine. Ford noted that the Syrian business community — a pillar of the Assad regime's support — is already feeling the stress and that the country's economic difficulties will grow more severe in the coming months.
The regime is being kept afloat by support from Iran, which provides assistance in repression to the Syrian security forces, and from Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, all members of the U.N. Security Council that shamefully block that body from backing sanctions. (They claim they do not want to risk another Libya-style war; more likely they do not want to risk their ties with Damascus.) But Ford seemed confident that U.S. and European pressure will start to peel away some of these opportunistic Assad backers.
What about internal support? So far, unlike in Libya after the start of its revolution, there have not been high-level defections from the government. Syria is ruled by an Alawite clique that fears it will pay a heavy price if the country's Sunni majority takes power. But Ford believes the regime's unity will crack. He points out that to repress protests, the government has had to deploy the army in all the major cities. "Over time, as the army is in constant contact with the urban population, [the troops] will grow more and more uncomfortable.... You cannot do that indefinitely. It will have a corrosive effect on morale."
Much of the energy fueling the protests has come from local committees that lack national leadership. This is both a strength and a weakness: a strength because the protests are hard to stamp out, a weakness because they are not coordinated.
Exiled opposition leaders have been meeting in Istanbul, Doha and other cities, with the encouragement of the U.S. and our allies. Oppositionists must do more to assure the country's minorities — principally Alawites and Christians — that they will not be persecuted in a post-Assad Syria. They must also convince the business community that Assad's downfall will be good for business. The increasing international pressure on Assad is strengthening that argument.
Ford's future is almost as uncertain as Syria's. He was given a recess appointment by President Obama after Republican senators blocked his nomination. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently approved him, but he has not yet managed to get a vote on the floor, and the clock is running on his recess appointment: Without confirmation, he cannot serve past this year.
There is something to be said for calling the ambassador home as a sign of American displeasure with Assad. But as Ford said, "If you have a lower-ranking American diplomat going to Hama [a center of the protests, which he visited in July], it just doesn't have the same crack, the same oomph."
It is possible that Ford may be expelled by the Syrian government in any case, but as long as he can stay in Damascus, he will support the demands of the protesters. The Senate should give him the opportunity to continue his valuable work.
Max Boot is a contributing editor to Opinion and a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.