Bashar al-Assad meets US envoy George Mitchell (Archive-Reuters)
US President Barak Obama on Wednesday appointed the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005, using the Christmas recess to bypass opposition from Senate Republicans.
Because he was appointed while the Senate is in recess, Robert Ford will not need Senate confirmation. But he can serve only until the end of the next session of Congress, which will likely be in December 2011.
"Ambassador Ford is a highly accomplished diplomat with many years of experience in the Middle East," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.
"His appointment represents President Obama's commitment to use engagement to advance U.S. interests by improving communication with the Syrian government and people."
Ford is an experienced diplomat who has worked with difficult governments and political issues having served as ambassador to Algeria and deputy chief of mission in Iraq. He is no novice to challenging diplomatic posts.
A Syrian diplomatic source, in response to the appointment, told Ahram Online that Damascus was glad to hear that America will send an ambassador to Syria.
“Such a move will reinforce Washington's credibility in the region and open the door for serious cooperation between the two countries on regional and local issues,” he added.
Ford is expected to work closely with the US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, to move forward peace talks between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights.
The source expressed his doubt that Syrian peace with Israeli would be a priority for Ford as there are other more pressing regional issues such as stability in Iraq and the indictment of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq El Hariri's assassins.
“Unless there is a good will from Washington on the peace process there will be no change on the ground,” he added.
The tense relations between Syria and the U.S. started to improve after Obama took office in January last year.
"If confirmed by the Senate, Ambassador Ford will engage the Syrian government on how we can enhance relations, while addressing areas of ongoing concern," said Gibbs.
Former President George W. Bush first imposed minor economic sanctions on Syria in May 2004, arguing that it supports terrorism and was undermining U.S. operations in Iraq by allowing weapons and fighters to cross its open border.
The economic and diplomatic sanctions were renewed by the Obama administration in May and were expected to be renewed next June by Congress after the Democrats lost its majority.
Robert Ford was first nominated to be the new United States Ambassador to Syria in February, but his appointment was opposed by a number of senators.
In a March 5 letter to the State Department, eight of the senators wrote “the U.S. pays a price for lending even a modicum of international legitimacy to a regime like Syria’s.”
In his testimony on March 12 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ford responded to the letter saying “especially at a time when the Middle East confronts increasing regional tensions, we must be talking every day and every week with top-level officials who have influence and decision-making authority, they need to hear directly from us, not from the media or third-party intermediaries, what are our bottom lines and the potential costs to them – and to the region – of their miscalculations.”
Obama’s move came amid tension between the White House and Congress over the appointment process as Obama's administration has 79 pending nominees for diplomatic and political posts.
One of the pending nominees is former ambassador to Egypt Francisis Rechardonee, who was nominated a few months ago to be Washington’s ambassador to Turkey.