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01 October 2023

Obama names first US ambassador to Syria in five years

President Barack Obama Tuesday nominated career diplomat Robert Ford as the first US ambassador to Syria in five years, seeking to engage a US foe and energize his thwarted Middle East peace push.

Ford will be the first US ambassador to Damascus since Washington recalled its envoy after Lebanon's former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was killed in February 2005 in a bombing blamed on Syria.

"Ambassador Ford is a highly accomplished diplomat with many years of experience in the Middle East," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

"His appointment represents President Obama's commitment to use engagement to advance US interests by improving communication with the Syrian government and people.

"If confirmed by the Senate, Ambassador Ford will engage the Syrian government on how we can enhance relations, while addressing areas of ongoing concern."

But the nomination ignited a festering row with Republicans over Obama's signature policy of seeking to engage US foes.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committee blasted the move as "reckless engagement" and a reward for a US enemy.

"With this nomination, our foreign policy again risks sending the message that it is better to be an intractable enemy than a cooperative, loyal US ally," she said in a statement.

"Despite the Administration's outreach, Syria continues to sponsor violent extremist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, to undermine Lebanon's sovereignty, and to pursue unconventional weapons and missile capabilities."

The White House announcement came on the eve of a visit to Syria by William Burns, a top State Department official, which the administration says will further dialogue with Damascus on "all aspects" of a strained relationship.

Obama has seen his efforts to engage Iran and broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians founder in his first year in office, and the overture to Syria may be aimed at seeking a new way to ease the deadlock.

But analysts say it seems unlikely that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, with a first priority of ensuring its own survival, will be keen to sever links with Iran or make immediate concessions to Israel.

US officials may be keen to increase intelligence cooperation with Syria, though its stakeholding in Lebanon via Hezbollah, the Shiite political and militant movement, will likely prove a long-term impediment to better ties.

The Obama administration announced earlier this month that it picked a new ambassador, and passed Ford's name, as per diplomatic protocol, to Damascus for approval before it was publicly announced.

Obama's move triggered immediate opposition from his Republican foes in Congress.

Ford, currently deputy chief of mission in the US embassy in Baghdad, was previously ambassador to Algeria, and has also had postings in Izmir and Cairo in a 25-year career in the US Foreign Service.

Obama apparently paved the way for the announcement on Friday, calling Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to tell him that he strongly supports the effort to bring the killers of his late father to justice.

The previous administration of president George W. Bush recalled the US ambassador from Damascus and put relations with Syria on hold in 2005, following Rafiq Hariri's killing.

His death in a massive bomb blast on the Beirut seafront in February of that year was widely blamed on Syria although Damascus has denied any involvement.

An international tribunal based in The Hague was set up by a UN Security Council resolution in 2007 to try suspects in the murder.

A UN commission of inquiry initially said it had found evidence to implicate Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services but there are no suspects in custody.