US sends ambassador to Syria for the first time in six years

US ambassador Robert Ford faces a daunting list of diplomatic concerns in Syria. If he fails to make headway, the Senate could bring him home by year's end.

By , Correspondent

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    The snow-covered Mount Qassioun is seen overlooking Damascus city, Syria, on Dec. 12, 2010.
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After nearly a six-year frost in US-Syrian diplomatic relations, newly appointed American ambassador Robert Ford is scheduled to arrive tomorrow in Damascus, where he will face a daunting list of diplomatic concerns.

The icy relations between Damascus and Washington during the Bush era may have thawed somewhat, but President Barack Obama's efforts to reengage have made little headway on key issues. They include:

• a resumption of long-stalled peace talks between Syria and Israel
• an investigation into suspected Syrian nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency
• Syrian support for organizations such as Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas, both of which are designated by the US as terrorist groups
• Syrian influence in Lebanon, its tiny neighbor to the West which has plunged once more into crisis with the collapse on Wednesday of the coalition government.

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Washington recalled its previous ambassador, Margaret Scobey, for “urgent consultations” in February 2005, a day after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, in which Syria was widely suspected as a culprit. Although there was no formal severance of diplomatic relations, Ms. Scobey never returned to the embassy in Damascus.

In June 2009, Obama announced that he was sending a new US ambassador to Damascus, but it was not until seven months later that he named Ford, a career diplomat, as the new head of mission. Even then, Ford’s departure was delayed because the Senate refused to confirm his appointment due to its opposition to returning an ambassador to Syria. Obama took advantage of the Senate recess last month to sign off on several diplomatic appointments, including Ford, allowing the new ambassador to take up his position.

Ford, who has extensive diplomatic experience in the Middle East, arrives at a moment of renewed speculation over the possibility of movement on the long moribund Syria-Israel peace track following the collapse of the Israel-Palestinian track in November. Traditionally, in Middle East peacemaking, when one of the two peace tracks crumbles, attention switches to the other. Speculation aside, analysts doubt that a breakthrough in Israeli-Syrian talks is imminent.

Although Ford is likely to have his hands full juggling multiple diplomatic files, his term in Damascus may be short-lived. The Senate still has to confirm his posting, a procedure that must take place before the end of the year. If the Senate votes against the appointment, Ford may find himself back in Washington sooner than he might have hoped. Much depends on whether Syria’s stance in the coming months can persuade the Senate to set aside any misgivings they have for the Arab state.

“If [the Syrians] pocket the appointment and don't make any major changes in policy – which is largely what they have done so far – Ford is unlikely to clear Senate confirmation,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If they do make major changes or there are US-sponsored Syrian-Israeli talks, then he would likely stay and wade through the stack of issues between the two countries. Either way it's going to be a tough job.”

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