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Our Man in Damascus

"I have seen no evidence yet in terms of hard changes on the ground that the Syrian government is willing to reform at anything like the speed demanded by the street protestors. If it doesn’t start moving with far greater alacrity, the street will wash them away."

That was the blunt verdict offered by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford in a wide-ranging telephone interview with Foreign Policy today. Ford sharply criticized the Syrian government's continuing repression against peaceful protestors and called on President Bashar al-Assad to "take the hard decisions" to begin meaningful reforms before it is too late. Not, Ford stressed, because of American concerns but because of the impatience of the Syrian opposition itself. "This is not about Americans, it is about the way the Syrian government mistreats its own people," Ford stressed repeatedly. "This is really about Syrians interacting with other Syrians. I’m a marginal thing on the sidelines. I’m not that important."

Some might disagree. Last Thursday and Friday, Ford made a dramatic visit to the embattled city of Hama to demonstrate the United States' support for peaceful protests and its condemnation of the Syrian government's use of violence. His trip to Hama electrified supporters of the Syrian opposition, and marked a sharp escalation in U.S. efforts to deal with the difficult Syrian stalemate. It also sparked a vicious Syrian response, as government-backed mobs attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, inflicting considerable damage. In a caustic note posted to his Facebook page, Ford called on the Syrian government to "stop beating and shooting peaceful demonstrators." Ford's sharp criticism of the Syrian government's violence against peaceful protestors and detailed outline of multilateral and American diplomatic efforts to pressure the Syrian regime suggest that the recent U.S. rhetorical escalation does mark a new stage in the ongoing crisis.

Ford warned that the Syrian government still failed to understand the depth and extent of the changes in their country. "They need to begin a really serious transition and not just talk or make promises," and to grant real political freedoms and to begin taking apart the oppressive and unaccountable security apparatus. While acknowledging that some Syrian gestures towards reform were significant within the local context, he dismissed most of the regime's reform proposals as "irrelevant." The Syrian government could not be credible while it continued to violently repress peaceful marches or to arrest a kid for spraying anti-regime graffiti -- in the eyes of its own people, regardless of what outsiders like the U.S. might think. The Syrian government "is not even close to meeting those demands. That is a genuine problem."

While the situation in Syria today may look like a stalemate, Ford sees it as far more dynamic beneath the surface. Compared to only a few months ago, the opposition has expanded and organized impressively, and has demonstrated phenomenal courage and remained largely non-violent. In part he chose Hama for his dramatic outing because "people in Hama over the last two months have been very conspicuous in avoiding violence." He noted that while touring Hama he saw nearly a dozen government buildings, unguarded, with only two broken windows on one building. Compare that, he wryly noted, to the extensive damage to his Embassy inflicted by the regime's thugs.

The Syrian people have broken the fear barrier, he argued, and now people are speaking more freely. Syria is changing, and the government needs to recognize that and respond appropriately rather than continuing in a futile effort to resist change through force. He marveled at the impact of satellite television and the Internet, which have dramatically shaped the worldviews and expectations of young Syrians. They simply will not accept what earlier generations did, and have already demonstrated powerfully that they will not shut up in the face of threats of violence. That is why Ford repeatedly deferred questions about specific political demands: "It's not an American decision. What we will not do is to claim to speak for them. They are capable of speaking for themselves."

But thus far, the Syrian regime has chosen to violently crack down on peaceful protests across the country, and has not made the kind of reforms which might have at an earlier point saved the regime. I asked Ford when the Syrian regime's violence would cross the line, when the repression and violence might have gone too far for any peaceful transition to be possible. "That's really not a question for Americans," he responded. "It's a question for the Syrian opposition, a lot of whom are quite tough. I've met enough of them, and believe me, they are a lot tougher than anyone in the Washington Post or the U.S. Senate. They know exactly what they are doing. I have talked to people who have lost immediate family, who have been killed or jailed. Nothing focuses the mind like that."

Ford dismissed the idea that prior to Hama he had been a captive in his Embassy, unable to engage with anyone. Quite the contrary. He has had access to both the Syrian government and to key sectors of Syrian society such as the business community. The threat of violent retaliation and intimidation of Syrians who meet with American officials is real, though, and he acknowledged that some had refused invitations out of this fear. Senior administration officials have told me several times in other conversations that Ford's conversations were one of their most important sources of information in assessing the Syrian scene. This is one key reason why they considered his presence essential even before his electrifying visit to Hama persuaded most of their critics of his value.

Ford waved away suggestions that he might rein in his activities in the face of official pressure. "I’m not going to stop the things I do," he said quietly. "I can’t. The president has issued very clear guidance. It’s morally the right thing to do." He plans to take further trips around the country, to continue to meet with as many Syrians as he can, and to push to open political space and to restrain regime violence. He doesn't think that the Obama administration will recall him, and has no indication as yet whether the Syrian government will expel him.

For now, he sees his role as doing what he can to open political space for the Syrian people to push their own demands for political freedoms, restraints on an unaccountable and anachronistic security apparatus, and a meaningful political transition. The United States, he emphasizes, is not supporting any specific Syrian opposition movement or personality. Nor is it endorsing a specific transition plan, a move which he believes would reproduce the mistakes made by the Bush administration in Iraq in 2004. The process "has to move at Syrian speed, not at a speed set in Washington, London or Brussels."

His emphasis on the role of the Syrian people and on multilateral action reflects the general approach of the Obama administration to this year's Arab upheavals. Ford refused to put the United States at the center of what is fundamentally a Syrian uprising for political rights, or to substitute an American transition plan for the ideas developed by the Syrian opposition itself. He refuses, wisely in my view, to make an Arab story about America -- even as he works tirelessly behind the scenes to construct effective action in support of popular demands. "This is a Syrian decision, not an American one. We will certainly encourage the Syrian people to demand their rights." That includes continuing to work multilaterally with Europeans and with Syria's neighbors, to coordinate targeted sanctions on people in the regime responsible for repression, and to push the Security Council to take on the issue.

The goal is to create a "space for genuine politics and free expression without the threat of violence." That remains an ambiguous and even murky endpoint in an increasingly violent and polarized environment. While he declined to answer the question of whether such an outcome was possible with the Asad regime in power, it is difficult at this point to see how it could be. That decision will ultimately be one for the Syrian people, not for the United States, Ford repeatedly stressed. But as the Obama administration's rhetoric sharpens and actions follow suit, it may become more and more difficult to maintain that balance.

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