Robert S. Ford began serving a recess appointment as the U.S. Ambassador to Syria in January 2011; his appointment was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in October 2011. He is the first American ambassador posted to Damascus since 2005, when the U.S. withdrew its diplomatic presence amid tensions over the Iraq war, human rights complaints, and the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Ford’s arrival in 2011 signaled a significant effort by the U.S. to reopen diplomatic dialogue with Syria. In Ford, the U.S. had dispatched to Damascus one of the most skillful and accomplished Arabists in the Foreign Service.
Robert Ford has worked throughout the Middle East during his nearly thirty-year career in the United States Foreign Service. He began his career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco from 1980 to 1982. Since 1985, he has served in various diplomatic capacities in Turkey, Egypt, Cameroon, Iraq, Bahrain, and Algeria. He was Deputy Chief of Mission to Bahrain from 2001 until 2004, Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 until 2006, and Ambassador to Algeria from 2006 until 2008. He served a second tour as a Political Counselor in Baghdad from 2008 until 2009. Ford has received numerous awards from the Department of State and the Department of Defense, including the 2005 James Clement Dunn Award for Excellence.
In January 2011, a few short weeks after Ford arrived in Syria, a wave of prodemocracy protests swept through the Middle East. Now commonly called the “Arab Spring,” these demonstrations eventually brought down oppressive regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In Syria, similar public protests have challenged the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad has sought to maintain control by deploying Syrian army ground forces and snipers to squelch the opposition movement with violence, even in residential, civilian neighborhoods. The United Nations has estimated that over 10,000 people had been killed in the Syrian uprisings between January 2011 and March 2012.
On the ground in Syria, Ford’s robust diplomacy centered on a strong show of support for the Syrian opposition movement. At personal risk, he has traveled all over the country, talking with the Syrian people and using social media to encourage dissidents to embrace forms of non-violent protest against government-backed brutality. In this way, as The Jerusalem Post observed, “he has carved out a niche for himself in the region, defying stereotypes about what diplomats can and should do.”
Ford’s courageous support for the opposition garnered global attention in July 2011, when he visited the city of Hama in advance of planned demonstrations there. Hama had become a focal point of the uprising against the government, and the Syrian Army had begun to ring the city in preparation for a major assault. Ford’s physical presence in Hama, without official sanction from the Syrian government, functioned as a visible statement of support for the demonstrators and an unambiguous rebuke of the government-backed violence against them.
In an August 2011 interview with ABC News, Ford acknowledged that his presence in Hama had displeased Assad’s regime. But he spoke resolutely against the government’s violent crackdown: “I don’t particularly care [if Syria is angry], because we have to show our solidarity with peaceful protestors. I’d do it again tomorrow if I had to…I’m going to keep moving around the country. I can’t stop.” This and other explicit displays of solidarity with the Syrian people stretched the usual bounds of formal diplomacy and put his own safety at risk.
After his visit to Hama, the Associated Press reported that Ford’s residence was vandalized, his convoy was attacked in Damascus, and he was pelted with rotten eggs and tomatoes when he went to meet with dissidents or to visit mosques. In September 2011, as he arrived at a Damascus office building for a meeting with an opposition leader, Ford was assaulted by a pro-Assad mob and trapped inside the building for more than an hour. Embassy vehicles were vandalized as the mob tried to storm the building. Despite these and other attacks, and despite knowledge that Syrian intelligence agents were following him, Ford continued to support the opposition by attending protestor funerals, speaking with Syrians on the ground and through social media, and educating Americans via satellite images and descriptions of the conflict on the embassy’s official Facebook page.
Ford’s heroic, “muscular” diplomacy, as The Jerusalem Post wrote, represented “a departure from the long-standing practice of US State Department functionaries...toeing the line when it comes to dictators and human rights abuses.” The New York Times also praised Ford, saying, “his actions are giving hope to Syrians, and clearly frightening the regime.”
In October 2011, the U.S. government recalled Robert Ford from Damascus, citing credible threats to his safety. Despite continued violence, Ford returned to Syria in early December, but as the violence worsened, the U.S. recalled all but a few embassy staff. On February 6, 2012, the United States closed the American embassy and removed Ambassador Ford from the country. Robert Ford continues to serve his post from Washington, D.C.
The 2012 Profile in Courage Award is presented to Ambassador Robert Ford for the courageous example he has set and the light he has shone on the power of creative and robust diplomacy to serve as a vital tool for advancing human rights.