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.
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. 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.
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."
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.
Robert Ford answered President Kennedy’s call to service more than 30 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, and he has been serving our country – and the world - ever since. As a career member of the United States Foreign Service and a fluent Arabic speaker, he has served in critical diplomatic positions in Turkey, Egypt, Cameroon, Iraq, Bahrain, and Algeria.
Eighteen months ago, in a bid to encourage political reform in Syria, the United States dispatched Ambassador Ford to the Syrian Arab Republic to reestablish a diplomatic dialogue that had been corroded by years of political tension.
Ambassador Ford arrived in Damascus just when the glimmer of self-governance was sparking revolution all across the Middle East. As oppressive governments tried to extinguish the flames of democracy with violence, the people of the Arab world laid down their lives for the promise of a brighter future. Robert Ford might have watched all this unfold from the embassy.
President Kennedy’s observation, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” is a prescient description of the Syrian situation. Yet Robert Ford advanced the American ideals of freedom and democracy against a brutal and oppressive dictatorship willing to use deadly force against its own citizens engaged in peaceful demonstrations.
As he became a pointed critic of the Syrian government, and in the process, Ford himself became a target of violence.
In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” In Syria, Robert Ford did not remain silent. He walked through the streets all over Syria listening to those who yearned for the freedom to pursue their dreams. He used modern tools of communication to give voice to Syrians seeking a more just and peaceful society. He put his own safety at risk every time he met with a dissident or attended the funeral of a protestor. In all these ways, he redefined the role of American diplomacy and stood up for America ideals. But he will tell you he was just doing his job like so many other courageous diplomats, including his wife who is serving in Kenya and can’t be with us today.
This past February, the United States government closed its embassy and recalled Robert Ford to Washington, unable to ensure his safety. As the Middle East glows with the promise and the perils of freedom, Robert Ford’s public service is a tribute to my father’s belief that “one man of courage makes a majority”. He has shown the impact one person can have on the lives of millions and the obligation that each of us has to make a difference in this world.
My father would have been especially pleased to see a former Peace Corps Volunteer being honored in his name. I now ask Ambassador Robert Ford to come forward and accept the 2012 Profile in Courage Award.
[Ambassador Robert Ford]
Ms. Kennedy and members of the Kennedy family, Mr. Hunt, Members of the Awards Committee, my fellow awardees, and distinguished guests, it is an honor, and very humbling, to be here with you today.
I hardly deserve to be on the same list of Profile in Courage award recipients with great names in modern diplomatic history like Kofi Annan or to be compared to Wael Ghonim and the people of Egypt whom you recognized last year. Thank you very much.
I would first like to mention that Ms. Jay Breen, my aunt and wonderful friend for almost five decades, is here with me today. Jay, my mother Marian, my father Jack and my two brothers, Bill and Brian, have all been supportive and understanding while I have spent most of the past thirty years working in Africa and the Middle East. Most of all, I owe special thanks to my wife, Alison, who is a diplomat herself and could not be with us because she is now on a work assignment in Kenya.
I will admit to being quite surprised when I learned about receiving this award. I had a phone message saying that Caroline Kennedy had called and there was a phone number with a Massachusetts area code. I thought to myself, “Uh oh – I bet she’s going to ask me how to get a visa to Syria. And I’m going to have to convince her that visiting Syria now would be a really bad idea.”
These are indeed difficult days in Syria. I remember the picture of the Chinese student facing down an army tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Now, 23 years later, we are seeing that kind of courage, that kind of commitment in cities and towns across Syria on a daily basis. In this, the second year of the Arab Spring, Syrians are demanding freedom and demanding dignity more than ever.
I want to emphasize that word ‘dignity’ because it is the essence of the aspirations of young Syrians today -- dignity. They no longer accept that security officers can kill and torture with impunity. They no longer accept that officials get bribes for even routine administrative actions or that the sons and cousins of the top leaders are always above the law. Instead, I found that in 2011 and 2012, Syrians demand respect, and they demand the boot of a vicious security state be removed from their necks.
When I visited the protesters in Hama last July, without a suit and tie, the people there at first refused to believe that I was the American ambassador. They kept saying, “No, really? You?” I think they expected someone younger and with more hair – sort of like Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp. Once convinced that I was the American ambassador, dozens of people appeared, almost out of nowhere. They were grateful that a foreigner had come to hear their stories of abuse and their complaints of ill treatment. The people I met there, and elsewhere in Syria, wanted to be heard and they were happy that I could bear witness.
The Syrian government was furious that I had visited and accused me of smuggling weapons to the protesters. In fact, at that time, the Hama protests were peaceful and the reason we chose to visit Hama was that the tens of thousands of street protesters had stayed peaceful despite the constant threat of the Syrian army invading their city to try to crush the protest movement.
About a week after my visit, a video appeared on YouTube. It showed an old, white, washing machine, the kind my grandmother had, with a round cylinder agitator that slowly churned around making a “Ker-chunk, ker-chunk” sound. Plopped on top of the old washing machine was a satellite TV dish that turned with the agitator, “Ker-chunk, ker-chunk.”
On the washing machine was a hand-written sign that said, in Arabic, “Gift of the American Ambassador to Hama.”
A voice came on the video, in Arabic, and asked, “Ahmed, what is this?”
And Ahmed replied, “This is the secret gift from the American ambassador to the people of Hama.”
The first voice asked, “But, what is it?”
And Ahmed replied, “It is the latest American technology. Ker-chunk, ker-chunk. It cost one quarter of the American budget. It can locate and destroy jet aircraft. Ker-chunk. It can locate and destroy enemy tanks. Ker-chunk. And at the end of the battle, it can wash your clothes.”
I didn’t take advanced weapons to Hama. I went to demonstrate our strong support for the respect of all Syrians’ freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. These are enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document the Syrian government signed in 1948.
Last May, President Obama emphasized to all those in government who were working on the transitions in North Africa and the Middle East to help people there achieve freedom, dignity, and respect for their human rights. At the National Democratic Institute last November, Secretary Clinton reaffirmed our commitment to support the efforts of people in Syria, and the other nations in the region, to secure respect for their fundamental human rights.
And thus, I deeply appreciate the recognition by the committee today, but in fact I was following the lead of the President and the Secretary, as do my fellow Foreign Service diplomats. A good many of my colleagues would have done the same things that I did in Syria had they been sitting at the desk of the American ambassador in Damascus. Foreign Service officers and specialists work every day around the world to promote the respect of freedom of speech, of freedom of assembly, of freedom of association. We are joined at the State Department by a professional cadre of political appointees, Civil Servants, locally employed staff, and contractors -- all dedicated to securing America's interests, including advancing a set of universal rights. I was especially lucky to work with a great team – a very dedicated, hardworking, and brave team – at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. All of us on that team were working to support the Syrian people's right to get that boot off their necks.
In part, I understand the meaning of the Profile in Courage Award is that each person can make a difference, that those who receive it have in some manner restored belief in politics as a noble profession and a calling to public service. I look back at the body of work President Kennedy left behind, and that is enshrined around us today. And then I think of all the courageous Syrians who just want a chance... a chance to participate in an open, free political system. President Kennedy paid the ultimate price for his service to this nation. Many Syrians have also paid the ultimate price of service to their fellow countrymen. It is my fervent wish that the violence in Syria will end as soon as possible, that the Asad regime will depart, and that a new Syrian nation will emerge and take its place in the international community. For our part, we will re-double our efforts, working with a wide and diverse international coalition, to help the Syrians reach that goal.
On behalf of my team at the American Embassy in Damascus, and on behalf of those of us in the Foreign Service, and all those who choose public service as such a noble endeavor, thank you very much for this great honor.
Remarks delivered by Robert Ford on accepting the 2012 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, May 7, 2012. (As Prepared for Delivery)