U.S. Ambassador To Syria Discusses Recent Violence

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has drawn the ire of the Syrian regime by defying travel restrictions and supporting the opposition movement. Last week, he attended the memorial service for a human rights activist, who was arrested by Syrian authorities and died in custody. Earlier, he made unannounced trips to Syrian cities that have been hotbeds of unrest, where the regime has cracked down especially hard. Melissa Block talks with Ford about violence in Syria.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: The U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has drawn the ire of the Syrian regime by defying travel restrictions and supporting the opposition movement. Last week, he attended the memorial service for a human rights activist who was arrested by Syrian authorities and died in custody. Earlier, he made unannounced trips to Syrian cities that have been hotbeds of unrest, where the regime has cracked down especially hard. Ambassador Ford spoke with me today from Damascus and he responded to accusations from the Assad regime saying he's trying to provoke unrest.

Ambassador ROBERT FORD: In no way whatsoever am I an instigator or provocateur. First of all, consistently the United States government has said that it supports the Syrian people's right to peaceful, non-violent freedom of expression and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. These are rights that are in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the Syrian government itself signed. We have been very careful throughout this period to underline our support for peaceful protest and peaceful political evolution. And it is the Syrian government's use of completely disproportionate force that is causing the violence.

BLOCK: There are some reports, though, of protestors increasingly taking up arms. Is the peaceful opposition movement, in your view, turning more violent?

FORD: Right now, the leadership of the protest movement is determined to remain peaceful. We've just had an opposition meeting here in Damascus on Saturday and Sunday and, again, they came out with a communique saying no violence. The problem is, Melissa, that the Syrian government's constant use of disproportionate force is, itself, provoking violence and is, itself, in some cases, provoking retaliatory violence.

BLOCK: There was point when you were observing a sit-in in Damascus when pro-government demonstrators chased you. I've seen video of this. They tried to wrap a banner with President Assad's image around you. The Assad regime also encouraged its loyalists to throw rocks and eggs at the U.S. embassy there in the capitol. Are you seeing any signs that your diplomacy is breaking through in any way or is it actually moving in the opposite direction, that the regime is just growing more entrenched, more oppositional?

FORD: They have not changed their policy for oppression. In fact, I have to tell you, frankly, in recent days, if anything, I think it's gotten even worse. On the positive side, I think the Syrian people understand that the international community backs them. And at the same time, the protest movement's leaders are able to use the constant signs of international support to convince their own followers that non-violence remains the best avenue forward.

BLOCK: If I hear you right, Ambassador Ford, you're saying that you're having an effect on the opposition, but you're not seeing the same effect on the side of the regime. I guess what I'm curious about is if you're seeing any signs of softening or loosening on the part of the Assad regime or, in fact, are they more entrenched, more hardened in their position?

FORD: I cannot say that they have lightened their repressive tactics at all. But what that is doing is that is alienating more and more people inside Syria itself. We do see signs of change, even among what we sometimes refer to as the silent part of Syrian society that so far hasn't come out and marched on the streets. But this is an incremental process.

BLOCK: You have been active on Facebook. You've posted messages on the U.S. Embassy's Facebook page about the brutality of the Syrian regime. You called it the daily killings, beatings, torture of unarmed civilian protesters. What do you see is the role of social media and your place in it? And, in particular, do you think you're convincing any Assad loyalists to think in a different way?

FORD: I'm not trying to convince Assad loyalists, so much as I'm trying to convince Syrians who still haven't decided which way to go. What I've also noticed is when I put messages on Facebook, they are picked up almost immediately by the Arabic language satellite television stations like al-Jazeera. And so, it gets repeated more widely than even just Facebook itself.

BLOCK: Now, you have not been confirmed as ambassador by the full Senate. There have been Republicans who've said they might put a hold on your confirmation. They say that having a U.S. ambassador in Damascus actually rewards Syria and rewards its anti-American positions. How do you counter that criticism?

FORD: Well, it is up to the United States Senate to make a final decision on that. What I would say is that I think the people that I have met here from the Syrian business community, Syrian academics, people in the Syrian opposition, Syrian journalists, take more seriously the American message when it comes from an ambassador than they do when it comes from a lower-ranking American official. Coming from an ambassador, it carries a certain weight and a certain authority.

BLOCK: So the notion that your presence there is a validation of the Syrian regime, you reject that.

FORD: When the president of the United States, when the secretary of the Department of State, when the American ambassador all say that the regime in Syria has no credibility, when it has lost its legitimacy and that the president of Syria should step aside, that is a very clear policy statement.

BLOCK: Ambassador Ford, thank you very much for talking with us today.

FORD: No, it was my pleasure, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, he spoke with us from Damascus.

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