Outspoken Ambassador To Syria Returns To U.S.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford has been brought home from Syria because of fears for his safety. His very public criticism of government repression and his expressions of support for protesters — attending the funeral of a slain activist, for example — have brought threats. The United States accuses Syria's state-run media of inciting violence against him.

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We're going to hear now about America's ambassador to Syria, a man the U.S. decided would be in danger if he stayed at his post. Ambassador Robert Ford is now back home in Washington, D.C. He angered Syrian authorities by his outspoken support of opposition forces, forces raging against the government now.

The State Department insists it will send him back to make sure the U.S. has eyes and ears on the ground to witness the ongoing Syrian crackdown on protesters. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on how Ford's role in Syria has differed from most U.S. ambassadors around the world.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Ambassador Ford and his team have been pelted by eggs and had their cars attacked by what the State Department describes as rent-a-mobs. U.S. officials say he left Damascus because he was the victim of a smear campaign. Syrian government-run media accuse him of instigating the opposition. Though Ford has been keeping a low profile this week, he's usually outspoken, as he was in this recent BBC interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF BBC BROADCAST)

ROBERT FORD: The United States isn't leading Syria anywhere. The United States is asking only that the Syrian government respect basic human rights of their own people as enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration which the Syrian government is a signatory to.

KELEMEN: He's made his case on Facebook and has gone out of his way to meet opposition figures, even after the Syrian government restricted his travel. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland says he was just doing his job.

VICTORIA NULAND: Our ambassadors all over the world are very outspoken about U.S. policy. It is extremely common for American ambassadors to have Facebook pages, to tweet, to have an interactive relationship with the people of the country. So this is not unusual in the least.

KELEMEN: But the circumstances in Syria are unusual, says Ronald Neumann, a former ambassador who has worked with Ford in Algeria and elsewhere. Neumann says in most countries an ambassador has to push governments on some issues and work with them on others. But not in Syria. There the U.S. wants a democratic transition.

RONALD NEUMANN: In Syria you have a single policy which we are pushing the governments that we don't very much care for. And so this very public style of pressure and reaching out to the oppositionists has been extremely well suited for the purposes of the policy.

KELEMEN: It is a style that may not translate well elsewhere, says Theodore Kattouf, a former ambassador to Syria.

THEODORE KATTOUF: It was unorthodox but appropriate. It's not likely to become a template for ambassadors all over the world. I don't think that's going to be the case.

KELEMEN: Kattouf says Ambassador Ford did not go to Damascus looking to be confrontational.

KATTOUF: He's a very modest, self-effacing man. He's not somebody who went out there thinking I'm going to make myself the center of attention. But because of the hard-line attitude that the regime has taken, Bob Ford probably felt if he was going to be able to have any value, it might be to bear witness to the sufferings of the oppositionists and to give them hope that they hadn't been forgotten by the rest of the world.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration also wanted to prove to a reluctant Senate that there should be a U.S. ambassador in Syria. Ford went there on a recess appointment and was only just confirmed this month.

Syrian exiles praise Ambassador Ford for keeping a close watch on the government crackdown on protesters. But the jury is still out as to whether this very public approach by a diplomat has worked, says Neumann, who runs the American Academy of Diplomacy.

NEUMANN: It has definitely worked in the U.S. favor in terms of letting the opposition be very clear about what we are for. And it has worked in the sense that the Syrian government almost cannot avoid understanding what we are saying.

KELEMEN: But no policy works until there's change, he says. And for the time being, the U.S. ambassador is in a holding pattern, waiting until it's safe to return.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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