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State Department defends returning envoy to Syria

State Department defends returning envoy to Syria

The State Department is justifying its return of an ambassador to Syria, despite some discouraging signs coming out of Damascus regarding the Syrian regime’s treatment of its own citizens as well as its attitude toward the United States.

Recent statements and actions by the Syrian government have been “unhelpful” to stability in the region and Syria is not living up to its obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty or cooperating fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, a letter from State to some key senators acknowledges. Syria still is guilty of human rights violations, continues support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and continues its “unhelpful efforts” in the Arab League, in the State Department’s view.

Regardless, the administration’s decision to nominate Robert Ford, the No. 2 official at the U.S. Embassy  in Baghdad, to be the first U.S. ambassador in Syria in more than four years is needed to build the level of dialogue and interaction to help convince Syria improve its bad behavior, Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma wrote in the letter, first reported by National Journal.

“No other U.S. official in Damascus can provide the outreach and high-profile attention to the Syrian people that an ambassador can,” Verma wrote. “Greater engagement is not a concession.”

Verma was responding to this letter sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and signed by eight GOP Senators, which cited the State Department’s own human rights reports to question whether Syria had earned the honor of having its U.S. ambassador returned.

“Engagement for engagement’s sake is not productive,” the senators wrote. “However well-justified that engagement is, the U.S. pays a price for lending even a modicum of international legitimacy to a regime like Syria’s.”

Hill sources said they were less than impressed with the State Department’s response, both because the substance seemed thin and because Clinton had not responded herself. Nevertheless, there is no indication that Republicans plan to hold up the Ford nomination … yet.