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Republican senators threaten to block Ford nomination

Republican senators threaten to block Ford nomination

Twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday to let her know they intend to block the nomination of Robert Ford, whom President Obama has named to become the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years.

In the letter (pdf), 12 Republican senators, any one of whom could hold up the Ford nomination, said they weren’t satisfied with the State Department’s latest attempt to alleviate their concerns about sending an envoy to Damascus amid allegations that the Syrian government may have sent Scud missiles to the terrorist group Hezbollah.

The senators aren’t buying State’s argument that sending an ambassador to Syria is not a reward, but rather a smart way to engage and perhaps even persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop taking provocative actions.

"If engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior," the letter reads.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said recently that "Syria and Iran are providing Hezbollah with rockets and missiles of ever-increasing capability," but did not confirm that Syria had sent Scuds to the Lebanese militant group.

Not only have U.S. officials said they aren’t sure whether Syria actually did make such a transfer (nor has the Israeli government presented evidence to back up its allegations, which Syria denies) but the administration contends that the lack of a U.S. ambassador is actually making it very difficult to talk to Assad on a daily basis. A recent State Department inspector general’s report found that the embassy isn’t getting much face time with senior Syrian officials.

High-level visits, such as the recent ones by Undersecretary Bill Burns and Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman, are actually more of a reward, administration officials say, because they always make news. An ambassador can do the quiet unglamorous diplomacy that’s called for in Damascus, they argue, without the fanfare.

The GOP senators don’t see it that way, however, and won’t budge until State tells them what "new sanctions" it will place on Syria, or alternatively, when the deadline for engagement to show results will be.  They also want State to send over congressionally mandated reports on sanctions that State has simply never completed.

Indicating some pique that Clinton didn’t respond to their last letter on this subject, they write tersely, "We would appreciate a response from you personally." The department’s previous response came from Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma.

Meanwhile, Ford languishes at home, having given up his previous gig at the Baghdad Embassy but unable to start something new while this drama plays out.