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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 ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin