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Trying to Build Bridges with Syria

Robert Ford

Robert Ford

In January 2011, Robert Stephen Ford ’80 became the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in more than five years. A photo marking the occasion shows him sitting beside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in matching powder-blue armchairs.

“My hands are politely folded so I don’t leap out of the chair and start arguing with him,” Ford says of the image. “I didn’t go there with a lot of expectations because our relationship with Syria has been so contentious for so many years.”

And things would quickly tilt from bad to worse once the Arab Spring movement reached Syria just a few weeks later, in the form of the first tentative public protests against government repression. Ford and his staff made no friends in Assad’s circle by meeting with opposition leaders and giving eyewitness accounts of their peaceful protest. A resolute Assad eventually turned troops loose on the movement, birthing a bloody civil war. Barely a year after arriving in Damascus, with his own safety now in doubt, Ford performed an ambassador’s most woeful duty: hauling down the American flag and shutting the embassy. “We felt like we were abandoning the Syrian activists,” Ford says.

A departure from dangerous Damascus is but the latest dramatic event in a 28-year Foreign Service career spent largely in the Middle East amid rough diplomatic waters. Ford’s past postings include four years as counselor and deputy of mission at the U.S. embassy in Iraq, and ambassador to troubled Algeria. “What distinguishes my career is that I’ve been in a lot of countries where political change has been a vitally urgent issue, even to the point of armed conflict,” Ford says. “There’s never a dull moment.”

Curiously, a desire to work in this part of the world was born in a darkened movie theater back in his native Denver. “I saw the film Lawrence of Arabia when I was a teenager and fell in love with it,” he says. “I became intrigued with the Middle East.”

His cinema-spawned interest in a world beyond our borders led him to Johns Hopkins in 1976, where he embarked on a five-year BA/MA international studies program involving three years at Homewood and two at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. He began learning Arabic while in Washington and later landed a spot in a highly competitive, intensive Arabic language program in Cairo. A Peace Corps stint in Morocco cemented his interest in the Arab world while opening his eyes to its challenges. “It’s one thing to sit in a class and talk about a disconnection between government and a population, and a very different thing to see it up close,” Ford says.

He joined the State Department in 1985, where today he heads a team in daily contact with activists in Syria while working with regional partners and the United Nations to resolve a conflict that is estimated to have killed 70,000. “We want to help achieve a political transition in Syria which enables Syrians to be free,” Ford says. “We don’t see how Assad, who has used everything from rockets to Scud missiles to aircraft to just plain torture, has any legitimacy now.”

Despite this ongoing conflict, and the political setbacks and unrest some other Arab Spring movements (such as those in Egypt and Tunisia) are experiencing, Ford remains hopeful for the region’s democratic future.

“These societies have a very different historical experience from our own, but there is a certain common, universal human drive to have freedom,” he says. “There’s no reason to assume that Arab societies, which have long been bottled up by political oppression, will find answers to tough problems in two or three years. There will obviously be some trial and error and some excess along the way. I think it’s important for us to be in regular contact with the movers and shakers of these societies, which could be a businessman, a shopkeeper on the street, or top political leaders and generals. We don’t tell them what to do, but rather share a perspective and remind them that there are certain universal standards to which they will be held accountable.”

And if he could pull up a powder-blue armchair alongside Assad today?

“If I would sit with him now, my question would be this: Is it really worth destroying your country for you to stay in power? The killing and destruction, is it worth it to you?”