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Should Embassy Damascus be closed?

 

The U.S. Embassy in Damascus is reportedly planning to shut down if the Syrian government can not -- or will not -- provide adequate security guarantees.  If the safety of Embassy personnel is seriously in danger, then of course they should make the safe call to protect them.  But the security rationale masks a deeper question:  at what point should Ambassador Robert Ford be recalled on political grounds?

I argued long and hard for Ford's confirmation as Ambassador, and for the importance of having someone like him on the ground in Damascus.  I believe that his performance has more than vindicated that stance.   But has the usefulness of his presence come to an end? 

There are three arguments to withdraw him and close the Embassy, beyond the security concerns.  First, the Asad regime is too far gone at this point for diplomacy, listens to nobody, and this leaves little room for traditional diplomacy.  Second, the rapid and frightening militarization of the conflict has seriously reduced the space for public diplomacy, as Embassy personnel (and Ford himself) have few opportunities to get out to engage.  Finally, withdrawing him would send a strong message to Asad and to the world that the window has closed on a transition which includes him.   

These arguments all have merit, and the point may soon come where withdrawing Ford and closing the Embassy would be appropriate.  But we have not yet reached that point.  All policy choices at this point on Syria must be guided by three objectives:  ending the violence and protecting civilians;  hastening Asad's fall;  and creating the conditions for a successful transition following Asad's fall.  One of the reasons which I continue to oppose Western military intervention is that while such a military role it may hasten Asad's fall it would likely create far less favorable conditions for post-Asad Syria.  The same goes for a deliberate strategy of arming the Syrian opposition, which could quickly empower armed militias at the expense of political leadership and create the conditions for wide-scale civil war following Asad's fall. 

Would withdrawing Ford and closing the Embassy serve those goals?  At this point, it would have little effect one way or the other on the violence.  Nor would it likely have much impact in hastening Asad's fall.  Asad would probably be thrilled to see him gone, frankly. It might matter at the margins if all major Embassies closed at the same time in a coordinated, multilateral demonstration of Asad's international isolation --- something which I would recommend when the time comes. But it isn't going to a primary driver of political change.

The core question, then, is whether a U.S. diplomatic presence helps create the conditions for a "soft landing" post-Asad.  At this point, I believe that it does. The Syrian National Council is still struggling to create a legitimate, effective and unified external opposition umbrella, and the State Department is doing what it can to work with them.  But increasingly the important action is taking place inside of Syria -- not just the Free Syrian Army, but the local leadership and opposition groups emerge in villages and cities.  They will likely play a key role in any post-Asad Syria.  The more opportunity the Embassy has to engage with, learn about, and forge relationships with these new forces inside Syria the better.

Beyond the internal opposition and the Asad regime, Ford and the Embassy also still have the chance to talk with the fence-sitters and elites whose decision to stick with or abandon Asad will likely determine his fate. They have legitimate fears about the future, and doubts about their fate after Asad.   It is just as important to talk with the business community, minorities, intellectuals, and other elites at this point as it is to talk with the emerging opposition.   The business community in particular needs to come to believe that the sanctions which Asad has brought upon them will increasingly harm their interests --- but could be quickly removed and their fortunes restored should Asad and his regime depart and a legitimate, inclusive political transition begun.

For now, then, Ford and the Embassy should stay in Damascus unless the security situation is genuinely too dangerous.  The political benefits of his presence, particularly for preparing for a potential transition and engaging emergent forces and frightened elites, still outweight the momentary impact of his withdrawal.  That may change, but for now I hope they stay.

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