Engage the Syrian People - Not the Regime

By Joseph Lieberman
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The nominee, Robert Ford, was one of our most talented foreign service officers. But I felt that dispatching an ambassador to Damascus would be a mistake given Assad's failure to alter any of his outrageous policies that had undermined our bilateral relations - sheltering and sponsoring terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas; facilitating the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, where they killed U.S. troops; interfering in Lebanon's internal affairs; and blatantly violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by building a nuclear reactor with North Korean help.

In the face of Senate opposition to Mr. Ford's nomination, President Obama last December exercised his constitutional prerogative to send him to Damascus with a recess appointment. That appointment expires at the end of this year - hence the administration's decision to renominate him.

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This time, I believe the Senate should quickly vote to confirm Mr. Ford as our top diplomat in Damascus. Here are my reasons.

While the Obama administration originally envisioned Amb. Ford's primary purpose as engagement with the Syrian regime, that is no longer the case. Rather than being an envoy to Assad, Mr. Ford is now first and foremost our ambassador to the Syrian people and a bridge to the democratic transition they demand. This is a role for which Mr. Ford - an innovative and tough diplomat with extensive experience in the Middle East - is uniquely well-suited.

The ambassador's important and powerful visit last month to the city of Hama - where peaceful protesters had seized control, but where Syrian forces now are engaged in a gruesome campaign of violence - was an example of the kind of forward-leaning, gutsy diplomacy that our Syria policy now needs. It was also a powerful reminder that, while we cannot dictate the outcome of the struggle in Syria, U.S. leadership is pivotal-and Amb. Ford provided it.

In the weeks ahead, I am hopeful that the ambassador will find other ways to demonstrate increased U.S. solidarity with the Syrian people, including by visiting other areas where protesters are under siege and in desperate need of help.

Besides confirming Amb. Ford, Congress can also impose sanctions on companies involved in the energy trade with Syria. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Mark Kirk and I recently introduced legislation to do this. By quickly taking up and passing our bill, Congress can further pressure the Assad regime and also strengthen the administration's hand in convincing our international partners that it's time to stop business as usual with Syria.

In Syria today our values and our interests are truly in alignment. The end of the Assad regime would be not only a moral victory for democracy and self-government, but a strategic turning point for the entire region, depriving Iran of its most important ally. Washington now has the opportunity to build a new bipartisan consensus about Syria. We should seize it.

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Mr. Lieberman is an Independent Democratic senator from Connecticut. This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal and is republished with the author's permission.

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