Mr. Obama fought considerable congressional opposition to get Ford's appointment approved, arguing that a strong diplomatic voice in Damascus could nudge Syria toward peace talks with Israel and do more to secure US interests than studied disinterest in relations. But Obama's congressional critics argue that his engagement strategy is failing.
Ford visited Hama on Friday as did his French counterpart Eric Chevalier. It was a stunning event: US ambassadors usually stay out of volatile situations, and Hama has been the scene of both massive protests against Assad and the shooting of demonstrators in response. The US embassy in Egypt, for instance, steered well clear of the protests that swept Hosni Mubarak from power earlier this year, though their locus at Tahrir Square was just a few hundred yards away from the embassy (to be sure, the protesters view that the US was steadfastly supporting Mubarak would have made an ambassadorial visit a dicey proposition).
But on Friday, both ambassadors were greeted warmly in Hama and on that day, at least, the protesters weren't attacked. That's something that proponents of having an ambassador in Syria point to as an argument in their favor. Assad's regime may be killing and torturing protesters to hold on to power, but having a strong diplomatic presence can yield dividends, they argue – whether it's by acting as a restraining force on violence or as an avenue of communication with the regime.