Last week, the United States pulled Ambassador Robert Ford from his post in Syria, raising more questions about the role of ambassadors in areas of unrest and the role of international law in protecting the safety of diplomats. While not recalling him formally, Mr. Ford left Syria after “credible threats against his personal safety.” Having already been “briefly trapped in his office by pro-Assad demonstrators,” and “pelted with eggs and tomatoes when visiting an opposition” earlier this year, this continues the saga of both the impact of the Arab Spring in Syria and the United State’s involvement in such unrest.
The United States government stated that while there was no specific threat levied against Ambassador Ford, there was a concern about Syria inciting violence against him by “the tone of several recent items in the government-controlled Syrian media.” Haynes Mahoney, the charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Syria, cited articles calling Mr. Ford the leader of death squads in Iraq and stating that he was attempting “to provoke a civil war in Syria.” However, Mr. Mahoney stated that Ambassador Ford “was doing a very important job on the ground and giving significant support to the Syrian people,” and hoped the “Syrian government will stop this incit[ment],” the Washington Post quotes.
The Syrian government responded that “if [other countries] don’t provide security to our missions, we will treat them the same way,” pointing to protests at their embassies in Germany and Switzerland. This continues the role embassies and diplomats have played in the uprising the New York Times reports. Earlier this year, Ambassador Ford categorized the Syrian regime as intolerant, and the State Department summoned the Syrian Ambassador for their embassy’s role tracking dissidents in the United States.
These events raise the question of the role of diplomats in countries experiencing unrest. Traditionally, international law requires host countries to guarantee the protection of foreign ambassadors within their borders. Syria’s incitement of violence against Ambassador Ford clearly violates this custom. However, traditionally, US ambassadors are to work with the chosen government of the foreign country to advance US interests, and not to work with opposition groups to overthrow the current regime—as Ambassador Ford has been doing. It therefore looks like both sides are in unusual territory during this period of unrest.