WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama nominated an ambassador to Syria, saying his aim is to "enhance relations".
The nomination Tuesday afternoon of Robert Stephen Ford, currently the deputy ambassador to Iraq, comes on the eve of a visit to Damascus by William Burns, an undersecretary of state and the most senior Obama administration official to visit Syria.
President George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. ambassador to Syria in early 2005, after Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and democratic reformer, was assassinated. Syria was widely blamed for the murder.
Until this nomination, Obama had extended Bush administration sanctions and snubs aimed at getting Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon and Iraq, to end its backing for anti-Israel terrors groups and to end its weapons of mass destruction programs. Just last week, the White House denied that it had "formally" nominated an ambassador.
Obama has coupled continued sanctions on Syria with a policy of outreach, partly in hopes of bringing Israel and Syria back to peace negotiations.
"His appointment represents President Obama’s commitment to use engagement to advance U.S. interests by improving communication with the Syrian government and people," said a White House statement separate from the routine notification of nomination. "If confirmed by the Senate, Ambassador Ford will engage the Syrian government on how we can enhance relations, while addressing areas of ongoing concern."
Reports of Ford’s possible nomination have been circulating for weeks; officials in Damascus have told media that they approved the pick.