Former U.S. ambassador to Syria shares lessons from abroad

School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno (left) speaks with
School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno (left) speaks with Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, on campus Wednesday. Greta Simons | Hatchet Photographer
This post was written by Hatchet reporter Paige Schoenberg.

A former U.S. ambassador reflected on the more than three years he spent in Syria with students on Wednesday.

Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Syria who stepped down earlier this year, spoke with School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno about the takeaways from his career as a diplomat.

1. Physical presence matters

Ford said when tensions began to mount in Syria in 2011, he took the risk of traveling to Hama, the center of the nation’s protests.

“I [needed] to go myself and see if there [was] violence, whether from the regime side or from the protesters’ side,” he said. “An American witness [would] tell the world who started it.”

He said his trip also showed that the U.S. supported protesters’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

2. Make local connections

Ford said he made it a priority to reach out to “regular people” living in Syria.

He told a story about having tea with local men in Hama. He said within minutes, he was surrounded by a crowd of more than 30 people who wanted to tell him about the suffering they had experienced during the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Allowing citizens to simply share their thoughts can prove extremely effective, Ford said.

“Nobody said, ‘Ford, what’s the American position on [the situation]?’ They just wanted to, to talk,” he said.

Ford also spoke about a young man who was arrested and tortured to death for placing flowers in the barrels of the guns of Syrian soldiers, inciting the first defections from the Syrian army. Ford sent his condolences to the man’s family and brought diplomats from Japan, the European Union and France to his funeral.

He said while it can pose a security risk, it’s important for ambassadors to be active and immersed in communities.

“Just sitting inside the walls is not helpful,” he said.

3. Keep up with technology, but use it wisely

Ford advised American diplomats to use social media. Under his tenure, the U.S. embassy in Syria started posting policy updates on Facebook in English and Arabic.

The embassy also started to use Twitter, and found that most TV networks in the area picked up their posts, he said. Still, he added that ambassadors should not overuse the media.

“There was sort of a mentality that a lot of people in the State Department had – that the more you could get in the media, the better,” he said. “But that’s not always true.”

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