Ambassador to Syria keeps profile low in Bolton Hill

Robert Ford, the U.S. Ambassador to Syria, outside his Bolton Hill home. Ford says the block reminds him of London.
Robert Ford, the U.S. Ambassador to Syria, outside his Bolton Hill home. Ford says the block reminds him of London. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

When the violence in Syria began spinning out of control last year, the Obama administration made the unusual decision to bring its ambassador to the troubled country home.

And for Ambassador Robert Ford, coming home has long meant returning to Baltimore.

The 54-year-old veteran diplomat, who won worldwide acclaim for making a dramatic trip last summer to meet with Syrian protesters, has for years chosen to live in Baltimore when stateside. He has embraced the city's culture and character, which fit his personality far better than Washington ever could.

Half a world away from a conflict he tried to prevent, Ford remains deeply engaged in the developing crisis in Syria, where protesters have clashed with government forces in an uprising that has lasted 15 months. Dozens of women and children were killed last weekend in the most recent round of violence.

But through decades of living in world hot spots, Ford has maintained a passion for Baltimore since he first arrived from Denver in 1976 to enroll at the Johns Hopkins University. He rattles off Baltimore haunts such as the Owl Bar and City Cafe with equal ease as names of foreign ministers in Iraq, Syria and Egypt.

"I don't know, the place draws you in," said Ford, who bought a home in Bolton Hill last year, the latest he's owned in the city over the years. "In Washington, people ask you what you do. I hate that. Here they don't do that. Here they say, 'Where did you go to school?' I like that much better."

He acknowledges being viewed as something of an oddity by his peers for living outside the diplomatic center of the country. He's fine with that.

Ford, considered among the State Department's foremost Arabic speakers, returned to the United States last year after a brief but remarkable stint in Damascus, the Syrian capital, where he angered President Bashar Assad's government by continuing to meet with opposition leaders despite warnings not to do so.

A former top political adviser to the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Ford was appointed to the U.S. Embassy in Syria by President Barack Obama in 2010 after a five-year period in which the United States did not post an ambassador there. Senate Republicans blocked his confirmation, objecting to the message they felt the appointment would send to the Assad regime.

Obama bypassed the Senate and used a recess appointment to put Ford in the job through the end of 2011.

As tensions increased in Syria last summer following civil uprisings throughout the Arab world, Ford made a surprise trip to the city of Hama to meet with demonstrators. He was greeted with cheers — people threw roses and palm leaves on his car — but the government was livid. He was accused of smuggling weapons to the protesters.

Days later, pro-government forces stormed the U.S. Embassy, damaging the building. Ford continued to visit restive cities to meet with opposition leaders. In September, government loyalists formed a mob outside an office in Damascus where he was meeting a prominent dissident, trapping him inside for two hours. The crowd then threw concrete blocks and iron bars at his motorcade.

"The last thing we wanted was for this whole thing to turn violent, which is exactly what happened. But at the time there was hope that it could stay peaceful," Ford said. "So, I went [to Hama] personally to say with my physical presence that we're watching this very carefully and these people have a right to demonstrate peacefully.

"I knew they'd be angry," he said of Assad's regime. "They were angrier than I thought they would be."

As news of Ford's actions spread in Washington, Senate Republicans reversed course. Ford's confirmation was approved unanimously in October.

"A lot of times, diplomats tend to be diplomatic," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He made it very clear to the international community where America stood. He is carrying out the direction set by the president, but he did it in a way that really took courage and took tremendous skill."

The situation in Syria continued to deteriorate. In October, the Obama administration temporarily recalled the newly confirmed Ford, citing "credible threats against his personal safety." He returned to Syria in December but then left again in February when the United States closed its embassy in there, pulling its remaining diplomatic staff home.

Last week, in response to a massacre that left more than 100 dead — including women and children killed in their homes — the United States cut one more of its final formal ties with the country, expelling the Syrian charge d'affaires.

Ford remains an influential figure in the region, despite the unraveling of diplomatic relations — and he remains busy. He continues to meet with opposition leaders, sometimes overseas, and helps the Treasury Department manage sanctions against Syrian banks and individuals. He is building a diplomatic team to engage Syria when the conflict is resolved.

The number of State Department staff members focused on Syria has increased from one to seven since 2010, he said.

"He's been effective in Syria, and he's effective now that he's in D.C.," said Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a 2011 book about U.S.-Syria relations.

Ford has been successful because he is comfortable engaging in the Arab world, friends and experts say. In Iraq, he'd step outside U.S. military bases in Baghdad to talk with cabbies and vendors rather than speaking only to political elites. Part of his ease is based on his skill with the language, but some of it comes from a genuine curiosity in other people, friends said.

"He is simply more comfortable in various Arab societies — and at all levels of those societies — than virtually anybody else I know," said Nathan J. Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University who studied Arabic with Ford in Cairo, Egypt, in the 1980s. "But as is required of a U.S. diplomat, he does not change his personality. He is unmistakably American in culture and outlook even as he interacts in a warm manner with those who are very different."

Brown notes that Ford also has long been unmistakably Baltimore.

"His saddest day in Cairo was when he lost the Orioles cap he had worn throughout the year," he said.

Ford doesn't just live in Baltimore, he revels in it. He jogs through downtown every day. He slogs through the daily Washington-to-Baltimore commute on the MARC train. He's at Camden Yards or Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on weekends. He and his wife — who is also in the Foreign Service — often eat at Howard's in Mount Vernon.

He remembers an exchange that took place in a grocery store when he was a sophomore at Hopkins that helped hook him on the city.

"I was trying to buy frozen peas in the Giant at the Rotunda and this woman who I did not know said, 'Young man, if you're looking for the cheapest peas, these are the cheapest,'" Ford recalled. "Nobody at the Safeway in my upper-middle class neighborhood in Denver would ever talk to you. I just thought, 'Wow, these people are friendly here.'"

Charles Duff, a neighbor, has known Ford for years. Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, a neighborhood planning and development nonprofit, believes most people in the city don't know who he is. Those who do know him as "Bob," not "Mr. Ambassador."

That suits Ford fine.

"I hope that Baltimore doesn't become like a small Washington," Ford said. "As it gentrifies, it loses some of that gritty, unique appeal."

He thought for a second and smiled.

"At the same time," he said, "I figure it's not going to ever be like Washington."



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