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New U.S. Ambassador to Syria Starts Tough Job

U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford
Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, meets with Robert Ford, the new U.S. ambassador to Syria, in Damascus, Jan. 27, 2011. AP

After a chill in U.S.-Syrian diplomatic relations which lasted close to six years, America's newly-appointed ambassador handed his credentials to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on Thursday and prepared to tackle a disturbing list of diplomatic concerns in a country Washington has often regarded as unfriendly, at best.

Ambassador Robert Ford had long been the Obama administration's choice to fill a position left vacant in 2005 when President George W. Bush recalled his envoy to Damascus following Syria's alleged involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

President Obama nominated Ford in February, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee blessed the pick and sent it to the full Senate in April for confirmation.

But Republicans raised objections, seeing the full resumption of diplomatic relations with Syria as a reward for bad behavior. Damascus maintains close ties to the Iran-backed, Lebanese political party Hezbollah, and supports the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

Both factions are classed as terrorists organizations by the U.S. and many of its allies, but in Syria -- and the wider Arab world -- they're viewed as legitimate resistance movements and political parties.

"This morning I had the great honor of presenting my ambassadorial credentials to His Excellency Bashar Al-Assad," Ford said in a statement. "Relations between the United States and Syria often have been challenging. President Al-Asad and I talked about some areas in which we hope to identify mutual interests and ways of addressing them that serve the interests of both of our countries."

"President Obama sending me here is proof that we are committed to try and solve the problems between our governments. I very much look forward to the opportunity to meet with the Syrian people in the months ahead," added Ford.

State-run Syrian Arab News Agency only said that Assad had "accepted the credentials and exchanged words with Ford, wishing the new ambassador success in his mission."

Washington's ties with Damascus have also been strained by U.S. allegations that Syria is meddling in Iraqi affairs, Syria's neighbor to the east, and by its ties to Iran.

While criticizing the appointment, Republicans have not questioned Ford's qualifications. He's a veteran diplomat in the Arab world who has served as Ambassador to Algeria and held senior posts at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Last month, Mr. Obama took the controversial step of forcing through Ford's appointment while the Senate -- which normally needs to confirm nominations -- was out of session.

Ford can serve without Senate confirmation until the end of the next session of Congress -- for about a year.

"I am extremely pleased to be back in Syria; I had the pleasure of traveling here twice in the 1980s. My wife and I loved the country -- its interesting places, culture, history and lovely people. I'm very happy to be back here enjoying the delicious food for which the country is famous," Ford said in his statement.

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