In a move that some say rewards Syria for its past and continued involvement in sponsoring terrorism, President Obama recently used a recess appointment to name Robert Ford as the first US ambassador to Syria since 2005.
The US ambassadorial post had gone unfilled since the Bush administration recalled Ambassador Margaret Scobey in protest for what it said was Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005.
Fueling speculation that Ford’s appointment is undeserved is the news that a UN tribunal is now preparing to indict members of the Syrian-backed Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah for its involvement in al-Hariri’s assassination.
The UN indictment is said to include up to six members of Hezbollah, including Mustafa Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah military commander and brother-in-law of Imad Mugniyah. Mugniyah, killed in a bomb blast in 2008, was the mastermind behind the bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon in 1983, an action that killed 241 Marines. He and Badreddine are said to be linked to the car explosion that killed Prime Minister al-Hariri and 22 others in 2005.
Al-Hariri’s murder, which prompted a strong anti-Syrian protest by the Lebanese people (dubbed the Cedar Revolution), led to Syria ending its 29 year-old armed presence in Lebanon in April 2005. Since then, a Western-backed coalition government, which shares power with Hezbollah, has kept a fragile peace within the country.
It is a peace many fear could now explode with the indictment of the Hezbollah members by the UN, plunging Lebanon into a repeat of the sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims that occurred in 2008, violence which killed 81 people.
Both Syria and Hezbollah have done nothing to allay those fears. Hezbollah’s No. 2 official, Naim Qassem, has said, “Such an indictment is a warning bell equivalent to lighting the fuse, to igniting the wick for an explosion, and is dangerous for Lebanon.” Added Syrian Presdient Bashar Assad, “Any clash at any time between any group will sabotage Lebanon and destroy it.”
Acutely aware that a UN indictment could ignite renewed sectarian strife, the Lebanese government has even gone out of its way to downplay the role of Syria in the murder of al-Hariri. Lebanon’s current Prime Minister, Sa’ad al-Hariri, son of the murdered Rafiq al-Hariri, has said, “At a certain point we made a mistake in accusing Syria of assassinating the martyred prime minster. That was a political accusation and that political accusation has now come to an end.” The UN tribunal seems to have come to a far different conclusion.
Yet apparent UN corroboration of the Syrian connection to al-Hariri’s murder was not enough to deter Obama from naming Robert Ford as envoy to Damascus. Ford, whose term expires at the end of the next Congressional session in 2011, had been awaiting Senate confirmation since February 2010. However, no vote had been taken, primarily because of concerns expressed by lawmakers over continued transfers of long-range Scud missiles by Syria to Hezbollah.
Those apprehensions were voiced in a letter sent by a number of GOP senators to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in May 2010, which read in part: “If engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long-range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior.”
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