For years, seasoned diplomat and longtime Middle East hand Robert Ford served as the U.S. envoy to Syria, a thankless post that involved promoting problematic U.S. stances, corralling rival opposition factions and crafting a response to the Islamist takeover of Syria's uprising.
Ford's report card is mixed -- supporters say he played as best he could with bad cards; critics say he missed or flubbed key moments when U.S. influence could've made a difference. Now, the war just entered its fourth year and U.S. policy toward Syria appears frozen, with the crisis itself eclipsed in recent days by the upheaval in Ukraine.
Ford retired quietly last month, and Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday appointed a new Syria envoy: Daniel Rubinstein, a fluent Arabic speaker who's served at U.S. missions in Damascus, Jerusalem, Amman, Tev Aviv and Baghdad. Before taking the Syria job, he served as principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, according to his State Department bio.
Rubinstein gave introductory remarks in Arabic in a YouTube video in which he pledges to support the Syrian opposition and said that "Assad will go to any length to maintain power." In 2009, Rubinstein issued similar greetings for an Islamic holiday.
In his formal announcement of Rubinstein's appointment, Kerry said "this position is as important as it is challenging." Rubinsten will be tasking with guarding American interests in Syria's civil war: removing chemical weapons, challenging jihadist gains, easing the humanitarian crisis and keeping alive the so-called Geneva process, a mostly fruitless effort to get the regime and the rebels talking about a negotiated end to the conflict.
"It's more than fair to say that he is among our government's foremost experts on the Middle East and has served with distinction in some of our most challenging and high profile regional missions, including Damascus," Kerry's statement said.
Here's the rest of Kerry's statement:
There's no denying the tough challenge that Syria represents for any diplomat. We're entering the fourth year of a bloody and brutal conflict that's wrecked havoc on the country, its people, and the region.
Special Envoy Rubinstein’s leadership and counsel will be vital as we redouble our efforts to support the moderate opposition, shore up our partners, counter the rise of extremism that threatens us all, and address the devastating humanitarian crisis and its impact on the neighboring states.
Special Envoy Rubinstein will travel to the region later this month to begin consultations with Syrians and others seeking an end to the slaughter and a different kind of future.