Syriaâ€™s President Bashar al-Assad (C) walks next to Qatarâ€™s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani (R) and Turkeyâ€™s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (L) before a meeting in Damascus January 17, 2011.
DAMASCUS (Reuters) – U.S. ambassador Robert Ford arrived in the Syrian capital on Sunday to take up his post, ending a more than five-year break in top American diplomatic representation in Syria.
Ford, whose experience in the Middle East includes stints in Algeria and Iraq, flew by commercial plane to Damascus airport and headed for his official residence, a villa in a French colonial era district of Damascus, witnesses said.
The United States withdrew its ambassador in Syria after the 2005 assassination in Beirut of Rafik al-Hariri, a Lebanese parliamentarian and former prime minister who was well connected in the West. The Hariri killing, blamed at the time on Damascus by anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon, led to the exit of thousands of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 29 year presence, and contributed to a deterioration in U.S.-Syrian ties.
President Barack Obama announced his intention to send back an ambassador months after he took power as part of a policy of engagement with countries opposed to Washington, nominating Ford for the position in February last year.
Congressional procedures and opposition from several Republicans delayed Fordâ€™s arrival in Damascus.
Ford begins his assignment with Lebanon in the midst of another political crisis.
The 14-month old unity government of Western-backed Sunni political leader Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain Rafik, collapsed last week amid a rift with Hezbollah, which is supported by Syria and Iran, over how to deal with an international tribunal to try suspects in the killing.
The tribunal, which is based in the Hague, is expected to indict Hezbollah members in the Hariri assassination. The investigation into the assassination has also implicated Syrian security officials. Hezbollah and Syria deny involvement.
Syria and the United States disagree on the tribunal as a tool for justice, with Syria concerned that it is a politically motivated instrument designed to undermine Hezbollah and its regional allies.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; editing by Noah Barkin)