Obama Bypasses Senate to Appoint Ambassadors to Syria and Turkey

President Barack Obama bypassed the Senate today to appoint two career diplomats as ambassadors to countries critical to the execution of his Middle East strategy.

The recess appointments of Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria and Francis Ricciardone as ambassador to Turkey fill “key administration posts that have been left vacant for an extended period of time,” the White House said in an e-mailed statement.

Both men can serve without Senate confirmation until the end of the next session of Congress, or for about a year. The first of two sessions of the 112th Congress begins Jan. 5.

Ford had long been the administration’s choice to fill a position left vacant since 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. Obama nominated Ford in February, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported his nomination favorably to the full Senate in April.

Republicans raised objections, seeing the full resumption of diplomatic relations as a reward for Syria in spite of its close ties to the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah, which is on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The U.S. administration has made engagement with Syria, a key player in the region, a part of its efforts to make peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Still, Obama renewed economic sanctions on Syria following allegations that it had transferred missiles to Hezbollah. Sanctions were initially imposed in May 2004.

Syria, Israel, Turkey

Indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, halted in December 2008, when Israel began a three-week military offensive in the Gaza Strip that it said was aimed at stopping Islamic militants from firing rockets into southern Israel. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority resumed on Sept. 1 of this year, only to break down three weeks later.

The U.S. has had no ambassador in the Turkish capital, Ankara, since July, when James Jeffrey was named ambassador to Iraq. Ricciardone was nominated that same month, and the Foreign Relations Committee sent his name to the Senate in August.

Filling that position has been a priority for Obama, given the diplomatic tensions over Turkey’s stance on Iran and its threats to break ties with Israel.

Turkey, a secular democracy with a predominantly Muslim population, has become more assertive on the international stage. In June, it voted against a U.S.-backed resolution in the United Nations Security Council for tighter sanctions against Iran. It also has demanded an apology from Israel after Israeli commandos killed nine Turks in a May 31 raid on an aid flotilla seeking to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Difficult Assignments

Both of the newly appointed ambassadors have experience with tough assignments. Ford was ambassador to Algeria from 2006 to 2008. He served twice as political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and also was deputy chief of mission, the second-ranking post, there.

Ricciardone, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, served most recently as deputy chief of mission in Afghanistan. From 1999 to 2001 he was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s special coordinator for the transition of Iraq. He began his Foreign Service career in Turkey and has also served in Ankara as a political adviser and as deputy chief of mission.

Other recess appointments made by Obama today include career diplomat Matthew Bryza as ambassador to Azerbaijan, a central Asian nation with important gas reserves, and Norman Eisen, most recently special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, as ambassador to the Czech Republic.

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