BEIRUT: When the Obama administration sent Ambassador Robert Ford to Damascus at the start of the year, it marked a new strategy of engagement aimed at moderating one of the hardest-line regimes in the Middle East. But with the Arab Spring, all that changed.
As President Bashar Assad unleashed a bloody crackdown on protesters, Ford threw his support behind the opposition with surprising boldness and tensions between the U.S. and Syria soared.
Described by those who know him as unassuming and low-key, the career diplomat met publicly with activists, traveled to the opposition stronghold of Hama in defiance of regime prohibitions and posted blistering critiques of a government crackdown that has now killed some 3,000 people.
His frankness was remarkable in diplomatic circles _ even prompting questions about whether he was trying to get himself tossed out of the country. When pressed on the issue last month, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Ford is ''courageously calling it like it is in Syria.''
Washington quietly pulled Ford out of Syria on Saturday, saying his support for the opposition put him in grave danger and there were personal threats against him.
It's not clear whether Ford will return to Damascus, although the State Department has left the possibility open. Department spokesman Mark Toner said the ambassador's return depended on a U.S. ''assessment of Syrian regime-led incitement and the security situation on the ground.''
Still, Ford did not escape unscathed. In recent months, he was pelted with rotten eggs, his residence was attacked by vandals and the regime branded him a dangerous provocateur.
''He is a highly experienced diplomat and a calm, serious person,'' says Hassan Abdul-Azim, a prominent Syrian dissident who was trapped with Ford for more than an hour last month as regime supporters tried to break into the office where the two men were meeting.
Outside, the demonstrators attacked an embassy motorcade with bricks.
''He kept apologizing, saying he was sorry our offices were attacked because of him,'' Abdul-Azim told The Associated Press of his meeting with Ford. ''We told him, 'Don't worry, it's not your fault,' but he was upset and felt he was the reason.''
Born in 1958, Ford has served most of his career in the Arab world, including postings in Iraq, Bahrain and Algeria. His assignment in Damascus, which began in January, signaled an important shift in U.S. policy. The Bush administration had withdrawn the U.S. ambassador to Syria in 2005, cutting ties and accusing Damascus of sponsoring terrorism.
But Obama was determined to try a new tack _ engaging Syria.
Then Assad's deadly crackdown jettisoned U.S. hopes that it could draw Syria into the Western fold, and Ford quickly emerged as a vocal critic of the regime.
The world was seeing ''the ugly side'' of the Syrian government, Ford wrote in one of his Facebook postings, decrying the ''brutal force, repression and intimidation.''
He readily acknowledged that Syrian intelligence agents were following him and he laughed off government claims that a foreign conspiracy was behind the unrest.
''Syria's problems come not from foreign interference but from intolerance _ the same kind of intolerance we saw in front of Abdul-Azim's office,'' he wrote about the attack by pro-regime forces while he was meeting with the opposition activist.
Just days after his July trip to Hama, hundreds of government supporters attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, smashing windows and spray-painting obscenities on the walls.
Ford has been hit with eggs and tomatoes while going to meet dissidents or visit mosques. His postings on Facebook have prompted thousands of Syrian and other responses, including death threats from pro-Assad hardliners.
The trip to Hama, where a massacre nearly 30 years ago came to symbolize the ruthlessness of the Assad dynasty, was deeply significant in Syria. The regime seized on Ford's visit to insist that foreign conspirators are behind the unrest.
But the opposition tossed flowers and olive branches onto Ford's car, saying his presence was a deterrent to regime attacks.
Colleagues who worked with Ford over the years said he was highly respected and courageous, and that he stood out during his numerous tours at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad since 2003.
Stu Jones, the U.S. Ambassador to Jordan who worked with Ford in Baghdad, said he is known for personal integrity.
''He served in Baghdad during very tough times but the Iraqis who came into contact with him liked and respected him,'' he said. ''When I was there and he had left, they frequently asked me about how he was doing. His Arabic language skills are legendary.''
But Ford faced threats in Iraq, as he did in Syria.
A senior State Department official who served with Ford in Iraq and has known him for more than 20 years said he worked ''under death threats from Iranian-backed militias.''