Jewish Arabist is DC’s new envoy to Syria

Daniel Rubenstein, a former consul general in Jerusalem, will succeed ambassador Robert Ford in war-torn country

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Daniel Rubinstein in Jerusalem in 2010. (photo credit: US State Department)
Daniel Rubinstein in Jerusalem in 2010. (photo credit: US State Department)

WASHINGTON — Daniel Rubenstein, one of the State Department’s leading “Arabists,” will fill the sizable shoes of retired US Special Envoy to Syria Ambassador Robert Ford, the State Department confirmed Monday.

Rubenstein, a fluent Arabic speaker and Mideast expert, was tapped for the position in 2009, when the US renewed diplomatic ties with Syria, but was passed over as he had just taken up a key Jerusalem position months earlier.

In a statement Monday morning, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that he was certain that Rubenstein will be an “outstanding successor” to Ford. Kerry said that Rubenstein, who has held several positions in Arabic-speaking countries, is “widely respected in the region” and that he is “among our government’s foremost experts on the Middle East.”

The US closed its embassy in Damascus in February 2012, pulling out all consular staff. Its interests in Syria have been handled by a special section in the Czech Embassy there since.

Rubenstein, a Jewish American who is married to foreign service officer Julie Adams, most recently served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. From 2009 to 2012, he served as Consul General and Chief of Mission in Jerusalem, a position that includes functioning as Washington’s principal mission to the Palestinian Authority.

Daniel Rubinstein, front row right, with Cisco manager Zina Abzuk, center, and ambassador Bill Cunningham at an event in Jerusalem in 2010. (photo credit: US State Department)
Daniel Rubinstein, front row right, with Cisco manager Zina Abzuk, center, and ambassador Bill Cunningham at an event in Jerusalem in 2010. (photo credit: US State Department)

Mideast conflict zones are familiar ground for Rubenstein. Before Jerusalem, the veteran diplomat served as Chief of the Civilian Observer Unit in the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai.

Among his other Middle East postings were Amman, Baghdad, Tunis, Tel Aviv and Damascus in an earlier iteration. Stateside, Rubenstein also served as the director of the State Department’s Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs.

The veteran diplomat is a graduate of University of California at Berkeley and speaks Hebrew, Portuguese – and of course, Arabic. Rubenstein displayed his Arabic in a message that he recorded in Washington, DC, marking his first day in the position and the three-year-anniversary of the beginning of the civil war that has killed over 100,000 people.

In the message posted to YouTube and the virtual US Embassy Damascus Facebook page that functions as the administration’s voice to Syrians, Rubenstein marked the anniversary of the war, a period he described as “three years of unimaginable pain and lasting consequence.”

“This week is indeed a somber occasion and a sober reminder to all of us of the work still ahead and the United States will stand with you,” Rubenstein told his Syrian audience nearly 6,000 miles away. “While the response of the Assad regime may be injustice, may the might of the just be greater.”

Former co-workers of Rubenstein characterized the career diplomat as “smart and talented,” citing his service in Jerusalem as evidence that he was well-prepared to navigate complex diplomatic environments.

Still, former State Department officials warned that Rubenstein is inheriting “an impossible situation that is not tractable, or amenable to a significant amount of influence by the United States.”

“Daniel is a very talented officer,” one former official said, “but he’s not the issue. Nobody under these circumstances could make a significant impact.”

Nevertheless, Rubenstein is in the position to try to accomplish the seemingly impossible. The newly minted special envoy is expected to travel to the region later in March to begin consultations with Syrians.

“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,” Kerry said.

Rubenstein’s predecessor in the position, Ford, was forced to leave the country in 2011, after he was targeted by pro-Assad forces.

Ford retired from the State Department in February after three decades of service with the State Department. Ford had been suggested as the next US ambassador to Egypt, but the Egyptian military government reportedly indicated that it was uncomfortable working with Ford.

Ford stood at the forefront of Washington’s policy of supporting the anti-Assad opposition and taking a harsh tone toward Syrian President Bashar Assad, and officials in Cairo reportedly were concerned that he had become too close to Islamist elements.

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