President Barack Obama on Wednesday bypassed Congress to name the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in nearly six years, part of his Middle East engagement drive criticized by Republican opponents.
Obama took the controversial step of forcing through the appointments of Ambassador Robert Ford and five other officials while the Senate -- which normally needs to confirm nominations -- was out of session.
A senior administration official traveling with Obama on vacation in Hawaii justified the recess appointments, which came despite talk of cooperation with Republicans in the waning days of the last Congress.
"All administrations face delays in getting some of their nominees confirmed, but the extent of Republican obstruction of Obama nominees is unprecedented," the official said on condition of anonymity.
The United States withdrew its ambassador to Damascus after Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in February 2005 in a bombing blamed on Syria.
Obama announced his desire to put a new ambassador in Syria in 2009 and named Ford in February this year, advancing his policy of reaching out even to adversaries of the United States.
The administration sees Syria as a crucial link in diplomatic efforts to negotiate peace in the Middle East and has hoped to step up intelligence cooperation with Syria.
While criticizing the appointment, Republicans have not questioned the qualifications of Ford, a veteran diplomat in the Arab world who has served as ambassador to Algeria and held senior posts in the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Obama also rammed through the appointments of U.S. ambassadors to Turkey, Azerbaijan and the Czech Republic and two other administration officials.
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