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Wed June 4, 2014
The Two-Way

Ex-Ambassador To Syria: Civil War Could Drag On For Years

Originally published on Wed June 4, 2014 7:18 pm

When Robert Ford — the U.S. ambassador to Syria — resigned in February, he said he no longer felt he could defend American policy in that country. Ford faults the U.S. for having been unable to address the root causes of the conflict and for being consistently behind the curve as the Syrian civil war intensified.

The diplomat had to leave Damascus in early 2012 and had been working on Syria from Washington until his resignation.

"The situation in Syria has gone from bad to very bad to still worse, and the measures we have taken have been, in most cases, too little and too late," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

Ford criticizes the failure by the U.S. to back opposition forces with arms and military training early on.

"From the beginning of the armed opposition, they sought help from outside countries and they were very quickly competing for recruits, competing with al-Qaida groups who had better funding and they could get ammunition in," he says. "So now we have a pretty serious al-Qaida problem in Syria and we were very slow to react to that."

You can read highlights from the conversation below.


Interview Highlights

On what the U.S. could have provided to opposition forces

It doesn't even always have to be arms ... just providing cash, just providing ammunition would allow and would have allowed groups that are not ideologically close to al-Qaida ... to compete for recruits. And most Syrians are not Islamic fanatics, but there are a lot of young men who really do want to fight the regime, and so they'll join whatever group offers them material resources to do that.

On when he decided to resign

I thought that if you work inside the system you can bring change to the policies; you can move them in the directions that you want to through reasoned argument. And at a certain point, after the Geneva talks failed, by then there was just nothing left that we could do. So I think that was an appropriate time for me to leave and I think it is time, really, for the administration to reconsider where it is going in Syria. Events on the ground are dynamic; we're not going in a good direction.

On Russia's role in mediating the Syrian conflict

I think many of us felt disappointment that the Russians in Geneva did not weigh in more strongly with the Syrian government delegation in Geneva and so we're very disappointed about that. I also think ... it's fair to say that the Russians have a very different view of what's happening in the Middle East. They are alarmed by the growth of al-Qaida; I think that it is a genuine interest that we and the Russians share. However, whereas we see Assad as the root cause of the al-Qaida problem in Syria, that is to say, we see he is a magnet pulling in jihadis to fight against him, the Russians seem to view Assad as a bulwark against al-Qaida and they ignore the cooperation between the regime and al-Qaida that dates back to the time of the American troop presence in Iraq.

On how long he thinks the conflict will continue

First of all, it pains me to even have to say it because it means that a lot of people are going to die. Syria was a beautiful country. People who have visited know how wonderful its cities were and the fabulous historic monuments there, many of them dating back to stories about St. Paul, for example. So it pains me to say that the fighting will have to go on, but it's going to. I mean, even today, the day after the elections, there was fighting up around Aleppo and Damascus. So I think it's going to take at least a year to two years before the regime itself understands that this is a war from which they cannot impose terms but they will have to negotiate terms.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who resigned in late February, says he no longer felt he could defend American policy with regard to that country. Ambassador Ford faults the U.S. for having been unable to address the root causes of the conflict and for being consistently behind the curve as the Syrian civil war intensified. Ambassador Ford had to leave Damascus in early 2012, and he had been working on Syria from Washington until his resignation. And he joins us today, welcome...

ROBERT FORD: Thank you.

SIEGEL: ...To the program. The common shorthand for what you've done is resigned in protest. Is that fair?

FORD: As you were saying yourself, Robert, it just became impossible for me to defend the policy. The situation in Syria has gone from bad, to very bad, to still worse. And the measures we have taken have been, in most cases, too little and too late.

SIEGEL: Is your main criticism that the U.S. failed to back the opposition to the Syrian regime with arms and with military training?

FORD: Absolutely. That's one of my big criticisms. From the beginning of the armed opposition, they sought help from outside countries. And they were very quickly competing for recruits, competing with al-Qaida groups, who had better funding and they could get ammunition in. So now we have a pretty serious al-Qaida problem in Syria. And we were very slow to react to that.

SIEGEL: What kind of arms, what kind of ammunition should the U.S. have been providing to more moderate...

FORD: Well...

SIEGEL: ...Syrian opposition groups?

FORD: Even something, it doesn't even always have to be arms, Robert. Just providing cash. Just providing ammunition would allow, and would have allowed, groups that are not ideologically close to al-Qaida would enable them to compete for recruits and most Syrians are not Islamic fanatics. But there are a lot of young men who really do want to fight the regime, and so they'll join whatever group offers them material resources to do that.

SIEGEL: As you've said, you feel you can no longer defend U.S. policy. In say, 2011, 2012, within the State Department, were your views that we should have armed the moderate opposition, or have your own views changed over the years?

FORD: Without going into great detail on the internal deliberations inside the United States government, which I don't think is appropriate here, I think it would be fair to say that many officials, including General Dempsey have noted that...

SIEGEL: The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

FORD: The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs have noted that the State Department was advocating years ago that we provide greater material assistance to the armed opposition. And I would certainly not disagree with that.

SIEGEL: But the resulting policy, was it one you felt comfortable defending at that time, or have things been aggravated since then?

FORD: I thought that if you work inside the system, you can bring change to the policies. You can move them in the directions that you want to, through reasoned argument. And at a certain point after the Geneva talks failed, by then there was just, there was nothing left that we could do. And so I think that was an appropriate time for me to leave, and it's, I think it is time, really, for the administration to reconsider where it is going in Syria. Events on the ground are dynamic, or not going in a good direction.

SIEGEL: One criticism that's been raised about the Geneva conference is that its failure was not very surprising. And should so much emphasis have been placed on a process that would encourage the rebels to continue fighting, to try to gain more ground to be in a better position when indeed the Assad regime was just not going to budge, no matter how much international pressure was brought?

FORD: Well, first of all, I don't think it's accurate to say that foreign countries were inciting the armed opposition to resist the regime. Syrians themselves, there are lots of them, that are perfectly ready to fight the regime with or without foreign assistance. We've seen that since 2012.

But we had hoped at Geneva, that the co-sponsor of the talks, Russia, would put enough pressure on the regime that it would come to the table and discuss, negotiate, setting up a new government. It was on that basis that Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, sent in December an invitation to both the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government to come to Geneva, to negotiate creating a new government. That was the basis of the talks. It became very clear by February that the Russians either could not, or would not, put enough pressure on the Assad government to compel it to negotiate. And the talks fell apart.

SIEGEL: Is it possible that, you're an arabist, so this wouldn't be your prime brief here, but is it possible that what we've seen in Syria, as with what we've seen in Ukraine, and what we may yet see in dealing with Iran, that the biggest policy miscalculation wasn't about what was happening in Damascus, it's about what's happening in Moscow, and what we can expect in the Russians in various arenas?

FORD: Well, I think many of us felt disappointment that the Russians in Geneva did not weigh in more strongly with the Syrian government delegation in Geneva. And so we're very disappointed about that. I Also think Robert, it's fair to say that the Russians have a very different view of what's happening in the Middle East.

They are alarmed by the growth of al-Qaida. I think that is a genuine interest that we and the Russians share. However, where as we see Assad as the root cause of the al-Qaida problem in Syria, that is to say we see he is a magnet pulling in Jihadis to fight against him, the Russians seem to view Assad as a bulwark against al-Qaida and they ignore the cooperation between the regime and al-Qaida that dates back to the time of the American troop presence in Iraq.

SIEGEL: Looking to the future. When you talk about getting back to the negotiating table, how many years do you think that would take? How many more years of fighting would, would the rebels require before they could deal sufficient blows to get their regime back to talking, or to talking, that is to say, not back?

FORD: First of all, it pains me to even have to say it because it means that a lot of people are going to die. And Syria was a beautiful country. People who have visited know how wonderful its cities were and the fabulous historic monuments there.

Many of them dating back to stories about St. Paul, for example. So it pains me to say that the fighting will have to go on, but it's going to. I mean, even today, the day after the elections, there was fighting up around Aleppo, and down around Damascus...

SIEGEL: I mean, another two or three years, do you think?

FORD: ...and so I think it's going to take at least a year to two years before the regime itself understands that this is a war that they cannot, from which they cannot impose their terms, but they will have to negotiate terms.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Ford, thanks for talking with us.

FORD: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Robert Ford, Ambassador Ford, has retired, resigned from the U.S. State Department. He was U.S. Ambassador to Syria. He's now at the Middle East Institute.

(MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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