Amb. Robert Ford served as U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, and as ambassador to Algeria from 2006 to 2008. As the top American envoy in Damascus, he led State Department efforts in proposing and implementing U.S. Syrian policy and working with European and Middle East allies in dealing with the Syrian civil war. Amb. Ford was recalled from Syria because of what State described as “credible threats” against his life. He subsequently resigned, and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. inFOCUS editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him recently.
inFOCUS: Is there an American national interest in who controls Syria? If so, is it in the American interest to see Syria in the future as a unitary state, or a state divided into confederated parts?
Robert Ford: I think our overriding interest in Syria is that the land area of Syria be a source of stability as opposed to instability, and that it not be a place where extremists can be easily recruited.
If we thought it was possible to partition Syria in such a way that it would facilitate stability and facilitate local governments being able to constrain the extremist problem within those local governments’ jurisdictions, partition might work fine. But partition would almost certainly involve more fighting. It would almost certainly aid extremists in their recruitment drives, so I don’t think partition is the way to go.
Second, the unitary state has the advantage of being better able to rebuild the country and undermine extremist recruitment over the long term, as extremists often feed off of economic hopelessness. Dividing Syrian territory into Sunni, Alawi, Kurdish, other areas, is almost a recipe for slow rebuilding, if any rebuilding at all.
iF: If the best-case scenario would be a unitary state with enough of a government to control extremists, how do we get there?
RF: Getting there will take years, and so the first thing your readers need to understand is there is no quick fix. There are things that you could do in the short term to help. I think the Obama administration is trying for a quick fix, and I think it’s going to fail badly. A fix that will not be sustainable over the long term. The Obama administration, for example, is trying to fight al-Qaeda and Islamic State extremists by helping Syrian Kurds, but in that process they’re infuriating Syrian Arabs and stirring ethnic conflict just like we had in Iraq, but now it’s going to be in Syria as well. That’s not a long-term solution. The administration is actually creating a long-term problem.
What do you do, since the fundamental problem here is a political problem of a Sunni Arab community that is the large majority in Syria, but which is basically without power? You have to get to some kind of a power sharing arrangement. Some analysts in Syria say Bashar al-Asad will never agree to power sharing. I’m not so sure. Maybe they [Asad and the Alawis] will, maybe they won’t, but if they won’t agree to power sharing, then can some alternative solution be found where a new government can be set up that does involve power sharing? The way things are going now, we’re not moving in that direction, either in terms of the Syrian government or in terms of the Syrian opposition. Both sides are still trying to achieve military victory.
iF: Would a U.S.-Russian agreement on this help to move them forward?
RF: Absolutely, but the Russians aren’t interested in power sharing either.
iF: The Russians are looking for a unitary state under Asad?
RF: Yes. That’s what the Iranians want too, and I don’t think the Russians and the Iranians are going to change their minds until they’re suffering a little bit on the battlefield, since it’s a war. They’re trying to impose their vision through military means. In a situation like this, you have to have military pressure.
iF: American military pressure, or local Syrian military pressure?
RF: I wouldn’t advocate U.S. direct military force. Some of my colleagues at the State Department did, in a dissenting message to the secretary of state last summer. My preference is to help local fighters on the ground.
iF: Does the U.S. know which ones are on our side and which ones are not?
RF: Oh, absolutely we do. Of course we do. We’ve always known who they are. We know who they are now. They’re getting some help now, they just don’t get really much.
Let me give you an example, and it’s one of the groups that we were giving help to. That was two years ago now, and he said they got 300 bullets a month from the CIA. This was a Syrian from a group called the Hazzam movement, which has since been destroyed …. He said they got 300 bullets per month per man from the CIA. I said – I’m an economist, I’m not a war fighter – “Well, that sounds like a lot. How many do you use in a day?” He said, “If you’re in combat, you might use 100 to 200 a day.” I said, “Well, then you’ve only got a couple days’ supply.” He said, “Exactly.” I said, “What do you do the rest of the month?” He said, “That’s our problem.”
If that’s true, and I have no reason to doubt it, and even if he was exaggerating and they got 1,000 bullets per man, it’s still not enough, and it just tells me that the American effort is really half-hearted. It’s not serious. It’s show. It’s checking the box.
iF: Absent a decision to make these people well-armed, competent fighters, all you really have is enough weaponry for them to continue to fight and lose.
RF: Right, and then you understand that this isn’t a quick fix, that even if they got a lot stronger and began to really inflict casualties on these Iranian fighters in Syria and Iraqi Shia allies, it’s not going to change the balance immediately. Of course, the Syrian opposition itself has to do more, so any American aid to the opposition, or boosted aid, has to be complemented by dramatic changes in terms of the way the Syrian opposition itself works.
In particular, it needs to do two things. It needs to reach out politically to the components of the Asad government’s support base, to say, “We’re not all extremist crazies that are going to murder you in your beds. We are people who want to cut a deal to share power, to respect everybody’s human rights, guaranteed local security, et cetera.”
The other thing they need to do is hold accountable, within their own ranks, those people that are committing war crimes, and some of the opposition fighters have committed war crimes. There was a horrific beheading of a young soldier captured by the opposition after Aleppo, and they know exactly who that fighter is, but how come he hasn’t been held accountable? That was a war crime.
If we’re going to do more to help them, they have to do more themselves politically, because if you’re just going to increase weaponry, all you’re going to do is escalate the fighting. The escalation has to be matched by political outreach, so that the elements of Asad’s support base, and they are tiring, have a sense that, “Well, we have an alternative to constantly fighting.”
iF: Which makes sense to me as an American, but I wonder how much of that can be done in Syria without major U.S. political input?
RF: It cannot. I don’t sense that that’s what the Trump administration wants to do. The Trump administration can speak for itself, but I have seen no evidence that suggests that that’s the way they’re thinking. The issue of the disenfranchised and angry Sunni Arab community in Syria is not fundamentally a military problem; it’s a political problem. The whole uprising started as a political issue, not a military issue, and at its root it is a political issue.
iF: Can this be demilitarized and up-politicized? I don’t know if that’s a word, but that’s what you’re suggesting, that the United States, to the extent that we want to be helpful, has political work to do.
RF: I’m not talking about demilitarizing. I mean, I’d like to get there, but I don’t think you can avoid military aspects now. This is a war with a Syrian government that uses chemical weapons, uses barrel bombs against schools and hospitals. This is not a government that responds to purely political gestures. It responds to pressure, military pressure. It doesn’t respond to political pressure.
iF: It’s backed by the Russians, who are providing military backup, so it’s hard to see how anybody defeats them militarily in any event.
RF: You can’t defeat them militarily. You can undermine them politically but you can’t defeat them militarily. You just can’t. The possibility of an opposition military victory died in the summer of 2015 when the Russians intervened. I don’t think a military victory by the opposition was ever likely. It would have been hard for the opposition even before that because the Iranians were escalating so much, but when the Russians came in, that was the end of any prospect of pure military victory by the opposition. I don’t think the Syrian opposition has figured that out yet. They still seem to be sort of in the mood to try to prevail militarily.
iF: If we give them military aid, but they can’t win a military victory, and you need a political side but we’re not supplying it, then it seems that we’re just causing the war to continue.
RF: The war won’t stop; the opposition won’t surrender. My question is how to get from the military battle to a political negotiation.
Any increase in military aid has to be a quid pro quo, and with changes in the opposition’s political approach. Here are some things tactically which I’d like to see the opposition do, and I have suggested this to them and they just kind of look at me. They say, “Well, even you love Shia,” and this kind of thing.
They hold prisoners of the regime. I think they should unilaterally release them, just give them up, send them back, and say, “These are Syrians like us and they’re caught in a horrible war, and we feel bad for them and we feel bad for their families, and so unilaterally as a goodwill gesture, we’re releasing them. We wish the Syrian government would treat our prisoners as well. They don’t, but we’re not the Syrian government. We’re better than the Syrian government. We believe in Syrians as people.”
I’d like to see them release the Iraqi Shia militia members they’ve captured. I’d love to see them take them back to Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq and release them into his care and say, “You are a figure who doesn’t believe in sectarian conflict. We know you from what you’ve done in Iraq. We wish you would tell Iraqi Shia that we’re not trying to kill Shia, and that this is not their war. Just as you, the Iraqi Shia, faced a brutal dictator in Saddam Hussein, we face one in Bashar al-Asad. We don’t understand why Iraqi Shia, who suffered so much under dictatorship, are not supporting us in our fight against a dictator.”
The Syrian opposition would have to reach out to Iraqi Shia, but the Syrian opposition is now sectarian. They won’t do it. In the leadership of the political opposition, there is not one Alawi of note, not a single one. There’s not even really a Christian of note, except for maybe George Sabra. There aren’t any of the prominent Sunni businesspeople that support Asad, or people from that class of people. They need to change their political leadership. They need to change their face. They need to change their language. Stop referring to Alawis as apostates. It’s demeaning, and it doesn’t give confidence to anybody that they’re going to be different if they’re in power.
There’s a lot of stuff they could do like that. All of those things I’ve just mentioned are entirely in their power. They could decide today to do it, and what a difference it would make. It would just really change people’s attitudes. You don’t change them overnight, but it would make people think, “Wow, maybe these guys aren’t such horrible monsters,” Because right now, the way the regime responds to the situation is to say, “Well, they’re all Islamic extremists,” and the regime’s support base agrees with that. In fact, not all of the opposition are Islamist. I think the extremist element within the opposition ranks is actually the minority, but because the opposition is just determined to win militarily, they’ve worked with these extremist people and let the extremist people set the agenda. That’s a mistake.
iF: Probably, but it also helps them in the United States politically to get more assistance.
RF: One of the things that you find with people in civil wars like this – and I worked in Algeria during their civil war there in the 1990s and then in Iraq in the 2000s and then here in Syria – is people become so convinced of the unique righteousness of their cause that they lose the ability to understand how the other side is perceiving things. They lose the ability to see how outsiders see things, because they are so totally convinced of the justice of their own cause. That’s very much what’s happened in Syria, on both sides.
There are plenty of regime apologists who will say, “Asad’s not great, we agree, but we’re fighting for civilization against barbarian Islamic hordes.” They just cannot see that there are large segments of the Syrian opposition that have nothing to do with that, that are in fact fighting them on the ground, even more than Asad’s forces are.
iF: I would like to move outward from the Syrians, to the Russians and the Iranians. Since the Russians have clearly staked their interest in the Asad regime and the military bases that they get, do you think that it is possible that the U.S. administration can exercise influence with the Russians?
RF: I think John Kerry has tried every diplomatic trick available. He’s moved toward the Russian position to entice them. He’s offered military-to-military cooperation in Syria to entice them, which is what Vladimir Putin said he wanted when he went to the United Nations in September 2014 and spoke at the General Assembly, Kerry’s gone to that extent. I just don’t think you can talk the Russians into cooperating. I think the Russians have to understand that they can’t impose militarily, and that in fact there will be a cost to them. Right now, they’re not convinced that whatever cost there might be is all that serious.
iF: I assume the same of the Iranians, although the Iranians have a lot more battle casualties than the Russians. Does that affect the Iranian perspective?
RF: I think the Iranians are willing to fight the Syrian opposition to the last Iraqi and the last Hezbollahi.
The Iranians have taken some casualties, or at least they report that they have, but I think they’re a long way from feeling sufficient pain. If the war lasted another 20 years… maybe, but I think that’s why it’s all the more important for the Syrian political opposition to work politically and not just depend on the military angle, because they’re never going to win militarily. A combination of political and military pressure, I think will be much more effective.
iF: Then the Iranians have a clear path to the Shiite Crescent.
RF: Absolutely. I think that’s what they’re working for. You probably saw too, Shoshana, the article that Martin Chulov from The Guardian wrote a couple months ago, and that appears to me to be exactly what they’re doing.
I think the Americans are so focused on the Islamic State. I think the country that’s going to be more concerned about an Iranian land bridge from Iran through northern Iraq and into the PYD areas of northern and northeastern Syria, and then across to Aleppo and down into Lebanon, the country that obviously has to be really concerned about that is Israel. It’ll be much harder for the Israelis if they have to deal not just with Damascus’ air force and deal with supply convoys that may occur, but now they have the added complication of the Russian Air Force base at Hmeimim.
To me, the Israelis are a big loser in this entire arrangement. I don’t know, maybe the Israelis have worked out an agreement with Putin the Israelis can continue to intercept arms shipments going through to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Russians will stand down their aircraft and land defenses. I don’t know. I have not seen any news report to that effect, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect to see a news report.
I don’t think the Russians are going to be in a position to say to the Iranians, “Don’t ship advanced rocketry by land over to Lebanon.” What are the Russians going to do, bomb the Iranians? I highly doubt that, and they certainly don’t control the border. The real question is would they accept Israelis flying literally over their heads to bomb an Iranian or Hezbollay convoy? You know, there are Russian combat aircraft operating every day now. It’s just a huge deconfliction challenge to the Israelis now. It has increased exponentially.
iF: Can we slide over to the Kurds, who as one wag said, are “always in the whey”?
RF: I’ve talked to the Syrian Kurds, both people representing the PYD and people representing parties from the Kurdish National Congress, including the Yekiti Party and others, and I think we can say that all Syrian Kurds look at the model of Iraqi Kurdistan and say, “Wow, that’s great, we’d like to get something like that,” maybe with the idea of one day gaining independence, either as a Syrian Kurdish region or mini-state, or confederation with other Kurdish regions, although I think they understand that that’s distant. The idea of an autonomous region along the lines of Iraq, that seems within reach to the Syrian Kurds, and they like that idea.
Of course, the Turks hate it, we can talk about why, and the Bashar al-Asad government hates it. We can talk about why. There’s at least one report I’ve seen that the Russians tried to get Asad to buy off on it and Asad didn’t. The idea, of course, in Baathist ideology is that it’s a centralized state. “Decentralization” is not a word in the Baathist political vocabulary.
iF: I was thinking about Turkey, because northern Iraq doesn’t seem to upset them that much, but are they going to accept a Kurdish area in Syria?
RF: The short answer is no. The longer answer is that Iraqi Kurds are different from Syrian Kurds in the eyes of Turks and just in terms of their own demography and ethnography. Iraqi Kurds don’t have the same ties to Turkish Kurds that Syrian Kurds have to Turkish Kurds. The border between Turkey and Syria is a very arbitrary line drawn on a map, basically, largely following the Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad built by Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germans before World War I. Everything on the north side of the railroad tracks is Turkey, and everything on the south side of the railroad tracks is Syria, by a deal between Turkey and France after WWI in 1937.
The rail line basically split Kurdish families, Kurdish clans, and Kurdish tribes, without any sense of following some kind of family or tribal line, just cut it right in the middle. That’s why, when there was all the fighting in 2014, in Kobane, along the border on the Syrian side, and the Turkish government didn’t help the Kobane Kurds, there were huge demonstrations in cities like Diyarbakir and Mardin. Those are their cousins and their second cousins over there in Kobane fighting the Islamic State.
That’s not the same response that the Iraqi Kurds had. The Iraqi Kurds did actually send Peshmerga to help with this position, but the Iraqi Kurds don’t have the same language, don’t have the same tribal ties, don’t have the same immediacy of relations that the Syrian Kurds have. Because Masoud Barzani was a rival to the PKK, the Turks in a sense decided that Barzani was the lesser of two evils, and actually the Turks and Barzani get along pretty well. The PKK, and the PYD, its affiliate, the Turks view as a mortal threat.
iF: That’s an outstanding explanation. Looking at ISIS in Iraq for a minute, the assumption is that Mosul will be liberated at the end and Raqqah will be liberated. Do we have some obligation to help these people, afterwards, settle the political issues?
RF: I don’t think we can settle issues for them. I think the Americans had the most leverage in terms of getting Iraqis and Syrians to fix those governance issues in places like Raqqah and Mosul, before the military operation began. Our leverage diminishes as the operations wind closer to an end. They’re still some distance away, but the prospect is that one group or another will try to take control of Mosul and/or Raqqah. Other groups will not accept that, and it will just shift the fighting between the Islamic State and the armed forces to fighting within those forces.
The Americans needed to be thinking about a process by which the forces the Americans are helping themselves develop a leadership that would be acceptable then to the populations in Raqqah and Mosul. Since the Americans view this as a military issue more than a political issue, what a surprise, the American military is treating it as a military issue.
That leaves us a lot of work to do, but I’m not sure the Americans are even thinking much about it. Everything I’m hearing is that the Americans have not given much thought to this, very much as they did in places like Mosul and Anbar in 2008 and 2009. They’ll just sort of leave whoever they’ve been arming to run these places, and what you’ll get is resistance to that, and extremist groups, al-Qaeda, Islamic State, or whoever, will exploit that, and then eventually rise back up again and overturn the American client.
iF: At which point we’ve done really nothing for the people of those places?
RF: Correct. That’s why I’ve said I don’t think the administration’s approach to this makes a lot of sense.
iF: We have a new administration coming. We will have a new alignment and without asking a political question, what recommendation would you make to the incoming people to try to get a better handle on this than perhaps we’ve had in the past?
RF: Understand that the problem of extremism in places like Iraq and Syria is not a military problem. It is essentially a political problem, and they’re going to be successful in dealing with these extremist problems in Syria and Iraq only to the extent that they operate in ways that undermine the recruitment of extremist groups over the medium and long term. They need to be thinking not just about bombing, but about how to encourage settlement of the Syrian civil war and governance structures in Iraq, both locally and nationally, that will help undermine the appeal of extremists in Syria and Iraq.
iF: That is a great answer. I hope they listen to you.
RF: I doubt it.
iF: Thank you on behalf of the Jewish Policy Center, inFOCUS, and its readers.