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'It’s One Big Conflict Now': Former Ambassador Robert Ford on the Way Forward in Syria and Iraq

America’s last ambassador to Syria made waves when he said he was “no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy.”

by Ari Ratner
Jun 16 2014, 2:30pm

Photo via AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Our “man in Damascus” is no longer in Damascus, and he’s speaking his mind freely. Robert Ford, who served as America’s last ambassador to Syria before resigning in February, made waves after saying earlier this month that he was “no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy” and arguing that the US government should arm Syria’s opposition.

Ford has become a diplomatic icon. In office as the Syrian uprising unfolded, he drew headlines — and the adoration of crowds of protesters — when he visited the opposition stronghold city of Hama in July 2011, just as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government was unleashing a violent crackdown on the city’s peaceful protest revolution.

Protesters in Hama warmly cheer a visit from US Ambassador Robert Ford in July 2011.

Despised by the Assad regime, Ford was briefly withdrawn from Damascus in October 2011 by the State Department because of threats against his safety. The US shuttered its embassy the following February. He continued his work as ambassador to Syria from Washington, DC, interfacing with opposition members until his retirement this year.

In the course of this span, Syria has descended into a brutal civil war that has claimed an estimated 160,000 lives and counting, left approximately 9.3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, and compelled some 2.5 million refugees to flee across its borders.

Instability has spilled over Syria’s borders as well. In the last week, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al Qaeda-inspired Sunni extremist group, has made dramatic gains in northern Iraq. It captured Mosul and Tikrit, and just yesterday claimed to have executed 1,700 Iraqi soldiers as it pushes toward Baghdad. Large swaths of the Iraqi army have deserted, despite their superior numbers, in the face of ISIS’s advance, as some observers speculate whether the country’s disgruntled Sunni minority is rising up. Iraq’s government, led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, receives support from both Iran and the US, even as many in Washington are critical of his increasingly sectarian politics.

ISIS is finding support during lightning advances in Iraq. Read more here.

President Obama is now reportedly contemplating air or drone strikes against ISIS positions in Iraq — exactly the type of engagement he sought to avoid against Assad’s forces in Syria. For his part, Assad was just “re-elected” on June 3, winning nearly 90 percent of a sham vote widely decried as illegitimate. Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict has become locked in stalemate.

Now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, Ambassador Ford spoke with VICE News about his views on Syria, Iraq, and America’s role in the Middle East.

VICE News: You’ve said since leaving government that you could no longer defend American policy in Syria. What should the US government be doing in Syria?
Ambassador Ford: The most important thing for Syria is to try to maintain the unity of the country. If it falls apart into different pieces, I would imagine the fighting over new permanent boundaries would go on for many years and would cost even more lives than have already been lost. But the only way to preserve the unity of the country at this point is to get a new national government. It has to be negotiated so that there is buy-in for that new national government from all the different sides of the conflict. That’s what we were trying to get started in the Geneva talks. But the government wasn’t willing to discuss any transition. Instead, it had what they call an election, which was really just them trying to impose a new government on at least that part of Syria which they still control. That won’t get Syria out of the crisis. The only way forward in terms of getting a sustainable, lasting solution is to get back to the negotiating table. That will require more pressure on the regime. That, in turn, requires moderates in the armed opposition to be able to really put pressure on the regime. So far they’ve put some pressure on the regime but not enough. So we need to help them more.

In terms of specific help, should the US help the moderate opposition acquire the sophisticated weaponry, like Manpads (shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles), that they have asked for? Should we be giving them military assistance, or just humanitarian assistance and training?
Humanitarian assistance we ought to give both because it is the right thing to do but also because it is politically smart when friendly countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are having such a hard time with the millions of refugees inside their countries. So humanitarian aid needs to go forward, but that doesn’t get us back to the negotiating table. The Free Syrian Army, which is the armed opposition of the moderates, needs a lot of things. They absolutely need more material assistance. That includes things like ammunition, food, cash. It would be really good if they could pay even small salaries to their recruits. That would probably pull in recruits from some of the al Qaeda extremist groups who are well-funded. They need ammunition and more weapons. But I underline that this is not only something that the Americans have to do. It has to be done in coordination with other countries in the region who are also involved in this fight like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan. We all have to work together.

How has the US response to Syria shaped the evolving situation in Iraq? Have Syria and Iraq now merged into one giant conflict?
It’s one big conflict now. I’ve been out to that border, the Syrian-Iraq border, and it’s just sand out in the desert. There’s no fence. There are no lines. It’s just one second you’re in Iraq, one second you’re in Syria. Once in a while there’s an occasional border post a mile or two back from the border. The border is invisible. It’s a border that these extremist groups cross regularly — so it’s one big conflict. It’s going to be very hard to fix the really grim situation in Iraq if we don’t also put pressure on this same extremist group —the Islamic State — in Syria. Otherwise, every time they have a problem in Iraq, they are just going to float back into Syria, rest, re-group, re-organize and then go right back into Iraq again. In fact, they got into Syria, three or four years ago, because things in Iraq were so unsettled. They actually began infiltrating into Syria in 2011. For a long time they’ve been linked. But what we have seen is that the cancer, which was slowly metastasizing, suddenly really took off. So now we have a major problem to deal with on both sides of the border, in both countries.

This conflict has affected not just Iraq, but Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and many other nations in the region. Can Humpty Dumpty be put back together again? Or are we going to spend years or decades trying to re-establish states that were invented by the British and the French in the beginning of 20th Century?
The British and the French did help invent these states. In fact, one person called them tribes with flags. Putting them back together is going to be really difficult.… You can’t fix that quickly. If you can fix it at all, which is difficult, it certainly is going to take time. It’s mainly a political issue about getting all the sides in the conflict, whether that be in Syria or in Iraq, to agree on new national governments that enjoy support and buy in from all of the different communities in these fragmented states.

You famously went to Hama with the French ambassador in the beginning of the rebellion when it was very much a peaceful protest movement. To see it turn to this, how have you dealt with that personally? How has it affected your sense of the region and of the America’s role in it?
Personally, I’m very saddened by everything I’ve seen in Syria. It’s a lovely country with really sophisticated, interesting people, a fabulous history, wonderful food, great shopping, really interesting culture, music, and literature. It’s just tragic to see what has happened there. It started off peacefully but the government had no intention from the beginning of making any reforms. They just relied on brute force from the beginning. This is ultimately not a problem Americans can fix. I was in Iraq for four and a half years. We had a 170,000 troops for a while in Iraq, and we still couldn’t fix the problems in Iraq. It wasn’t until Iraqis came together and began to work together in 2006 and 2007, and it took years then to calm it down a while. And it didn’t last very long, as we can see. It is for Iraqis to figure out how to fix their country. And it’s going to have to be Syrians who figure out how to fix Syria. We can play a somewhat helpful role in the margins, but we should not think that we control the destinies of countries like Syria and Iraq. The people who live there and stay there and whose children will live there, they are the ones who can fix the country or go on fighting.

It’s been the US position for a while that Assad must go. Does Iraq need a new leader?
The al Qaeda Islamic State problem in Iraq was under control as long as the Arab tribesmen were fighting it. It is very noticeable that those Arab tribesmen are not fighting them anymore. The reason is they are really angry at the central government under Prime Minister Maliki. They claim that there have been lots of people arrested without charge and tortured — that people have been killed, and homes raided, and that the central government under Maliki has been very repressive. So that they won’t help him against al Qaeda. I read reports today that they are welcoming the Islamic State as a relief from Prime Minister Maliki’s government. At a bare minimum there is going to have to be some serious outreach from the prime minister to that disaffected Sunni Arab community. There are going to have to be some changes in the way he works with them. He’s going to have to win their trust and confidence. Otherwise, there is really nothing the United States can do to help this problem in Iraq.

Follow Ari Ratner on Twitter: @amratner