How to Win in Syria: A Q&A With Robert Ford

How to Win in Syria: A Q&A With Robert Ford

Why you should care

Ford has both met the Syrian president and demonstrated with the opposition.

In 2011, when peaceful demonstrators were taking to the streets of Syria to protest President Bashar Assad’s regime, Robert Ford, the then-U.S. ambassador to Syria, was mixing it up in the crowd, despite rumors of a government crackdown. Then the 26-year foreign service veteran watched in dismay as civil war broke out and Assad’s forces began killing its own civilians. Peace talks have broken down time after time. The Obama administration was hesitant to dip its toe in the pool, understandable given that America’s decade long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were just winding down. But after three years, Ford had had enough.

I could no longer defend [Obama’s policy] publicly,” he told PBS Newshour in 2014. “It was time for me to go.”

Nowadays, one of America’s foremost experts on the Middle East is still lobbying for arming the moderate opposition, though he recognizes the situation has become more complex: ISIS controls large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, and al-Qaida-linked rebels are mixing and mashing with moderates. Already, some 210,000 Syrians have been killed, and the prospect of negotiations remains bleak. But the man still has a plan. OZY spoke with the former ambassador earlier this month, and an edited version of our conversation follows.

OZY:

For those of us not glued to the T.V., catch us up on the important and recent developments in the crisis, would you?

Robert Ford:

First, there are problems in [President Bashar Assad’s] regime. The opposition has launched a big offensive in the north and the south and has taken Idlib, a provincial capital in the south, even though the regime knew the attack was coming. Assad also fired two of his four top security chiefs in the last month. That’s a serious crack in regime unity that we haven’t seen in the entire course of the civil war. Also, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are getting more into the fight. The Turks are no longer going to wait for the Americans. Finally, Kurdish fighters in the northeast have made some limited gains against ISIS and are coming closer to achieving their goals of eventually claiming an autonomous region.

Overall, Syria is steadily fragmenting and heading towards partition and ISIS will probably control some territory in eastern Syria as part of that partition.

OZY:

We’re still far from the end of the crisis. How do we get there?

RF:

In order to avoid partition, we need a national political deal. We have to put pressure on the regime to go to the negotiating table. There’s no military solution. The solution is not to topple Assad — that would take a long time. To get peace talks, we need one single Syrian chain of command through which all foreign aid is funneled. There has to be buy-in from non-extreme Syrian fighters. The Turks and Saudis and Qataris and Europeans would welcome it if Americans would up our aid, which would be on the condition of a single chain of command.

But so far, America’s policy has been too little, too late. We’re always behind curve. How do you get ahead of curve and press the regime to the negotiating table? Give the moderates a lot more weapons and cash to compete against extremists for recruits because moderates will go to the negotiating table. Syrians don’t join ISIS because of ideology — for them, it’s about fighting the regime and having food. They are people who are trying to support their families living in refugee camps.

OZY:

Who are the dark horses in this race? Any game-changers we should be keeping our eye on?

RF:

Two people in particular that many aren’t paying attention to: Hashim al-Sheikh — nom de guerre Abu Jaber — who leads the conservative Salafist group Ahrar ash-Sham (“Islamic Movement of the Free Men of Levant”). They are one of strongest groups in northern Syria and had a main role in the Idlib battle. They are a conservative Islamic group that deals on the ground with al-Nusra but is very careful not to join al-Qaida or the jihadi movement. If anyone is going to pull young men out of jihadist groups without killing them it’ll be people like Jaber. They are the kind of group that Americans will eventually have to deal with in the end.

Another is the so-called “First Army.” Its head, Col. Saber Safar put out a political manifesto and is thinking already about how to get to the negotiating table. Safar, with other colonels, was able to band together three disparate groups into one coherent organization.

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