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Exclusive interview with former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford

Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford ‘Syria needs a national government that has popular support and can mobilise the population to reject and fight extremism’

The United States and Turkey reached an agreement last week, after months of negotiations and planning, to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition fighters who are fighting the Assad regime and the Islamic State (ISIS). The Turkish Foreign Minister said the training programme will start in early March.

The location of the programme has not yet been determined; however, US military bases in Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are possible options. Ankara will provide instructors to supervise the programme.

US foreign policy has played a key role in the conflict in Syria and the country is considered to be the power behind the international fight against ISIS. Many would argue, however, that the US has failed in providing continuous support to the moderate rebels in Syria, considered to be the best option for the future of the country. As a result, moderate rebels in Syria have been forced into a defensive position, engaged in fighting with various armed groups.

US President Barack Obama said his country and the international allies are going to empower “local communities” in the war against terrorism. Moreover, he has requested Congress to authorise US ground forces to be used against ISIS.

In an article published inMcClatchy, the former US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, was cited as saying that he “no longer backs arming Syrian rebels”, a statement that was unexpected based on the ambassador’s previous and well-known support of the Syrian opposition.

In an exclusive interview with MEMO, Ambassador Ford said that the McClatchy article “is not accurate”.

Exclusive interview with Robert Ford

Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C., resigned from his service in the US Department of State in 2014 declaring that he could no longer defend the Obama policy in Syria. The former ambassador told MEMO that training opposition fighters to fight only ISIS without fighting the Assad regime would not fix the problem. He explained that there is no unity within the rebel groups, providing little hope that the opposition can bring down the regime on its own.

He suggested that the solution to the conflict in Syria is a national government that has “popular support and can mobilise the population to reject and fight extremism.”

“American forces cannot do that,” he added.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MEMO: While with the US Department of State you were considered an advocate for the Syrian rebels, and you left criticising the Obama administration for their lack of support for the rebels. What changed your mind, and why have you become more skeptical of the rebels in Syria?

Ford: It is not the lack of the system; it is the inadequate level of the system that has been one problem but not the only problem. There is another problem, which is that different countries give aid to different groups and so if one group does not like the plan called for by other groups to coordinate and cooperate on the ground, they can just walk away and we have seen that in big battles. Sometimes a group like Ahrar Al-Sham or Harakat Hazm [a US-backed rebel group] say we need help over here we have a big battle against the regime and other groups won’t help them, because they say that is not our fight.

There is no unity within the armed opposition because they each have different foreign countries [that support them], and until you have a single unified command under a Syrian, of course, you cannot have a coordinated Free Syrian Army. This has been a constant problem. If you look at the south, where they have a so-called First Army, the military operations centre in Jordan has a better job in getting everybody to coordinate, but in the north, the Turkish military centre up there with different countries in it has done a really bad job. So you have this constant argument of who controlled the border crossing, different groups shoot each other.

There is another problem, because the assistance is not enough in either the north or the south, the moderate groups have had to form tactical alliances sometimes with the Nusra Front, and they do not do it because they love Nusra, I understand that, they do it because of the tactical necessity. But what they have done with this cooperation, they have made it impossible to get to a negotiated political deal, because the people in the regime, who do not like Assad, and there are lots who don’t like Assad, look at the opposition and say we cannot negotiate with an opposition that supports Nusra. So the Nusra Front, even with the Free Syrian Army, is not enough to bring down the regime, but the Nusra Front’s presence in cooperation is enough to block progress towards political negotiation. So you get the worst of all possible worlds.

The Americans and other countries really have not said much about this. Nobody likes Nusra, but nobody saying anything. The Americans put Nusra on the terrorism list in 2012 and ever since then, in private sometimes, I would say to people you should not work with Nusra, it is a problem. Finally, the Americans cut off aid for some groups in the north because their fighters are working with Nusra, but the opposition still thinks that it has to work with Nusra, and I am telling the opposition, it is a bad strategy.

It is not that I am against helping the moderates and the Free Syrian Army, but I want a strong Free Syrian Army and one that promotes movement for a real negotiation, for a new government, and that means that it cannot work with extremists. Foreign countries have to provide help to a unified Syrian command, not different groups, do not go to Ahrar Al-Sham over here and Harakat Hazm over there, Liwa al-Tawhid or Liwa Al-Yarmouk and give them a little bit of weapons. Put it under a central unified Syrian armed command and let that armed command do the battle plan and implement the battle plan. And if it is unsuccessful, change the command.

MEMO: Turkey and the US signed an agreement to train opposition forces with sessions to start next month. What do you know about this training programme? Why has it been delayed? And, in your opinion, what are the possible outcomes?

Ford: I left government. I cannot give you details. But I will tell you what I think, the number of troops that it talks about training is not very big and won’t have a strong military impact. If they train 3,000 men, then send them into northern Syria, what are the odds that 3,000 men can fight 10,000 or 15,000 Islamic State fighters and make a lot of progress? Probably not a very big chance, and certainly not without American air power. The Americans have to decide what they want to do, if they want a force that actually makes progress, they have to give it more help.

Did you notice that the Turks, when they announced the agreement, said that the force being trained will fight both the Assad regime and the Islamic State, but have you noticed that the Americans said no, it is only going to fight the Islamic State.

Foreign countries have to agree who is the enemy. Is it both Assad and the Islamic State, or only the Islamic State? If the foreign countries cannot agree on this, then whatever the Americans think of doing won’t be successful.

MEMO: In your opinion, who is the enemy of the international community now?

Ford: I have been very clear, the reason the Islamic State exists is because of the Assad regime; the Assad regime’s brutality and the sense among Syrian Sunnis and Iraqi Sunnis too, in many cases, that they are being oppressed and that no one is helping them. In my opinion, if you train this force to only fight the Islamic State, it does not really fix the problem.

The Americans need to understand: Do we want to be successful, or do we not want to be successful?

MEMO: The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, suggested that Bashar Al-Assad is ‘part of the solution’, however, the US Department of State asserted that Assad has lost all legitimacy and must go. What do you think of de Mistura’s remarks? Has the US resigned itself fully from working with the Assad regime?

Ford: First, I am not in the administration, I don’t know everything. But I did notice that the president yesterday, after meeting the Qatari Emir, said that Assad lost legitimacy and should step down. I don’t think the president has changed his mind on that.

So what de Mistura said, and what we think about it, this is my understating: de Mistura was saying that there has to eventually be a negotiation, and it is not reasonable to require Assad to step down as a pre-condition to beginning negotiations. That does not mean that the Syrian opposition has to accept that Assad stays after the negotiations finish, or what the negotiations should be about.

The other part is, which de Mistura was saying, that Assad is in control of this portion along with Iran, and if there is going to be, for example, an end to the Syrian air force bombings, Assad has to order that. It is not going to come from someone else in the Syrian government. And I think that is what de Mistura was saying.

My own honest opinion, I cannot imagine that successful negotiations [would be possible in a manner] as if the last four years of fighting never happened and Assad stays in power as if nothing ever happened since 2011. That doesn’t seem reasonable. But what the terms are for setting up a new government and a new transition, I think this has to be negotiated.

Ambassador Ford with US Secretary of State John Kerry in a meeting with Syrian opposition forces in January 2014. Photo courtesy of US Department of State

MEMO: Is there a possibility for a political solution? If there is one, how do you think it would pan out?

Ford: First let me talk about the Russia initiative, it is interesting that the Russians are trying this because they did not try in Geneva one year ago to get the Assad regime to negotiate seriously. The Syrian opposition agreed to negotiate a political transition without Assad’s departure as a pre-condition, I think this is a very wise decision they made, and they also agreed to do a parallel discussion on security and terrorism. So there would have been two tracks in Geneva: a political track and a security track. The Assad regime refused that and said no to political discussions, only security, and the opposition rejected that. The Russians did not put any pressure on the Assad regime a year ago to accept the political track and that is why the negotiations went down so quickly.

Now, one year later, the Russians are bringing people to Moscow to talk about a political deal. I think that this is interesting; I do not know why they are doing it now in 2015 while they did not do it in 2014. But there is a problem with the Russian initiative, which is that it does not involve any of the groups in the opposition that are fighting on the ground. The people who came to Moscow to talk to the regime do not speak for the people fighting. The people fighting do not view those people in Moscow as their representatives, and so until you get the real fighters within the process, I do not think the process is very clear.

MEMO: Will the US be able to send troops to Syria to counter ISIS on the ground? Also, is fighting the Assad regime one of Obama’s priorities?

Ford: No, I do not want American forces on the ground in Syria. I spent five years in Iraq trying to help build an Iraqi government that could take on the job so the American boots on the ground can leave Iraq. And I don’t want to see American soldiers going back to fight in Iraq or Syria.

The solution in Syria, as in Iraq, is for a national government that has popular support and can mobilise the population to reject and fight extremism. The answer for Syria is a new government in Damascus that is able to earn confidence and the support of the big majority of the population, and can mobilise people to fight Nusra, to fight the Islamic State, and to re-establish security for all Syrians inside Syria. American forces cannot do that, American forces do not even speak Arabic; how are they going to understand complications of Syrian society. Also, I do not think many Syrians want American soldiers in Syria, they do not want foreign forces, they want help, they’d like American air power.