Robert Ford on the War in Syria

Ambassador Robert Ford, who was US ambassador to Syria until he stepped down in February, was known for being outspoken about the use of violence by the regime of President Bashar al Assad and for his support for the Syrian opposition - and he has no regrets. “If we don’t stand up when people are trying to stand up for basic human rights, I say - shame on us!” he told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on Monday. Ford said the Assad regime “is rotten to the core - they can tolerate no dissent,” and said Assad ran the worst dictatorship since the Third Reich - “he is much worse even than Saddam.” But Ford said he saw no easy solution to the civil war in Syria, and pointed out that the longer the fighting goes on, the more radicalized the opposition forces are becoming.

Ambassador Ford recalled visiting Damascus for the first time when he was 24 years old in the early 1980s, and he found himself in conversation with a military officer who mostly wanted to discuss Baywatch. When they parted, the officer said “when you go back to America please tell them we are not barbarians.” Ford, who had been in the Peace Corps in Morocco and learnt Arabic, thought Syria then had a highly sophisticated culture, was full of successful businesspeople, and had the best food in the Arab world.

“And now look at what has happened - the decisions taken by one family, and what they have done to their country, really breaks my heart.”

Ford took up his post in the embassy in Damascus in December 2010 before the anti-government protests that came to be known as the Arab Spring had spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Syria. The first demonstration in Syria happened in February 2011 in Damascus after a traffic cop beat a driver in the street for not following his instructions at an intersection, and a huge crowd gathered to protest the police brutality, shouting “the Syrian people will not be humiliated.” Video of the protest went viral on Youtube, and it soon morphed into large demonstrations against the security forces, and ultimately against President Assad himself. Just over three years later more than 100,000 people have been killed, millions have fled as refugees and large parts of Syria’s ancient towns and cities have been destroyed. Ford said that after the first demonstration, they realized at the US embassy that the Arab Spring “was coming here – but we did not know the conflict would devastate the country.”

When asked about the use of chemical weapons, and whether the US should have responded with some form of strike after Assad crossed what President Obama had said was a “red line,” Ford said that in the end - even it if was with Russian intervention - the White House achieved what it wanted, which was to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons - by now some 92% of the country’s chemical weapons have been taken out. And to those within the administration who were arguing for air strikes, he said the problem was always “what do you do the day after the airstrikes?” because Assad’s regime would keep fighting. “The pundits on TV would say ‘the airstrikes didn’t stop Assad’ - so do you then have more airstrikes? You would have to keep escalating and not be able to answer the question ‘where does it end?’”.

Ford said that Syria now is fragmenting. “The regime has made some progress in some areas, and lost ground in others. It is very well dug in around Damascus.” But there are areas in the north and the east which Assad has no prospect of controlling. “The opposition is very divided - there is no one person who leads the opposition.” He said a UNHCR contractor who was trucking relief supplies to Aleppo counted 53 roadblocks that his trucks had to go through - half of them controlled by the government, the other half controlled by a wide array of opposition groups.

When asked what the US can do now to stop the war, Ford said “we need to get back to negotiations. It won’t be easy... The war is at a stalemate now, but if you inflict enough pain on the regime, they may be willing to go back to the negotiating table - or agree to a transitional government.” And the US cannot afford to ignore the Syrian conflict. Already it is “slopping over the border into Iraq - al Qaeda now controls Fallujah.” And on top of that, western Islamists are traveling to Syria where they are getting trained on the battlefield, and then can come back to Europe or the US where they can stage terrorist attacks - “already the British have foiled two terrorist plots by fighters with British nationality returning from Syria.”

In the final analysis, Ford says he doesn’t think the US could have stopped the war from starting in Syria. “We don’t control the destiny of countries in the Middle East.” But lessons have been learned at the State Department. “We are much better set up now to help people who are trying to steer demonstrations in a peaceful way.” Unfortunately that has come too late for Syria.