An Interview With Robert Ford, Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria
Robert Ford was the U.S. Ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014. He received the Secretary’s Service Award, the U.S. State Department’s highest honor, in 2014 for his service in Syria. As the ambassador, Ford proposed and implemented policies and developed joint strategies with Middle Eastern and European allies to find solutions to the Syrian conflict. Ambassador Ford has appeared on PBS, MSNBC, NPR, Fox, CNN, the BBC and on the Arabic networks speaking in Arabic. His writings have appeared in various print media, including The New York Times and Foreign Affairs.
The Politic: You were stationed in Syria when the uprisings began in 2011. Could you tell me about your personal experience when the uprisings first started? What were the specific steps that you took once the conflict unveiled?
Robert Ford: First, as uprisings spread, we tried to get more information about what was happening. I led the embassy team, which had dozens of people and we watched the demonstrations from a distance. We were particularly interested in knowing if there was any violence and especially who started it.
The answer to violence was consistently the government. We spoke to people in the government. I did not talk to Assad directly; he did not want to see me or to talk about it. But I talked to the foreign minister, and I talked to Assad’s national security advisor, and also to one of his political advisers.
And at the same time, we talked to opposition figures, and our message was the same to both sides: there should not be violence. People have a right to protest peacefully. That right is in the United Nations’ Universal Charter on Human Rights. And there needs to be a dialogue and negotiation between the government and the opposition.
The Opposition people were very suspicious of the government. They were shot and arrested. They said several times that they would sit with the government. However, the government shut down their plans to hold meetings for negotiations, and every time the secret police swooped in and arrested people.
When I would complain about this to the Syrian government, I got two answers. First, they told me that these arrests were a mistake and that they would let them out, which they sometimes did. The second answer was that these were people who did not have any influence over the demonstrators. They would reject discussing politics with them.
As the uprising went on into the summer of 2011, the violence escalated, particularly concerning government shooting at people. The funerals of people slain were themselves becoming massive demonstrations. You just see this spiraling upward. I finally went to the city of Hama in late June see if the protests were peaceful. They were. Our message to protest leaders was to “stay peaceful.” This was the same message we gave to the government. A couple of days after I visited those big protests, the Syrian government organized a crowd to assault our embassy, and the message from the government was clear: stay out of it.
I think it is most important for readers of The Politic to understand how the protests overwhelmingly were peaceful at the beginning. The United Nations’ Charter on Universal Human Rights specifically enumerates the right to protest peacefully and to form associations, both of which the Syrian government sharply interfered with in 2011. I spoke out on this, saying that what the government was doing was wrong. I was very vocal about that, and that infuriated the government. But I was not saying that Assad should be brought down. I was saying that there needs to dialogue, there need to be negotiations. When some people say I supported the opposition, I did not. I supported the opposition’s right to protest and express themselves peacefully, which is very different and which is in the UN’s Universal Charter.
It would be entirely inappropriate for a foreign officer to express support for an opposition political program or an opposition’s political demands. But to show support for the application of the UN’s Charter, to which the U.S. and Syria are both members, is a different matter.
Having observed the refugee plight in Turkey, I am curious about your thoughts on the current refugee situation. Refugees in host countries like Turkey are currently treated as second-class citizens and are not afforded good employment or healthcare. How do you evaluate these and other challenges to refugees? What are some steps that Turkey and other regional and European allies need to take to mollify refugees’ condition in your opinion? What should the U.S.’s role be in helping Syrian refugees?
What you say about refugees in Turkey is entirely true, but the conditions in Turkey are generally a lot better than in Lebanon. At least Turkey has opened some educational opportunities for children and granted some work permits. However, the population of refugees in Turkey is nearly three million, the biggest in any country. This puts a strain on the Turkish economy, both concerning employment and housing. Turkey has done a pretty reasonable job under the circumstances.
It costs Turkey a lot of money to house these refugees, as well as to provide access to healthcare and buildings. The international community has not been stepping up to provide the funds—which the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees says are needed for both the refugees and their host countries. The last two years, the international community has only provided about forty percent of what the United Nations says is necessary.
As unhappy as we are about Syria, we have a moral responsibility to provide more resources for the refugees, as well as the internally displaced people in Syria. With respect to assistance for internally displaced persons inside Syria, the UN needs to be very careful about not helping the Syrian military. The funds from the international community need to be used strictly for the internally displaced. There are ample reports and photographic evidence indicating that some of the UN assistance is leaking to the Syrian government’s military units. There are serious allegations that the UN is cooperating with Syrian government figures, some of whom are on United States’ and EU’s sanctions lists.
The international community needs to do more to help refugees and internally displaced people. But the UN, in turn, needs to be transparent about with whom it is working inside Syria and to make sure that its resources are not diverted from the humanitarian purposes for which they are intended.
Note that the international community does not just include the U.S. and its allies. Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China need to contribute more. The U.S. is the largest single country donor, having provided over $6 billion now. The Russians have not even given one hundred million. Of course, they are bombing hospitals, so they have a different objective.
How do you evaluate Obama administration’s policy toward Syria in terms of international aid and security concerns? How do you respond to the allegations that the Obama administration did not take the Syrian crisis seriously?
The Obama Administration did a good job trying to get funds for the humanitarian crisis. There should be more, but six billion is a lot of money for the U.S. government which has had many checks that went over-budget. I won’t criticize the Obama Administration on the humanitarian side.
On the other security side, however, calling the Administration would be kind. They were ineffective on the chemical weapons issue. They were ineffective regarding stalling the extremist developments in Iraq and Syria. And they were ineffective regarding setting an environment that would be propitious for the negotiations that the U.S. government wanted and for a longer-term solution to the Syrian crisis.
I am planning to teach a course for juniors and seniors at Yale on American diplomacy next fall. One of the weeks of that thirteen-week course is about Richard Holbrooke and the Balkans negotiations. Like Bashar al-Assad, Milosevic was a very tough cookie—very brutal. Holbrooke understood that to get Milosevic to the negotiating table where he would make compromises, it would be necessary to put real military pressure on him.
In Holbrooke’s days, the U.S. Air Force supplied this kind of pressure. None of us were ever urging Obama, except regarding the red line on chemical weapons, to use the U.S. military to strike Syrian targets. At least, not when I was in government. However, there were other ways to put pressure on the Syrian government beyond sanctions, which do not do much. We did not even do that. Not surprisingly, the negotiation efforts of Geneva I in 2012, Geneva II in 2014, and even Geneva III in 2016 went nowhere. It collapsed each time.
I was at the talks in Geneva II in 2014, and the Syrian government refused to negotiate a political deal. The opposition did not insist that Assad steps down as a precondition, they were even willing to negotiate his position. They even put that in writing to the United Nations Special Envoy, but the Syrian government was not willing to negotiate. Also, the Russians were not going to press them.
Holbrooke understood that there had to be some firm action to make the negotiations work. Secretary Kerry was arguing for that, but could never convince the President. Kerry was pressing the President to apply more pressure to the Syrian government to get it to negotiate, but the White House rejected this.
In comparison, what do you think of President Trump’s recent policies, including the ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries and the latest missile strikes? There were reports that Assad was using chemical weapons in the past, but never before did the U.S. respond in such harsh terms. What, in your opinion, has changed in the U.S. stance towards Assad?
It is disgraceful to target Syrian refugees. The State Department is not stupid about the risk of terrorism, and there is a very detailed vetting process. It takes years to enter. I do not believe that Trump believes in the message connoted by the Statue of Liberty, which is that America should welcome those fleeing chaotic lands.
I thought the missile strike was a positive. Assad has been using chemical weapons with impunity since 2012. He was emboldened by Obama administration’s failure to carry out even a limited strike in September 2013. The Russians quickly flouted any agreements. But it is too early to say that Trump’s airstrikes have been a success, because Assad will probably test the Administration by using chemical weapons again. There are already reports that Assad started reproducing them. Moreover, if the Trump administration does not strike again in a limited way, then it will not succeed in its objective of establishing deterrence against added chemical weapons used by the Syrian government.
The strikes are not intended to destroy Syrians’ ability to produce chemical weapons. We do not have enough intelligence to do that. The strikes are designed to make Assad pay a high enough price that he is deterred from using chemical weapons again.
These strikes are quite limited in their nature. They only hit one airbase, and they give Russians a four-hour advanced notice so that the Russian personnel could evacuate safely. I am sure the Russians told the Syrians, so the Syrians could also evacuate the airbase. The strikes only hit fuel depots and maintenance facilities at the airport. Nonetheless, such a strike certainly would interfere with the Syrian government’s ability to use the airbase for a few weeks until they repaired the damage.
It is difficult for me to imagine what other steps the U.S. military could take in the short-term. Perhaps we could get other countries to join us in deterrence. France, Britain—these alone would be good in helping us. But that requires some diplomatic effort too.
How do you think the rise of right-wing parties, with Marine Le Pen in France, AfD in Germany, Theresa May in Britain and Donald Trump would affect our efforts in Syria? Could the rise of these right-wing parties achieve a way for the U.S. to strong arm the Assad government into negotiating a peace deal with the opposition?
The rise of right-wing parties puts less pressure on Assad. I do not think Trump is particularly interested in putting pressure on Assad to negotiate. His airstrikes were intended to deter on the chemical weapons side, not to put pressure on Assad to negotiate a political deal. Right-wing parties in Europe are very disinclined to put pressure on Assad because they are Islamophobic. A lot of them view Assad as a bulwark against Islamic extremism and so they would like Assad to win the civil war. This would ensure that there are no more refugees coming out. The rise of the far-right doesn’t bode well for short-term negotiations in Syria.
What do you think the U.S. role in Syria should be in order to reach a peaceful resolution? Is a peaceful resolution still a possibility at this point?
The U.S.’s role at this point is marginal because we don’t provide much assistance to any of the Syrian elements fighting on the ground.
There were recent ceasefire negotiations in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. The sponsors were Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Those three are the ones that are funneling in the most weapons to Syrian groups fighting on the inside. In the case of Iran and Russia, they have actual fighting units in the civil war. The Turks have fighting units against not Assad but the Islamic State and the Kurds.
The U.S., by contrast, is not providing significant assistance to groups in the Syrian civil war. The U.S. is focused solely on the Islamic State. As a result of that focus, we have been marginalized in discussions about ceasefire and peace talks. Therefore, I believe it is highly unlikely that there will be a peace agreement anytime soon. It has been hard enough to even get a ceasefire. And the Americans intentionally have no leverage. Obama did not try to get leverage. He made a conscious decision not to try. And I do not think Trump is going to change that.
A peace agreement in Syria is more likely to come about through Russian, Turkish, and Iranian deals, including their efforts to bring their proxies along inside Syria. This could potentially be a two-stage deal. In the first stage, Russia, Turkey, and Iran would make a deal. In the second stage, they lean on or step on the feet of their proxies to step down. The second stage will be excruciatingly difficult though. It is not like the proxies are just going to salute and take orders. They have their own agency and own demands.
But if this first stage deal were to take place and we could reach the second stage you are describing, perhaps there is a slight hope for a peaceful Syria?
If the Russians, Turks, and Iranians could agree on a fairly detailed outline of a political deal, that would be a huge step forward. But they are nowhere near that.
Finally, what advice would you give to college students who hope to work in Foreign Service?
I have two pieces of advice.
First, it is useful to learn a foreign language fluently; whatever it is French, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Persian. It is important to learn it fluently so that you can use it professionally in meetings.
The second piece of advice is to get some overseas work experience. This could be anything from doing the PeaceCorps to working in international journalism, or working with an NGO for refugees or human rights. Even business. But they should get some overseas experience. That is very important on a resume for someone interested in working in the diplomatic service or the U.S. Agency for International Development.
This interview was edited for concision and clarity.