Washington, DC, Asharq Al-Awsat—As Syrians mark the passing of three years since the start of the uprising in their country and the crisis that followed, the United States marks this solemn anniversary with discussions on “new policy options” in its approach to the conflict. This coincides with a “changing of the guard” at the State Department, with the retirement of Ambassador Robert Ford as the US envoy for Syria, and the passing of the baton to a new official, Daniel Rubenstein.
US President Barack Obama chose Ford, a fluent Arabic speaker and long-time career diplomat, to be his envoy to Syria in 2010. Ford became the first American envoy to Syria since the withdrawal of the US Ambassador in Damascus after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. When he arrived in Damascus in January 2011, Ford knew it would be a tough post, yet he could not have foreseen how events were to unfold over the following three years. While the outcome of Syria’s conflict remains unknown, and quite possibly a distant prospect, Ford announced his retirement in February after months of contemplation.
Ford recently spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat in Washington, DC about US policy in Syria in his first interview since retiring from the State Department at the end of February.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Many questions were posed about your decision to retire and whether it was an indication of a frustration with US policy in Syria
Ambassador Robert Ford: Well, I have been in the Foreign Service for 30 years, and I think at a certain point, especially on Syria policy, it is time for some new ideas and some new faces. I enjoyed working with many Syrians and many of my colleagues in the State Department and also other governments and foreign ministries, with the London 11 Countries Group [the core members of the Friend of Syria group]. But I also think we have reached a sort of milestone with three years, and the end is not clearly in sight yet, and I think there is a utility in bringing in fresh people and fresh ideas to address this.
Q: When you say fresh ideas, have you had ideas that you think should have been taken forward but weren’t? Is there advice you have offered the Obama administration as you leave?
Well I have certainly talked to the person replacing me, Danny Rubenstein, and also Larry Silverman who is taking part, and I have left them some ideas I think will be important going forward. [The] Number one [thing] is to remember that more than anything else this entire revolution is about Syrians and it is about dignity. I cannot emphasize the word “dignity” enough. Before anything else it is about dignity, and once we begin to understand that, then you can sort of imagine how you might get to a negotiated political settlement, but it has to be about dignity first and foremost.
Second, the United States has interests in Syria, so going forward those interests won’t change, but there may be additional interests attached to them. The Director of National Intelligence said that Syria is becoming a major security threat to the United States because of the Al-Qaeda groups there. That doesn’t change our stress on dignity, it just means we have additional things to worry about and so now we have to manage several different challenges all at one time.
And the last thing I have said to Danny and Larry, we cannot work alone in the region; we have friends and they have interests in the region too—Turkey has interests, Saudi Arabia has interests, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, they all have interests. So whatever things they do going forward, they are going to have to work with regional partners; it is not an American solution, it is going to have to be an international community solution which the United States will be a big part of, but not the only part. And I think sometimes there are people who look at the United States and say ‘Why don’t you fix the problem,’ and it cannot be only the United States who ‘fixes it’. That is one of the lessons, not the only one, that we should have learnt from the Iraq experience. In situations like this, of internal conflict, where there are lots of countries that have interests, you have to work as part of a broader effort. We can lead the effort, but we are not the only part of the effort.
Q: Some Arab officials would respond to that statement by saying Arab countries do want to be part of the solution and have ideas for supporting the opposition, but there is not enough commitment and engagement from the United States to get on board fully. I don’t just mean the arming of opposition forces, which some Arab states support, but also a sense that they do not have a fully committed partner in the United States.
Well I would say, hence perhaps the reason for some new faces and some new ideas if foreign governments feel we are not committed or not engaged enough, then I think that falls on my shoulders in part and I accept that responsibility. All the more reason for fresh faces and fresh people to carry this forward.
Q: Yet it is perhaps more about the impetus from the White House for a push forward. Many don’t think the issue was you and your office, but more the commitment and will of the White House.
Well, we just had King Abdullah of Jordan here, and the President is going to Saudi Arabia in two weeks. I know regarding the visit of King Abdullah of Jordan, Syria was practically at the top of the agenda. I would expect it would be in the top two or three issues on the agenda of the President in his visit to Saudi Arabia.
I don’t think it is fair to say that the President is not engaged. I feel a bit frustrated when foreign governments say they want more engagement from the United States; what is it exactly that they are looking for? If they are looking for F-16s and drone strikes, okay, but let us be honest about what exactly it is they want. Sometimes I think they say this about the United States but what they really want is military engagement, and there are some voices in Washington that are urging military action, Senator John McCain and others, but at the same time, the argument will still have to be made to convince the senior levels of the administration that the military strikes will provide the way forward in a solution by doing one, two and three. That still has not been clearly identified, and I think until it is it will be very difficult to convince the United States to move forward on it. That is another lesson from Iraq: be a little more careful and understand the endgame before you engage military forces.
Q: It is hard to know an end game of any military strike, unless it is only one single target that needs to be taken out. The situation in Syria is more complex, so in your assessment, is it possible to highlight what can be achieved by limited strikes?
I think the Syrian regime certainly pays attention to the threat of military action and the Russians do too—that is one of the big reasons we were able to secure a chemical weapons agreement. The President has never taken it off the table, but at the same time we are the largest military power in the world and so we have to act with a sense of responsibility and also think medium- and long-term.
You do not threaten military action if you are not willing to do it, and if we are to begin an operation, it would be very helpful to know where does it end and what is it we are attaining out of it. The advocates of the military strike have not yet been able to convincingly articulate this, not just in Washington. I live in Baltimore, and I have yet to meet one person in Baltimore in favor of military strikes in Syria.
Q: Last September, there was a sense that a strike was imminent; then there was a stepping back, with the deal on the chemical weapons. How damaging was that incident for the Syrian crisis?
Oh, there is no question that with the Syrian opposition there was huge frustration when we decided we would not go ahead with the strike—it was a gigantic frustration and I heard all about it, and I still do sometimes. Yet I have to be really blunt with my friends in the Syrian opposition: suppose tomorrow the President decides 146,000, or whatever number it is, of Syrians have died is enough—it is possible—and he takes a decision on this. What happens next week? Does the Syrian opposition have a proposal? Do they know if they will move these people into these jobs and take these kinds of measures to maintain security and to reassure Alawis and Christians and others? We do not have that yet. They have made a lot of progress in terms of defining their thoughts on that, and that is great. But it is not enough.
It goes back to what I was saying before—the military engagement is not really an answer, it is the political part after the military engagement. On that we have a long way to go. My biggest disappointment from Geneva, frankly, is that the Syrian opposition put a proposal on the table. It was a framework for a Transitional Governing Body that you could build on, and I think there was a huge opportunity lost for Syria that the regime would not sit down and start to discuss that, because in the end it is not F-16s and drones that will fix the problem, [instead] that framework was something like [a solution]. Getting tough armed guys on the opposition side—and there are lots of them, some of them are extremists—and getting hard and tough guys from the regime—and some of them are also extremists—and to get most of them to give a political settlement a chance. You will still have nasty guys on both sides who will have to be contained, isolated and eventually dealt with. We had a chance in Geneva to put something forward and get some progress. But it stalled, the regime would not discuss it. [Syrian Permanent Representative at the UN, Bashar] Al-Jaafari simply said, ‘we will not discuss this until we finish discussing violence’, as though the two sides were not connected.
Q: Before we get to Geneva, one final point about military strikes. Some would say drone strikes are one way of supporting the Free Syrian Army and change the situation on the ground. Is it feasible for the United States to approve such strikes?
Well technologically it is feasible . . .
Q: And politically?
Politically, I don’t know, I can’t answer that, it is more of a Defense Department question. Policy-wise, we have resumed non-lethal assistance for some of the armed factions in both the north and the south. That is not a secret; and just in the past few days we got some more stuff in, I was talking to our coordinator about it. We do not have a problem providing them with at least some kind of assistance as long as it is understood we only are going to support people who are going to focus on dignity and giving people choices after the Assad regime, and are not going to impose some vision of whatever regime—that people will have dignity and human rights will be respected. I think there is room to discuss a lot between us and the armed groups. A lot.
Q: Let us turn to the Geneva talks. Everyone speaks as though that process has now failed and ended. Is that your understanding?
I think Lakhdar [Brahimi, the Special Joint representative for Syria] told the UN clearly that we cannot see when there would be another date [for talks]. And it is a shame because there was hope for a little while and I think that is all gone now. It is sad.
Q: Yet we knew from the start this process would be hard, we knew that the Syrian regime would not be willing to talk about handing over power from the beginning. But the idea was to keep at it. What changed? Was it when Brahimi came out and said he couldn’t make them agree and said it was up to the US and Russia?
Here is where we left Geneva frustrated. The invitation letter from the UN Secretary General [Ban Ki-moon] says, ‘come to Geneva to discuss ending violence and implementing the Geneva Communique, beginning with the establishment of a Transitional Governing Body with full authority’ and so on. To us, as a country that signed off on that as an initiating country and contributed a lot of the language of that letter, it was clear that although ending violence might be a reasonable topic at the table—we certainly don’t object—there clearly had to be discussions about a transition government, because in the end, this is about dignity and about an existing regime that does not provide dignity enough to keep civil peace.
Therefore that transitional government had to be on the agenda, and I will confess to you some surprise that in the end there was not sufficient pressure on the Syrian regime to accept that conversation and discuss that. They were able to just say we will not discuss it, let us put it that way.
Q: You said there was a need to get the hardliners, even those with the guns, to sit and talk . . .
I didn’t say they need to sit together and talk—even though I think that will be eventually needed—but we need them to accept the agreement. They might, to negotiate through political representatives. My sense from the opposition side [is that] most of the armed groups were okay with it, including the Islamic Front. It is not fair to say they rejected the process, they were not happy with it, but they were okay. Now from the other [government] side, it may be different. I don’t know if all the elements from the regime support peace talks, that is not clear to me. I don’t know if the Assad [government] can deliver its side. For those who say the opposition is so fractured, they forget that actually the regime is increasingly fractured. As this attrition goes on, the regime’s own control on all the sides involved diminishes month by month, and that is very serious. It is one of the most frightening things about this whole situation.
Q: Some expected the regime to implode from all the pressures it is facing. But it isn’t possible to wait for that to happen to change the situation on the ground.
The situation of the cantonization of Syria is happening unfortunately and it is not a good result for us.
Q: And it appears that cantonisation is only increasing with time.
Yes, I don’t disagree with that.
Q: Let us turn to the Geneva talks, which appear to have collapsed completely now. What is the likelihood of getting international consensus to push a political solution forward, especially as US-Russia relations are tense now with the developments in Ukraine?
I think this is really important to remember: we and the Russians disagree on a great many things about Syria—responsibility for the August 2013 chemical weapons attack, etcetera etcetera—but we and the Russians do both agree that each country has a national security interest in Syria being free of extremists. So we would ask the Russian authorities, “look at the direction of events over the past three years, is the problem of extremism in Syria getting better or getting worse? Think forward, is it likely to get better or worse, if the current circumstances continue, or even get worse?”
I think it was on the basis of that understanding that we agreed there needed to be a transitional national government with mutual consent and full authority. I don’t think that has changed, either for us or for the Russians. Ukraine is a separate, hard issue. In terms of the two countries’ interests in Syria, that hasn’t changed. So we may need to think about how to go back to the Russians to say, “how do we get to that transitional national government?” That is a fair question to ask, because the Geneva process was not going anywhere—that is what Lakhdar Brahimi said, that is not what the Americans said, that is what the United Nations said.
Q: Yet Brahimi said that to get the talks to work he would need the US and Russia to push both sides in that direction. Is that your assessment—that if the Russians and Americans can work together for a political solution, as they did with the chemical weapons deal, it can lead to a result, or do you need regional involvement?
I think that when the United States and Russia work together, as we did on the chemical weapons, they can achieve a lot. But in the end we will have to get the Syrians to accept whatever comes out, and there are other countries in the region as well. So you may build up a Russian-American agreement on the way forward but you will have to bring in, most importantly, Syrians. But you will also have to bring in regional countries that could try to play a spoiler role. So there is going to be a need for lots of creative diplomacy. I can’t imagine that once you have a Russian-American agreement on a way forward, the problem is solved. That would be step one of many steps. But even right now, although we and the Russians agree on where we need to go, we do not agree on how to get there. So we had hoped in Geneva II that that would become clear, but it did not. So there will be a need at the right time to go back and talk about how to get there.
Q: Several US officials said the Russians either won’t deliver the Syrian regime during the talks or can’t actually do it. Do you have any clarity now—they won’t or they can’t
I don’t. Except I would say this: the Russians in past weeks have been increasing their military assistance to the Syrian regime dramatically. I don’t know exactly why they are doing that, but I am sure it gives them more influence and leverage in Damascus. Now maybe they are doing it because Iran is also increasing assistance, so to keep up with Iran.
We have seen the United States in situations like that too, where we sort of compete for influence in a smaller country. I don’t know what the Russians’ mentality on this is, however, I don’t think their leverage is diminishing. I think the most important thing though is not what the Russians do, it is what the supporters of the regime inside [Syria] do. We, the Russians, the Syrian opposition, the Iranians and others will have to interact with those regime supporters, and it is a diverse group. It is not just the [Assad] family, but there are people who are allied to the family, some Sunni business community elements, some part of the Syrian social fabric, elements of the regime’s military and militia forces. It is a complex interplay.
So if we and the Russians can come to an agreement we can act as a pole that will pull not all, but possibly bring others in as part of a negotiated deal. I don’t think Bashar Al-Assad will ever willingly give up power until he is confronted with a fait accompli. Obviously you will have to think about taking care of different people’s interests. It has always been clear to us, for example, that a transitional national government will have some elements of the existing regime, people whose behavior against Syrians has not been trickling with blood—they may stay. Their staying may convince other supporters of the regime that they could be safe in this new transitional government period. That will be important. I think the regime knows that exactly, and that is why they did not want to begin discussions on a transitional national government, because they could lose control of that discussion very quickly.
Q: There are obviously names of elements in the regime that Syrians and the international community could work with, but there has also been caution not to name them for their own safety. Yet have you been in touch, directly or indirectly, with these people and sensed a willingness to work on a political solution
All I can say is that I am obviously not going to name any names either, precisely because we don’t want to put people in jeopardy. What I can say is that most certainly there have been, at different times, people from inside who have reached out either to us or to other foreign countries to say we want the political solution that you are talking about in general. We want a negotiated solution. We got a lot of very positive echoes from inside Syria on the eve of Geneva when it started. There were messages directly and indirectly saying we hope this succeeds. Many people in the regime’s support camp are tired of this, they want a way out and they don’t see it. They were hoping that a negotiated solution would be possible to give them that way out. I don’t think that has changed. I interpret this anger that some in the Alawi community have voiced about what the nuns [of Maaloula] have said, and why hasn’t the regime worked to get Alawi prisoners released. That tells me they are tired and they are hurting too. They are looking for a way out.
Q: Everyone is looking for a way out.
That is what I am saying. What is interesting is that the one group not really looking for a way out is the regime, and it has been able to continue like this by saying that it is dealing only with extremists, that the enemy is all Al-Qaeda and the Al-Nusra Front.
My biggest complaint of all about the work of the Syrian opposition: they have done many, many good things, but their biggest problem so far is that they have never been able to clearly distinguish what they stand for, versus what Al-Qaeda stands for. For a long time, they would not even criticize Al-Qaeda and even now they won’t criticize Al-Nusra. But let us be honest, we know what Al-Nusra is too. They have gone in to Alawi areas and murdered Alawi civilians, and that has to be condemned.
I am not saying barrel bombs are not killing innocent civilians in Aleppo, of course they are, and it is horrible. But if you cannot think of a way to reassure elements of the regime’s support camp that a transition government won’t kill them, then they will keep fighting, because they are so afraid. Somehow, opposition elements must find a way to say we are not targeting Alawis or Christians or Sunnis or anybody, but that we are trying to get rid of a family that has destroyed our country. When was the last time we heard that? That is my parting request to the Syrian opposition. We are in the middle game now. The American Revolution took eight years, so why should we think this is different?
I hope it doesn’t take that long, I hope this ends this year, but we are in the middle game, and it has to be about convincing elements from the regime’s camp that there is only one way out, and that is to take a negotiated deal. Part of that deal may be that Assad has to go, the American position is he should, but it is not our decision. That has to be part of a package of security guarantees, dignity and safety of all the different elements of Syrian society.
It is the three-year anniversary and you have handed over the Syria file. Looking back, if you could change one thing on the US side, what would it be?
Let me think about that. I think we were not the decisive factor, ever. What started in Al-Hareeqa, which is to me when the uprising started, not in Dera’a, those were not American things. When I visited Hama and Jassem and the regime said I was instigating it, that was so ridiculous because it was already happening. So we were never the driving force; Syrians were the driving force. I think what bothers me the most, is that at different times some people in the Syrian opposition have thought that because we didn’t undertake a military strike, or because we didn’t say “Assad must go” at a certain time, they had questions about our policy. And I think that is too bad, it tells me again my failing—that it wasn’t clear that we stood for dignity, human rights, implementation of the Geneva Communiqué and that Assad has no legitimacy. I think we need to keep communicating as clearly as possible what it is we stand for and support.
I think as this fight goes on, and in some ways gets harder in terms of dignity and security, that kind of clarity is more important than ever. I would be very unhappy if people said, “because you fight Al-Qaeda, you support Bashar Al-Assad.” It doesn’t work that way, Assad is bringing these people in, these jihadists are coming to fight because he is there. If he wasn’t there it would be much easier to reduce the recruitment, but you can see how quickly that can be confused. I do not think we have communicated as clearly as we should where we stand, and I think going forward it will be more important than ever that we do communicate that.