London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The decision of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) to announce an interim government in territories it controls in Syria has raised concerns among both Syrian opposition groups and the countries backing them, including the United States. Ambassador Robert Ford, the US Ambassador to Syria and the main point-person for Syrian policy at the US State Department, says it would be better for the Kurds to focus on the success of the revolution in the present time, and to deal with the “questions” relating to the Kurds constitutionally once a transitional governing body is formed in Syria. While emphasizing that the US has always stated its support “for the unity of Syria,” he also said the concerns of the Kurds were understandable based on their own historical experiences in the country.
Ford was speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat from his office at the State Department in Washington, DC, maintaining the position of supporting a political solution to the crisis in Syria. Ford is considered one of the most distinguished American Ambassadors of his generation. He speaks fluent Arabic and has a knowledge of the Arab world stemming from over three decades of working there. After being appointed US Ambassador to Damascus in January 2011, he found himself in the middle of a revolt that led to him being withdrawn from the country in October of the same year. There had been expectations that he would leave his position over the summer and be nominated as US Ambassador to Egypt, but this has not yet been confirmed. He insists that for now, he is focused on dealing with the Syrian crisis.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The Kurds of Syria, and specifically the PYD, have announced a transitional government, which the Syrian National Coalition are calling a hostile move. What is your assessment of this development?
Robert Ford: We have long stated our support for the unity of Syria. The Kurds suffered a very great deal during the time of the Assad regime, and even before that. They did not have equal rights as citizens of Syria, some didn’t even have the right of citizenship and couldn’t get passports, for example, and there was discrimination against Kurds, for example, in land-holding rights. And so, it is easy to understand why Kurds want change, and I hope that the people in Syria’s Kurdish areas will remember that the original problem came from the Assad regime and the Assad regime never fixed that problem. Then the Kurds have had a second enemy to deal with, and they are the Islamic groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and the Al-Nusra Front. In both cases, those groups have attacked Kurdish civilians in ways that really would not bring the Kurdish population to join the revolution. So I understand politically that what the Kurds did is a reaction to their experience, but I have to say that from our point of view, the Kurdish questions in Syria are constitutional questions. They have to be negotiated and agreed by all Syrians; they cannot be fixed by unilateral measures. So I think that it is more important right now for the Kurds to focus on the success of the revolution, and the success of moderates in the revolution and then to address the constitutional issues during the transitional governing body period laid out in the Geneva communiqué.
Q: Does the timing of the announcement from the Kurds, at a time when the Syrian opposition is working to unify its position, cause a further hindrance?
Like other parts of the Syrian political class, the Kurds are not unified—the Kurds are divided too. You have the PYD on the one hand, which is behind the unilateral measures that you talked about. The Kurdish National Congress—a political competitor of the PYD—joined the Syrian National Coalition last month, and in fact the General Assembly of the Coalition approved bringing in the Kurdish National Congress with new members into the General Assembly, as well as a Kurdish vice president. That was voted on last Saturday, and is a move which shows the unity of Syria and shows that Syrians across the country want a moderate revolution and a moderate new government without Bashar Al-Assad. The PYD, let us be honest, was for a long time an ally of the regime; sometimes it arrested opposition people and then gave them to the Mukhabarat [military intelligence] agencies. We know that the PYD cooperated with the regime, even when the PYD seized the border post at Yaaroubiyeh, Syrian government aircraft were helping them. So I don’t think the PYD is really the opposition.
Q: Moving to the situation on the ground inside Syria, in your assessment, how much territory does the Syrian regime continue to hold control over?
I have never seen a definitive number of how much of the Syrian geography is controlled by the regime and how much is controlled by the opposition. What I can tell you is that lines of control have only shifted a little bit week to week. The regime has made some advances outside of Aleppo, but the regime also lost a very big supply depot in Homs and they have also lost ground in Dera’a. And so this war continues without either side being able to deliver a decisive blow. It is a bloody war of attrition, and that is why we and the United Nations and other countries are urging that there be a negotiation to try to find a political settlement and stop the bloodshed.
Q: Much hope was pinned on the process of Geneva II delivering that political settlement. Do you think the meeting can happen before the end of this year?
I am a diplomat, and my job is always to think that things are possible with enough goodwill. So I think if there is enough goodwill we can do it before the end of the year, but it is difficult, of course. A couple of things I would say about these difficulties: Number one, on the ground there is terrible suffering, there are besieged cities and areas and the regime is blocking assistance, and this creates a very bad climate. It does not increase trust or show goodwill. This is a sacred principle—humanitarian assistance and not interfering with it—and the regime is breaking this principle. The opposition is breaking it too in a couple of small villages, but the biggest problem is the regime. So I hope we can see progress on that. There is also the issue of prisoners that [Coalition President] Ahmed Al-Jarba and others have raised. Steps are needed to build confidence there on both sides, because the opposition is also holding prisoners. Progress there would also show goodwill. I think if there is goodwill, we can start the political negotiation this year, but I think we also have to be realistic. This is a regime that uses sarin gas and scud missiles, and it is not going to be easy to convince them to set up a new transitional governing body. It is going to take some good very political maneuvers by the opposition to convince people in Syria that there is an alternative to Bashar Al-Assad and an alternative to extremism, and that the opposition can present an alternative like this at the table.
Q: There has been much focus on the need for it to be just two negotiating parties in terms of who actually sits on the table, one representing the regime and the other representing the opposition. However, the opposition is splintered and there are expectations for groups other than the Syrian National Coalition to attend the talks. The famous meeting you had with former Syrian Vice President Qadri Jamil last month raised questions about meetings with “alternative” opposition voices that can be seen as viable players on the table. Is this a possibility?
First, the United States recognized the Syrian National Coalition 11 months ago as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. That was before it had a formal relationship with the Kurds, with representatives of the provincial and local councils, and before it had an official relationship with representatives of the armed groups. It has all of those things now, and we think it is even more representative of the Syrian people now. We do not think that there need to be multiple delegations from the opposition. For us, a good negotiation is one where both sides can deliver results. I want to emphasize the importance of “can deliver results,” and an opposition delegations that is made up of the activists and opposition figures who led the revolution and the fighters who are fighting the regime—that is the delegation that can produce results at the table. Both sides, the government and the opposition, will have to make concessions, and if you don’t have strong roots you can’t make concessions. I understand that some people want to have a third or even a fourth delegation, but I would ask whether in all sincerity they can contribute in the negotiations or whether they can contribute by providing ideas and proposals that are brought into the negotiations by one delegation or the other or by the United Nations mediator. You can participate in the negotiations from outside the negotiating room by giving proposals to the delegations and mediator, and therefore contributing even if you are not part of the delegations.
Q: In saying you believe the activists and the fighters be part of the negotiations, are you referring to the Syrian Free Army and Local Organizing Committees?
I am not going to tell Syrians who they have to have in their negotiations; that is not American business, this is Syrian business. We think a delegation needs to have have both political and military elements, because the fight is now both a political and military fight. It is thus logical to have political and military elements in the delegation.
Q: Do you still have contact with Qadri Jamil?
I myself have not talked to him since October 26 [the date of the meeting in Geneva].
Q: Many fear that the Syrian conflict will expand across the region, especially as we see developments escalating in Lebanon. Has this become a regional crisis now, or is it still contained within Syria?
The Syrian crisis is putting a terrible strain on the country’s neighbors, and especially on Lebanon, which is a small country to begin with. I have seen estimates that say that up to one quarter of the population in Lebanon are now Syrian refugees. So you can imagine the strain this puts on a small country, in addition to Jordan and Iraq and Turkey and even Egypt now. So we, the United States, are trying to help. We have provided USD 1.4 billion in assistance, about half going into neighboring countries and half going into Syria. There needs to be more help from the international community and we recognize our responsibilities. And I believe Kuwait will next year try to organize a meeting to gather money and resources for the refugee and humanitarian catastrophe.
Q: And as time passes, it only gets worse. . . .
Yes, to be frank with you, I am very concerned about this winter in areas where there has been not much food, people will already be very weak. In the winter, when there is cold, there is no electricity, no hot water, it is going to be very difficult. People are more prone to sickness when they are weak. It is criminal for the Syrian regime to block aid to these people.
Q: Yet some people feel that the regime, in cooperating on the chemical weapons issue, regained some legitimacy and is more confident now. Do you agree?
I have two responses. Using sarin gas does not give anyone legitimacy, it removes their legitimacy. And number two, any regime that kills over 120,000 of its own people has no legitimacy. We expect that after Bashar Al-Assad goes, the new transition governing body will be responsible for implementing the remaining steps for the chemical weapons destruction program. It doesn’t have to be Al-Assad, he can be gone and the next government can complete it.
Q: The Syrian president speaks of standing in the 2014 elections. Do you think that is possible?
I have no information about what he is going to do in 2014, but I would ask him is it really worth more fighting, or hundreds of thousands more dead, for him to stay in that presidency, or is it not better to allow a transition to go forward for his own country, for the people who depend on him? I would ask him to think deeply about that question: Is he himself so important?
Q: If we can turn to Iran, are the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 and Iran a precursor for a deal on Syria?
There is absolutely no relationship between the two.
Q: So you would dispute those who believe that if Iran signs a deal, it guarantees it a seat at the table in Syrian negotiations?
Iran’s role in Syria is very pernicious. Iran is the only foreign country that has sent its own armed forces to go fight in Syria. You would have seen the reports about an Iranian general killed there, and the reports about Iranian soldier being taken prisoner. Their role, especially in helping bring thousands of Hezbollah fighters and thousands of Shi’ite Iraqi fighters and making the sectarian conflict, no. I don’t see how with the current Iranian policies they can play a final role.
Q: And my final question is about you personally. Will you be staying in your position for the foreseeable future, or will we possibly see you in Cairo in the near future?
Right now, I am continuing to work on Syria. There is plenty of work to do.