London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Robert Ford is an American diplomat and the current United States Ambassador to Syria (2010-present). After graduating with an MA from John Hopkins University, Washington D.C., Ford has gone on to serve in the US Foreign Service for the past 26 years. Being fluent in Turkish and Arabic, he has worked extensively in the Middle East, with previous notable postings in Cairo, Algiers and Baghdad.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in January 2011, Ford gained increasing media attention for his actions in the country. In July 2011, Ford visited the city of Hama, which was under siege at the time, and then visited the site of mass graves in Jisr al-Shughur several months later. The US then opted to withdraw him from Syria in October, following an “intimidation campaign” carried out against him by pro-Assad supporters. He returned to his post in December; however on the 6th February 2012 the US announced that it had suspended all embassy operations in Damascus.
Ford spoke to Asharq al-Awsat recently to give his view on the ongoing Syrian crisis. He discussed the potential for a diplomatic or military solution, the fragmented state of the Syrian opposition, and the role that the US is playing in the current situation. Ford also revealed the work he has been undertaking since returning to America from Damascus earlier this month. The following is the text from the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can the Syrian crisis to be solved diplomatically?
[Ford] It won’t be easy to reach a diplomatic solution, and I believe that the Russian and Chinese veto at the UN Security Council have only made things more difficult; but I believe this is still possible. We must work more broadly with our partners in the international community, and there is a meeting taking place next week in Tunisia for the “Friends of Syria”. In the end, a military solution is not possible, therefore we must work towards a political and diplomatic solution; a military solution will only lead to….the possibility of the outbreak of a civil war.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When you say a political and diplomatic solution…do you mean within the framework of the Arab League initiative that is calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and hand over powers to his deputy?
[Ford] We have strongly supported the Arab League’s efforts, in terms of sending observers [to Syria], although there were not enough observers to protect the civilians. However the [Arab League] observer mission was able to prove who was behind the killing, and it was revealed that in most places, the Syrian army was responsible for this. As for the roadmap that has been drawn up by the Arab League…this is a road map, and so does not include details, which is only logical. In the end, it is up to the Syrian people themselves to put the details in place regarding how power is transferred. This is an issue that we, and other friends of Syria, have discussed with the Syrian opposition. The Arab League has provided the general framework, and it is up to the Syrians themselves to put the details in place.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are many divisions within the ranks of the Syrian opposition, how can we overcome this, and develop a plan for the transition of power, particularly when the situation on the ground is deteriorating?
[Ford] The time factor is essential, and it is up to the Syrian opposition to develop quickly by putting forward ideas to the people of Syria and informing them that there are other possible options. President al-Assad has put forward a program of reform, including a referendum on the constitution within 10 days, which is within a very short period of time. We do not know if voter regulations are in place, or if the text of the referendum ballot has been agreed upon…we do not know if the Syrian people have been granted enough time to study the proposed constitution, and I do not believe that those who oppose the text of this constitution have been able to express their objections on official Syrian television channels or the “Addounia TV” channel or elsewhere. The opposition must show the Syrian people that there is another path, and the earlier they are able to do this, the better it will be. However no foreign power, even the friends of Syria, can do this on their behalf. Some of the lessons that we must learn from countries like Iraq is that people in these countries have to reach solutions for themselves.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] To what degree is the US involved in the Syrian crisis? Is Washington providing advice and expertise to the Syrian opposition, for example?
[Ford] Let us be clear, we have not drawn up a transitional plan for Syria; this is not the task for a foreign government like that of the United States. However I can confirm that we are speaking to the Syrian opposition; we are sharing our assessment regarding what is happening on the ground in Syria, in additional to our assessments of the political and security situation. When speaking in Syria, I would stress that violence weakens the opposition, and that this represents a genuine threat to them. Even when I visited Hama last July, I stressed the importance of refraining from utilizing violence. Unfortunately, the brutal violence being carried out by the government has led to opposing violence [by the Syrian opposition]. The violence that we are seeing today is far greater than the violence yesterday. I spoke to them [Syrian opposition] about my experience in Iraq, and the experiences of the Iraqi people in dealing with such issues. Despite the fact that the situation in Syria is different from the situation in Iraq, there are experiences that can be learnt from.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When you say you spoke with the Syrian opposition, who precisely are you talking about?
[Ford] I do not want to divulge names…
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Of course, however as for Washington being in contact with factions of the Syrian opposition, are we talking about the Syrian National Council [SNC], or the Free Syrian Army [FSA]?
[Ford] We are speaking with a number of [Syrian opposition] factions; we are speaking with a large group of people inside Syria, including well-known opposition parties who operate publicly as well as groups connected with Syrian councils and agencies. Our message is the same: violence will make finding a political solution more difficult, whilst there is no security solution [to the Syrian crisis]; for suppression is not a solution, neither is civil war. Therefore the opposition must know how to coordinate alliances, and convince the al-Assad regime that it must step down to allow the peaceful transition of power. This is in the interests of all Syrians, whether Alawites or Christians or Sunnis or Druze or businessmen or military…all segments of Syrian society have an interest in ensuring peaceful transition of power.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Talk about the Syrian opposition usually focuses on the SNC or the FSA, but not the Syrian opposition leadership within the country. Are there fears of divisions within the Syrian opposition at home and abroad?
[Ford] The people within the country are the ones facing the most challenges, and at the end they are the ones who will have to apply [transition of power]. The SNC has ties within the country, and I do not want to underestimate this. However some within Syria are confused about why the SNC is not working at a faster pace – and we understand these concerns – however ultimately the SNC is a leading faction within the Syrian opposition, and it is developing and growing stronger – which is a gradual process – although many people wish this was faster. There are other elements of the Syrian opposition inside Syria who have not completely bound themselves to the SNC, and I do not know if this is a necessity. The question is; does everybody agree on a certain vision or specific plan? For me, what is necessary is coordination on a transitional plan. The ranks of the opposition do not have to unite, but there must be agreement on a plan, for in the event that the plan succeeds, they will compete with one another over power. They must reach an agreement over a vision for the country, and begin to move forward on this. In our own experience in the US [during the American Revolution] we did not have a unified opposition front, but rather a congress filled with different ideas, but there was agreement on removing British colonial rule from the country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the Syrian opposition be invited to attend the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunisia?
[Ford] I do not know, we’re not hosting this meeting…this question should be directed to the Tunisians.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think it would be beneficial if the Syrian opposition were invited to attend?
[Ford] I think it would be beneficial if representatives of the Syrian opposition abroad who know and have good relations with the international community attended this meeting, as they can explain the problems in Syria. At the same time, it is also necessary to invite people from within Syria; it would be beneficial if they attended because it will help if the other attendants can hear from the people living in Syria. However as I said, it is not my place to issue such invitations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people are saying that the time has come to arm the Syrian opposition, but there are fears of the consequences of this. What is your opinion on this issue?
[Ford] My question is, after the opposition is armed, where will the solution come from? We see people in many capitals around the world thinking about this option, and there are some people in the US Republican party and others in Washington think-tanks who are putting forward this idea. However the unity of the Syrian army at the present time makes it difficult to think that it is within the capabilities of the FSA or any other armed opposition group – even if they are provided with more weapons – to overthrow the Syrian regime by force. In fact, this will only result in more violence. Instead of this, we must focus our efforts to push the Syrian government, via political, diplomatic and economic pressure, to stop its attacks on civilians. With concerted and intense efforts in this regard, we can make President al-Assad understand that he is not in a position to continue to rule, and that he cannot return to the embrace of the international community, and so it would be better for himself and his family to leave now and let others in the Syrian government negotiate over the transition of power.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Whilst it is true that the door is still open for the Syrian leadership to leave power peacefully; do you truly believe that after all this, al-Assad will simply accept this?
[Ford] I do not want to go into a psychological evaluation of the Syrian president, but I believe that he has a strategy, namely to suppress the opposition and put forward a program of very limited – if not superficial – reform and then in time regain his position in the international community, as occurred in 2005 following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, when Syria faced international isolation. Following this, and after many years, al-Assad managed to return to enjoying good relations with the international community. However he must understand that the situation today is not like it was in the year 2005 or 2006; the death toll is far greater than it was in 2005, and the suppression has exceeded the bounds which the international community can accept, therefore there is no way for this government – in its current form – to return to its previous position with the Syrian people. It is clear that this government has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the Syrian people, whilst it has also lost its international legitimacy. Therefore, it cannot return [to its previous position]. It is not a case of al-Assad suppressing the protesters and then playing the waiting game, the Syrian regime has no choice but to leave, whether this happens sooner or later. The economic pressure, which is real and dangerous today, will increase, particularly as we continue to intensify the sanctions and work with our partners to target those financing the government. Things will only become more difficult [for al-Assad]; therefore the earlier negotiations take place, the better possibilities there are [for al-Assad]. As for the legitimacy of president al-Assad, there can be no doubt that there are people in Syria, for example in Damascus and in the coastal areas, who continue to support him, however large areas of the country reject him, from Idlib to Deraa to Al-Bukamal and Deir Ezzor, not to mention the Kurdish regions of the country, and areas around Damascus, as well as areas within the capital itself, such as al-Midan, Barzeh, and elsewhere. If the security apparatus allowed demonstrations we would have seen huge protests taking place in Damascus, however it is clear that the government itself is aware that al-Assad has lost his legitimacy because of the actions that they have been forced to take, including suppressing the Syrian people. Therefor al-Assad would be doing a service to his country if he left and allowed the transition of power.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the possibility of putting in place buffer zones or “humanitarian corridors” in Syria? Do you support this idea? Is this even possible without military intervention?
[Ford] I have not read the details of what the French are suggesting [in this regard], however with the escalation in terms of bombardment and the use of tanks against regions like Rastan, Deraa, Zabadani, and Homs; there has been a dramatic rise in the number of Syrians who have been displaced from their homes. The Syrian Red Crescent organization estimates the number of displaced at 65,000 within Syria, and that’s a huge increase compared to between 10,000 and 15,000 just two months ago. There are new waves of refugees flooding into Lebanon and Turkey, so the humanitarian aspect of what is happening in Syria has become more dangerous over the past month, and the [Syrian] government is responsible for this. It is the government that has escalated the situation; for only one side is using tanks. We, as Americans, are looking for ways to allocate resources to help the Syrian refugees. This is a growing danger, and represents a threat to regional stability, not to mention a humanitarian disaster. Therefore, we will look for ways to quickly help Syria’s displaced and refugees, and this will also be discussed in Tunisia [during the forthcoming “Friends of Syria” meeting].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How does this differ from talk about “humanitarian corridors”?
[Ford] I do not know what the French intend to propose, but we understand that there is a deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Syria, and we must think about ways of providing assistance from medical supplies and foodstuff, as well as how ensure this reaches Syrians within the country, which will represent a challenge. The Syrian government must not prevent humanitarian aid [from reaching the people of Syria].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can the Russians or Chinese assist with this?
[Ford] I think it would be a surprise if the Russians or Chinese object to providing assistance to the people of Syria who have been forced from their homes due to artillery bombardment. How would they explain such an objection?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think returning to the UN Security Council to discuss a new draft resolution is out of the question at this time?
[Ford] At the present time, our attention is focused on working outside of the channels of the UN, for example, via the Friends of Syria meeting that is scheduled to take place in Tunisia. We will look at how to utilize this Friends of Syria group to strengthen the political and economic pressure [on the Syrian government], and provide aid to the Syrian opposition which has an essential role to play. The group will look at increasing economic pressure, for example. The Arab League is also talking about economic sanctions; however we need to study this, as well as how such sanctions will be applied. The US Treasury Department has expertise in imposing sanctions on countries like Iran, and perhaps it can provide expertise to Arab states on imposing sanctions. We will also discuss political and diplomatic pressure, in addition to helping the opposition. However this does not mean that we will not see a reason to return to the UN Security Council in the future.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have spoken about the regional implications of the Syrian refugees, but there are other implications, including the possibility of the violence in Syria taking root elsewhere, such as the clashes which broke out in Lebanon earlier this week. Do you think it is likely that the conflict in Syria will spread to other parts of the region?
[Ford] I think everybody in the international community should be aware that the developments in Syria are moving in a bad direction; the level of violence now is far greater than it was in May, 2011, or even September, 2011. There are extremist elements on the scene; we have seen car bombs exploding in the middle of Damascus, and it is most likely that Islamist extremists are behind this. Whilst the death toll amongst the Syrian government forces is increasing, and it is believed that this now stands at between 20 and 25 a day. The death toll amongst the civilians is far greater than at any time before; it began with around 10 per day, however this has now reached 70 civilians being killed per day. This is appalling. There are Alawite families who are leaving Damascus for the coastal areas out of fear for what might happen, whilst Christian families are afraid for their future, and so the situation is very bad. This is something that will have an impact on Lebanon and Turkey, in addition to Jordan and Iraq. The Syrian crisis is a threat to regional security, and that is why we were so frustrated by the UN Security Council’s failure.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The US embassy in Syria has been closed, however the Syrian embassy in Washington remains open, despite the fact that Damascus has withdrawn its ambassador. Does Washington intend to ask Syria to close its US embassy?
[Ford] I went to the Syrian Foreign Minister to inform them of our decision to suspend the operations of our embassy in Damascus, and this was after we waited a longer time for them to respond to our security fears, and in the end we decided it was not possible to continue to wait. At this point, the first question that a Syrian Foreign Ministry official asked me was: are you cutting-off diplomatic relations [with Syria]? I answered: no, we are not closing the operations of our embassies for political reasons, we are doing this due to security fears, and we have been very clear about this. As for Syria’s embassy in Washington, we will not be closing this embassy; it is continuing its operations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When the announcement was made that you would be leaving Syria, it was also made clear that you would remain US Ambassador to Syria. Now that you are no longer based in the country, can you tell us what you have been doing?
[Ford] We have a large team that is monitoring Syrian affairs, which are very important, particularly due to the humanitarian disaster being suffered by the Syrian people, in addition to the threat this represents to regional security. I appreciate that the US Secretary of State [Hillary Clinton] and the State Department gave me the task of heading this team in Washington. I have conducted a number of meetings in Paris, and I will be returning to Washington soon, where we will be working on several initiatives, including increasing the diplomatic, political and economic pressures [on the al-Assad regime], as well as looking at how to provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, in addition to helping the Syrian opposition. It is important that we look for ways to communicate with the Syrians inside the country, and this will be much more difficult after we suspend the operations of our embassy in Syria [the US closed its embassy in Syria on 6 February, 2012], but we will look for innovative ways to communicate with the Syrian people and we will try to work with our partners to achieve a peaceful political transition, which is our main objective at this time.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you had any contact with the Damascus government since you left Syria?
[Ford] No, I have not had any contact, but there is a Syrian embassy in Washington and we can communicate with the al-Assad government through it.