“Assad will rule a shattered country with an iron fist”

Fair Observer speaks with Robert Ford, the US Ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, about the course of the 81-month Syrian conflict and the prospects for the country.

In a frank discussion, Ford considers:

*The shortcomings of the political opposition and the reasons behind the mistake of cooperating with “extremists” such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the faction linked to Al Qa’eda

*The key errors in American policy and operations that helped enable the Assad regime, including the refusal to institute a no-fly zone and to respond to Assad’s chemical attacks, and that boosted factions linked to the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK

*The vital role of Iran and Russia in Bashar al-Assad’s survival

*The grim future for the country — “It is ok to oppress ruthlessly, destroy cities, and block aid long as you can keep denying any guilt and point to extremists in opposition ranks”

In one of your latest interviews, you admitted that Assad won and expressed the view that he will stay in power. Was this outcome the result of political and strategic mistakes made by the US government, particularly during the period you served as the US ambassador to Syria?

Assad has won in Syria not solely because of American mistakes. The Syrian uprising didn’t start because of the United States in any way, and its course has followed a path largely — not entirely — by Syrians. The Syrian opposition, both political and armed, could never articulate a vision for the country that rallied a great majority of Syrians to their cause. The political opposition never laid out a transition plan —it eventually became nearly as sectarian and ethnically chauvinistic as the Syrian government, and it never demonstrated a deep commitment to human rights. It did not, for example, condemn excesses by the armed opposition and its rhetoric sometimes was anti-Kurdish. The armed opposition, desperate in its fight against Assad, agreed to coordinate on the ground with extremists, particularly the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front.

This frightened many Syrian communities. The US specifically put the al-Nusra Front on our terrorism list in December 2012 to warn the armed opposition to stay away from the al-Nusra Front. Unfortunately, they ignored us. Moreover, as early as 2011, some Syrians hoped the American military would intervene, just as we had in Iraq in 2003, to overthrow Assad. I repeatedly warned them the US Air Force would not come, but many political opposition leaders disagreed with me and said Washington would eventually intervene. This belief forestalled their thinking about greater outreach to communities in Syria still supporting the Syrian government.

What other mistakes did the US make?

Three other mistakes we did make. In retrospect, it was not helpful to say that Assad should step aside. Observers did not appreciate the nuance in the American position that said that Assad’s future was for Syrians to decide, not Americans. Our expressing our opinion became understood to mean that the Americans would compel Assad to depart, and there was never any intention to do that. Instead, the Americans wanted a negotiation between the opposition, including moderate armed groups and the Assad government, to determine a transition government by mutual consent, as per Geneva I. My personal mistake was not resisting that August 2011 declaration by the President.

Our second mistake was in not enforcing the red line after the Assad government chemical weapons attacks in 2013. This might have deterred Assad from further use and given impetus to reach the Geneva negotiating table in 2013. The State Department was on record supporting a strike but the President made his decision.

Our third mistake was in supporting Syrian Kurds linked to the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] against ISIS instead of building an Arab force over time. We now are in the situation where our troops are stationed indefinitely in eastern Syria with enemies on all sides. Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria will all try to foster our rapid departure and the subjugation of these Syrian Kurdish allies. We will have seriously harmed our bilateral relations with Turkey, and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan already is a difficult, very problematic leader with which to engage.

What about the role of the other players in the region, such as Russia and Iran? Would Assad have been able to stay in power without the support and contribution of foreign forces?

Just as important to Assad’s success is the very strong intervention by Iran and Russia. They escalated hugely, sending in far, far greater numbers of weapons, troops and airpower than the Americans and our allies ever even contemplated. Assad won militarily because of foreign support. The world should be clear about that. Had the Americans provided more assistance to the moderate elements of the armed opposition earlier on, we might have forestalled that coordination with the extremist fighters. However, we could never have fixed the political opposition’s shortcomings.

One of the primary sources of criticism you received as ambassador was that you counted on the rebel groups to overthrow Assad. However, according to many analysts, these groups were not as moderate as they presented themselves to be and were thought to be fighting alongside ISIS and al-Qaeda. In retrospect, were your expectations around the role of these rebel groups in overthrowing Assad justified?

We did not aim to get the moderate rebels to overthrow Assad. That was never the policy. The policy was to help Syrians defend themselves against Assad and to put pressure on him to negotiate. I should note that we supported rebel fighter leaders such as Colonel Abdel Jabbar Okaidi [commander of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo] and Colonel Afif Suleiman [leader of the Idlib Military Council]. These men and others had specifically denounced sectarianism in opposition ranks in 2012 and early 2013. However, as 2013 continued and they confronted a terrible military challenge, the Free Syrian Army started coordinating on the ground with al-Nusra. We raised this in private and warned them off, but we offered too little, too late in terms of military aid.

It is important to note that tactical military coordination is not the same as ideological affinity. To be sure, long civil wars are not propitious for development of moderate leaders, which is one of the reasons that we wanted peace talks in 2012 or 2013. It took a long time to get the fractious opposition organized for peace talks and Assad, in any case, never wanted to make political concessions to secure a deal.

Your resignation from the State Department as a career diplomat awarded with the Secretary’s Service Award — one of the highest honors for an American diplomat — reflected your frustration about the evolving situation in Syria. You’ve suggested that the US should have put greater pressure on the Assad government. How would this greater pressure have been applied in practice?

The greater pressure on Assad would have consisted of three elements: A halt to Iranian use of Iraqi airspace to transit men and material aid from Iran to Damascus. This would have required huge diplomatic effort with Baghdad. We never did that.

Greater coordination with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to establish a single, unified Free Syrian Army command through which all aid would be funneled. Instead, every country supported its own particular clients which in turn helped keep the opposition split into factions.

Enforcing the red line sternly, as I mentioned above.

I should note here that no one, myself included, argued for a no-fly zone in 2012-2014. It was a military commitment no one wanted to make. I had spent five years trying to get the US forces out of Iraq and didn’t want to start a new US military commitment in Syria. No one in Washington wanted to repeat the Iraq experience, including trying to figure out a detailed political arrangement. We wanted Syrians to negotiate that, just as Iraqis did in 2005 and 2006.

In retrospect, we instituted a no-fly zone in late 2014 over eastern Syria, and it has worked out quite well. Even though Obama didn’t want a new US military commitment in Syria, he started one. Trump has continued it. It leads me to wonder whether we should have implemented a no-fly zone in 2012 over western Syria well before the Russians ever deployed their aircraft there. This would have stopped the aerial bombardments that killed many thousands of civilians. I don’t know the right answer but it merits study to learn lessons.

Back in 2012, did the State Department and the White House predict the risks hidden behind the efforts to stabilize the situation in Syria or the current refugee crisis and its implications for European countries?

No one predicted in 2011 or 2012 the size and scope of the impending refugee crisis. Turkey began raising the cost of refugees with us in 2012 when there were over a 100,000 refugees in the country, as did Jordan. There was always a hope that we could launch peace talks under the Geneva I communiqué and secure a halt to the fighting. Assad and extremist elements in the opposition had other ideas.

Was there an alternative to Assad?

First, ISIS was never going to capture Damascus. Those extremists were not the majority of the armed opposition in 2013 or 2014, or even 2015. Had there been a negotiation, it would have led to a coalition, a national unity government. It would have been wobbly, like Iraq in 2005 or 2006, but the fighting would have decreased, if not ended, given the extremists’ presence. Some analysts say Assad would never have negotiated, that he would have died fighting. That may be true, but he never appeared suicidal to me in my two meetings with him. Nor did many of the people around him.

Only in 2015 did Assad really have a major military defeat staring at him, and Russia’s intervention ensured he would prevail. Perhaps our greatest mistake was in not understanding that Russia and Iran would escalate to any degree required to keep Assad in power. Had we done nothing in 2013 and 2014, the fighting would have gone on. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia never sought US permission for their support to the opposition, and the idea that America controlled their actions is ridiculous. The US shut off aid to rebels last spring and there is still fighting in the eastern Ghouta, for example.

Looking forward, what is your view of the Middle East five or 10 years from now?

There is little likelihood of reconciliation or reconstruction. Assad will rule a shattered country with an iron fist. It will resemble more the economic desperation and political oppression in Pyongyang 10 years ago than the start of rebuilding/reconstruction in Lebanon 20 years ago or in Iraq in 2006 or 2007. And the lessons other authoritarian rulers take from Syria are: It is ok to oppress ruthlessly, destroy cities, and block aid long as you can keep denying any guilt and point to extremists in opposition ranks; it is ok to use chemical weapons as long as one keeps quiet about it and constantly denies and impedes investigations; Russia and China are better, more reliable military/security partners than the West. It is not an accident that the king of Saudi Arabia recently made the first-ever trip to Moscow by a Saudi monarch.