President Obama’s former ambassador to Syria on Tuesday said that he resigned his position earlier this year because he could not defend the U.S. policy toward the country, where the army backing President Bashar al-Assad – re-elected yesterday in a contested vote – has killed untold numbers of civilians in its effort to put down a rebellion.
Former Ambassador Robert Ford told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, “I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy. We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat.”
The conflict in Syria was part of the “Arab Spring” of 2011, when protesters in multiple countries tried to overthrow autocratic governments across the Middle East. The conflict in Syria has proved to be the most intractable. Rebels hold huge regions of the country, but have been unable to break the government’s hold on the capital, Damascus, and the region surrounding it.
The Syrian regime, for its part, has responded to the rebellion with indiscriminate attacks – including the use of chemical weapons –not just on combatants, but on civilians as well. President Obama called for the ouster of Assad in 2011 and said a year later that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that the Syrian government could not cross without suffering dire consequences.
However, Assad remains in power, and even held an election Tuesday – almost uniformly regarded as a sham by the international community.
“There really is nothing we can point to that’s been very successful in our policy except the removal of about ninety-three percent of some of Assad’s chemical materials,” Ford said. “But now he’s using chlorine gas against his opponents in contravention of the Syrian governments agreement in 2013 to abide by the chemical weapons convention. The regime simply has no credibility and our policy is not addressing the Syrian crisis as it needs to, frankly.”
Ford contrasted the situation of the Syrian government, which not only has control of the military, but which has benefited from “great intervention…coming from Iran, from Hezbollah, and also coming from Russia” with the moderate elements of the popular opposition, which has received encouragement, but little tangible aid, from Western governments.
He argued that a strong, Western-looking opposition movement is gradually being undercut by Islamic extremists, whose efforts to recruit members are strengthened by the appearance of Western indifference toward the fate of the Syrian people.
“This is not a surprise,” Ford said, noting that the State Department had warned that, as they have done in other countries, extremists would fill the vacuum if moderate leaders did not receive Western support. “This is not rocket science,” he said.
Ford, who spent the early months of the rebellion traveling around Syria at considerable personal risk, said that the failure of the U.S. and its allies to provide assistance to the rebels earlier had allowed Assad the time he needed to recover from the initial shock of the revolution.
“Had there been more military assistance and logistical assistance and even things like cash, two things would have happened differently,” he said.
“Number one, the opposition would probably have been able to gain more ground more quickly a couple of years ago and been able to go to a negotiating table in a much stronger position and the regime would have been much weaker.”
Second, he said, “The ability of Al Qaeda and Islamist extremist groups to recruit away from the moderates would have been less. We would have less of an extremism problem in Syria now had there been more assistance provided to the moderate forces. Even a year or two ago it would have made a big difference.”
Ford, who retired this year after a career at the State Department, was clearly discouraged by the U.S. response to the war in Syria, both because of the human suffering it has caused, and because it has created an atmosphere that makes it easier for anti-Western Islamic extremists to recruit new members.
“It is profoundly depressing and it is profoundly distressing,” he said. “I think all of us, people who hold to basic values of human decency and dignity need to help Syrians. It is not a conflict that we should ignore either on moral grounds or on national security grounds.”
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