The Washington Diplomat / October 2014
By Larry Luxner
On April 5, 2002, not long after Robert S. Ford’s appointment as America’s deputy chief of mission in Bahrain, some 2,000 demonstrators breached the perimeter wall of the U.S. Embassy in Manama, set fire to five vehicles and smashed satellite dishes, cameras and windows in protest of U.S. and Israeli actions in the Middle East. Only three and a half years later — after Ford’s transfer to Iraq — a rocket struck the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, injuring a U.S. Marine guard and four contract employees.
“I still have a piece of that shell on my fireplace mantle in Baltimore,” he said, smiling at the thought of pocketing such a souvenir. “There’s a rule that says you can’t take pieces of shrapnel out of the country, so on the packing list it was listed as a paperweight.”
It was as U.S. ambassador to Syria, however, that the veteran diplomat and widely respected Arabist made headlines. Over a three-day period in July 2011, supporters of President Bashar al-Assad threw eggs, tomatoes, rocks and paint at the U.S. Embassy compound in Damascus, smashed ballistic-resistant glass windows, shattered security cameras and set fire to the roof before attacking Ford’s residence. They simultaneously attacked the French Embassy after Ford and his French counterpart visited supporters of the uprising against Assad.
“They actually got to the doors of the embassy. Had they broken through the door, we’d probably have to fire on them with live ammunition,” Ford recalled. “The door held, thank God, and after three hours, the Syrian police came.”
As if that wasn’t enough excitement, on Sept. 29, pro-Assad goons assaulted Ford and his chief political officer as they were meeting with a rebel leader in Damascus. A U.S. Embassy security team was also was attacked when it tried to rescue Ford from the building where he had taken cover. After an hour and a half, Syrian police arrived and dispersed the screaming mob.
That contrasted with the warm welcome Ford received in the city of Hama, where demonstrators opposed to the Assad regime draped his vehicle with flowers and olive branches. Not surprisingly, the official Syrian media accused Ford of inciting violence; a few days later protesters attacked the U.S. Embassy.
“We should be clear,” Ford recalled three years after the clashes. “When I went to Hama, we never actually said we supported the opposition’s demands. We said people have the right to protest peacefully. That’s why we went to Hama. There was a rumor the regime was going to crack down, and we wanted to be on the ground. We did inform the government we were going. And, in fact, I later learned that the government knew we were going.”
In October 2011, Ford was recalled from Syria due to what the State Department called “credible threats” to his safety, though he continued to hold the post of ambassador from Washington. Ford was reportedly in line as the next U.S. ambassador to Egypt, though his vocal support for Syria’s rebels probably didn’t endear him to Egypt’s powerful ruling military. Regardless, in February Ford quit his job and left the Foreign Service to protest the Obama administration’s inaction in the face of growing atrocities by the Assad regime in Syria, where nearly 200,000 people have been killed since anti-government protests mushroomed into a full-scale civil war nearly four years ago, although some estimates but the death count as high as 250,000.
“My conscience would not allow me to continue,” Ford told The Washington Diplomat in an extensive interview. “We were confronting a regime that had used chemical weapons, that was killing civilians left and right, and flouting every standard of international decency. Although our verbiage was great, on the ground we were doing very little to pressure that regime. I couldn’t in good faith go out in front of the cameras and justify that policy.”
Instead, since leaving the Foreign Service, Ford has been vociferous in his support to arm Syria’s moderates in order to turn the tide of war. We interviewed Ford in the library of the Middle East Institute, the Washington-based think tank where he’s a senior fellow. The 56-year-old Denver native, who’s married to fellow diplomat Alison Barkley, commutes here Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from Baltimore, Md. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays he teaches, in between granting interviews to journalists from around the world who are eager to hear his views.
It’s a hectic schedule, but not as crazy as the life-threatening chaos of Damascus.
“I did not ask to go to Syria. I had wanted to go to any other part of the Arab world,” Ford told us. “I knew Syria was going to be a very hard assignment, and after Iraq, I told them I wouldn’t mind a quieter place. But in the Foreign Service, the key word is service, and you go where they need you.”
Our meeting took place Sept. 3, the day after Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) introduced legislation giving President Obama “clear authority” to order U.S airstrikes against Islamic militants in Syria, joining a chorus of bipartisan lawmakers offering tepid support to the president’s strategy for Syria now that its civil war has spilled over into Iraq, where Islamic State militants have taken over a third of the country.
Congress recently passed Obama’s $500 million request for the U.S. military to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels. In addition, Obama has cobbled together an international coalition of over 40 nations to help the U.S. target ISIS by cutting off its financing, countering its propaganda and beefing up humanitarian and military assistance, including arms for Kurdish forces in Iraq. Obama has also launched nearly 200 airstrikes to beat back ISIS’s advances in Iraq and may hit the group’s positions in Syria.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a mutation of both the U.S.-led war in Iraq, where a generation of Sunnis fought American troops and have now turned their guns on the Shiite-led government, and the grinding conflict in Syria, where moderate rebels have been overpowered by Islamist fighters.
The remarkable gains made by ISIS in both countries can be attributed to the group’s military prowess, ruthless terrorizing tactics and savvy money management skills. But ISIS also had help from an unlikely quarter: Assad himself, who reportedly let Islamist fanatics loose early in the war to sideline moderates and reinforce his warning to the world that if his government falls, anti-Western extremists will take over.
More recently, the wily Syrian leader has offered his support in battling ISIS, but the West has been loath to accept it. President Obama will now have to find a way to hurt ISIS without inadvertently helping Assad. Ford agrees that ISIS must be stopped — but so does Assad, the source of the strife.
“It’s important to hit the Islamic State in Syria, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” said the ex-diplomat, who met Assad twice during his chaotic posting in Damascus. “ISIS has gained ground in Syria because a lot of people think it’s the way to get rid of Assad. But the idea of working with Assad against ISIS is to me 180 degrees wrong, and will help ISIS recruit foreigners and Syrians. It would be much better to help the moderate opposition fight Assad, and get them to work with elements of the existing regime.”
Ford said then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned the president as early as 2012 that Islamic extremists in Syria would link up with their Iraqi brothers-in-arms, and that Iraq and Syria would become one nightmarish conflict if the U.S. didn’t help the moderates with tanks, guns and ammunition. But those pleas apparently fell on deaf ears.
When confronted by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who, during a private meeting attended by a dozen lawmakers from both parties, said Obama should have authorized arming moderate Syrian rebels sooner, the president angrily called such criticism “horseshit,” according to the Daily Beast.
In an interview with the New York Times, Obama confirmed his belief that such thinking has “always been a fantasy.”
“This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards,” the president bluntly said.
But to his critics who say there’s no such thing as an Arab moderate, Ford offered an equally undiplomatic response.
“With all due respect, I strongly disagree. The 13th Brigade is a secular brigade led by soldiers who have defected,” Ford told us. “The Harakat Hazm [Arabic for ‘Movement of Steadfastness’] consists largely of soldiers with military experience, led by a civilian guy who’s absolutely not an Islamist. The idea that there’s no moderate opposition is said by people who don’t speak Arabic, have never been to Syria and don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.”
It’s not every day you hear a U.S. diplomat — even a former one — speak so frankly. But Ford, a 30-year Foreign Service veteran whose earlier posts include Egypt, Turkey, Cameroon and Algeria, has been known for a long time as a straight shooter.
Columnist Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post called Ford a “model public servant” in a June 10 op-ed praising him for stepping down on principle, unlike Clinton and Samantha Power, U.S. envoy to the United Nations — both of whom also expressed frustration as Syria’s civil war spiraled out of control.
Ford has become the public voice of that frustration. In a June 10 New York Times opinion piece titled “Arm Syria’s Opposition,” Ford said U.S. policy has clearly failed.
“We don’t need American airstrikes in Syria, and we certainly don’t need American troops there. But with partner countries from the Friends of Syria group like France, Britain, Germany, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, we must ramp up sharply the training and material aid provided to the moderates in the armed opposition,” he wrote.
“Over the past two years, I met fighters from the Free Syrian Army many times. These men were not angels: Many were former regime officers; all had military experience. In a memorable meeting last November, we exchanged barbs for hours, but they made clear that they did not accept al-Qaeda’s philosophy. They acknowledged that they would ultimately have to fight al-Qaeda and the foreign jihadis.”
As respected as Ford is, not everyone agrees with his assessment of the ready-to-arm rebels. Some military experts have called the Free Syrian Army a “unicorn” army that simply doesn’t exist; its fighters have few clear political goals and almost no loyalty to the exile Syrian National Coalition that supposedly represents them abroad. Its numbers have also been depleted as rebels defect to better-armed, better-trained Islamist factions such as al-Nusra Front and ISIS.
In fact, ISIS now has 20,000 to 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to the latest CIA estimates. In Syria alone, hundreds of militias are now fighting Assad as well as each other, presenting outsiders with a confusing mishmash of acronyms and similar-sounding names.
And it’s not as if the United States hasn’t been trying to decipher friend from foe in Syria: A CIA program has been attempting to train rebels in Jordan for over a year. Obama’s proposed new training program would be larger and run by the military, but it would still only train some 5,000 rebels.
So while the mantra of “train the moderates” has become conventional Beltway wisdom, important questions remain: How will rebels be vetted to minimize the security risk to U.S. officials? How much previous association with terrorist groups will be tolerated? How will weapons be safeguarded?
“Any decision to supply arms to combatants must be weighed carefully; indeed, for the last several years I have opposed arming the Syrian rebels out of a concern for our ability to properly vet such troops and the fear that weapons we provide may end up in the wrong hands,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who nevertheless voted for Obama’s request to train moderates despite questioning their moderation and effectiveness.
Ryan C. Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Syria, said a more fundamental problem is that American policymakers don’t really know the rebels — as evidenced by the incongruent descriptions of their ranks, from the skilled secularists Ford remembers, to the inept sectarians others have witnessed.
“We need to do everything we can to figure out who the non-ISIS opposition is,” Crocker told the New York Times on Sept. 11. “Frankly, we don’t have a clue.”
Other opponents of intervention argue that Syria is simply not our fight, regardless of who’s doing the fighting. ISIS, after all, would like nothing more than to goad Washington into sending them U.S. soldiers to target, much as it did during the Iraq War, the penultimate example of how good intentions can go awry and boots on the ground can backfire.
Iraq and Syria share another dubious distinction: If Obama launches airstrikes in Syria, two presidents will have discarded the concept of imminent threat in justifying an attack on a sovereign nation. Former President George W. Bush used Iraq’s phantom weapons of mass destruction to employ his doctrine of pre-emption, which Obama denounced as a senator.
Now, in his Sept. 10 speech outlining the administration’s ISIS strategy, Obama said ISIS poses no immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, although it “could” one day if left unchecked.
Rosa Brooks, writing for Foreign Policy, said the last thing the United States needs is “another dumb war” against a group that even the president admits poses no immediate threat to the United States. She adds that airstrikes “are an excellent way to turn live people into dead people” with no guarantee of success.
“It would be really nice, just about now, to have some well-armed, well-led, realio-trulio moderate Syrian rebels with whom we could coordinate — but I think we missed that boat a long time ago,” she wrote. “Today, rebels who are both moderate and good at fighting are about as common in Syria as pink fluffy unicorns.”
Ford thinks that kind of dismissive thinking is uninformed.
“It is incumbent on people who say they speak with authority on Syria to understand what’s going on, on the ground,” Ford said. “To say it’s not possible to understand it, is washing your hands of something which is difficult. But frankly, it’s not an excuse when U.S. national security is involved.”
And what if the Obama administration had listened to Ford back in 2011?
“We’d have one of two scenarios: Either the regime would have cut a deal with the opposition for a new national unity government — with or without Assad — but there would have been substantial changes in the security and defense establishment, and they would be joined together fighting ISIS now,” Ford replied.
In the second scenario, he said, “Assad and the government would still be fighting the opposition, but ISIS would still be limited to certain pockets, especially in eastern Syria. The regime would have suffered higher casualties and would be much closer to cutting a deal, because it wouldn’t control Damascus as firmly.”
In either case, he said, “We wouldn’t have U.S. boots on the ground, or U.S. airplanes flying no-fly zones. I never suggested that. We would be supporting a moderate armed opposition — along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France and the United Arab Emirates — but it would be a team effort, and not only our problem.
“We now have over 3 million Syrian refugees, and that’s also costing taxpayers a lot of money. So there’s really no escape from having to commit American resources. You cannot stick a Band-Aid on a cancer. You’ve got to deal with the cancer.”
To that end, Ford insists that the United States cannot be seen as coming to Assad’s aid even as it battles the ISIS threat. “That regime let this cancer grow because it was fighting the moderates, and it was those moderates Assad views as the threat.”
So, if Ford were making policy right now — what would he do to tackle ISIS without bolstering Assad?
“Three steps,” he responded. “First, in coordination with our allies in the region — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — vastly increase the material assistance to the opposition. That’s the first thing. Tom Friedman [of the New York Times] has written that it’s fanciful the opposition will topple Assad. But that’s not the point, Tom. Why don’t we go to a negotiating table to see if we can cut a deal? A 12 percent minority [Assad’s ruling Alawite sect] is never going to win a war of attrition against a 70 percent majority.
“Second, get political support building this coalition. All governments need to do better, including ours. But in the meantime, we must rally others to support a more forceful posture in Syria. One of the problems we had in Iraq 10 years ago is that we went in with the British but no countries in the region, except for the Kuwaitis, supported us. Even the Jordanians were standoffish.”
Finally, said Ford, don’t help Syria’s rebels or political opposition “until they develop initiatives to reach out to disaffected supporters of the regime. The opposition’s mindset that we can’t work with any elements of the regime is going to destroy Syria. We should not be a party to that. If they want our help, then they have to reach out.”
Obama is, in fact, taking some of Ford’s advice. He’s enlisted 10 Arab countries to help fight ISIS, including Saudi Arabia, which agreed to host a base to train Syrian rebels.
The administration is also pressuring Arab allies to turn off the spigot of private donations helping to fund Islamist rebels, including ISIS.
“I do not question that there are people in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region and in Europe who are funneling money to bad guys,” said Ford. “It would surprise me if there were no funds at all flowing out of the United States.”
Indeed, tens of thousands of people have been swayed by the dream of a revived Islamic caliphate to replace the corrupt, Western-supported dictatorships that have long dominated the Arab world. Ford said it helps to have some perspective on the history-making events of the Arab Spring.
“You have to be really patient. My grandmother from Oklahoma remembers when she first got to vote. Imagine, somebody I knew in my lifetime as an adult did not get to vote in her lifetime. So it’s not like we built our democracy overnight. We should give Arabs the same space to build their democracy, but we shouldn’t close a blind eye when there’s grotesque oppression.”
Ford said that when America is seen as sticking to its principles, people in the Arab world take notice.
“Young Arabs are really plugged in these days. They’re on the internet, and a lot of them speak pretty good English. One day, back when I was ambassador in Algeria, I had some young Algerians tell me, ‘You read the rights to people when you arrest them. We don’t do that here.’ They view us as being very hypocritical when we don’t stick to our principles — and we have a national security interest in applying those principles.”
On that note, Obama’s decision to threaten U.S. military action against Assad if he crossed a red line and used chemical weapons — and then not taking any action when he did — was an enormous blunder, Ford said.
Of course, anti-American sentiment is deeply entrenched in the region, at times regardless of America’s actions. Oil-rich Libya fell apart after Western forces helped to overthrow strongman Muammar Qaddafi. In the ensuing violence that shook the country, Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed — along with three Americans — at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Two years after that attack, with Libya on the brink of civil war, Washington has pulled its diplomats from the country, much as it did in Syria.
“I knew Chris Stevens and thought the world of him. He was also a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, and we both had a sense of getting out of the embassy, out from behind the walls, and talking to people. That’s the whole reason you should pay Americans to go to these places,” Ford said. “I think obviously it’s tragic what happened, but Chris would be aghast if he thought his death would cause us to pull back inside the walls and not do the human contact work he so valued.”
Ford added: “I’m not going to compare myself to Chris, but I’ve been in many situations where I’ve had people yelling at me about U.S. policy. Sometimes you’ll win their respect just by being there.”
For the moment, the U.S. Embassy in Damascus is closed, with only a handful of Syrians on the State Department payroll maintaining the property. It could be a long time before Washington sends an envoy back to that shattered country; Ford himself was appointed after a five-year absence.
“I don’t think the war will be contained in less than a year or two, and that’s if we can get a new government set up in Syria. And that’s being very optimistic,” Ford said. “We’ve reached the point where there are no easy, good choices. It was a lot easier two or three years ago than now.”
Would Ford ever be willing to set foot in Syria again? Yes, he replied. “When they have a new, decent government, I’ll go back as a tourist or as a volunteer working helping them rebuild.”