Robert Ford was the last U.S. ambassador to Syria, serving from 2010 to 2014. Before that, he was ambassador to Algeria, after being posted in several places in the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, Turkey, Bahrain, and Baghdad. Today he is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., and a lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. During his time in Damascus, Ford angered the Syrian regime by, famously, visiting the city of Hama in July 2011, at a time when it was surrounded by the Syrian army and engaged in protests against Assad rule. In February 2012, Ford left Syria when the U.S. embassy closed due to security concerns, but only left the State Department in 2014, saying he could no longer defend U.S. policy in Syria. Diwan caught up with him in mid-February to get his views about the increasingly complex and dangerous situation in Syria, and deepening U.S. involvement in the country.
Michael Young: The situation in Syria is changing, as we see a heightened risk of conflict between the regional and international states involved in the war. What keeps you up at night, thinking about this?
Robert Ford: Two scenarios are especially worrisome for me. First, there is a risk, if not a likelihood, of further probes by the Syrian government and its allies, including Russian “contractors,” against positions of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in southeastern Syria. We don’t know all the details of what happened in the February 7–8 battle in Deir Ezzor Governorate, but we do know that American warplanes killed some Russian citizens fighting with pro-Syrian government forces.
Let’s think about that for a moment. When was the last time the U.S. launched an attack that killed a significant number of Russian citizens? In this instance, Moscow apparently has not responded vigorously, but as Russian media devote attention to the Russian casualties, I would not presume that the Russian official response will be similarly restrained should this kind of clash reoccur. The already increased tension in Russian-American bilateral relations adds to the risk of escalation the next time. I’m not saying that Moscow and Washington will go to nuclear war over Syria, but I can imagine a sharp escalation in fighting and Russian resort to more sophisticated weaponry. I doubt we understand how Russian policy responses in Syria are developed and decided.
The second scenario that worries me is that in the longer term, the U.S. has no clearly identified exit strategy from Syria. We could have declared victory [against the Islamic State] at the end of 2017 and withdrawn. That would not have been perfect. However, had we exchanged greater cooperation from Turkey in closing its border with Syria to extremists entering the country, in return for halting U.S. support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, we would still have reduced the risk to American and European interests. Instead, we have seen an amazing downturn in U.S.-Turkish relations, while leaving 1,000–2,000 soldiers and civilian personnel deployed in Syria indefinitely. Of course, sooner or later, they will become targets of non-conventional attacks.
It is easy to imagine, for example, that Syrian military intelligence will again foster Islamist militant attacks against U.S. forces on Syrian soil. We can likewise imagine Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces present in Nineveh and Anbar governorates in Iraq doing the same thing. The U.S. has good force protection procedures, but the other side watches, experiments, and learns too.
MY: Recently, the United States announced that it intended to remain in Syria to prevent the creation of a pro-Iranian arc between Iran and Lebanon. It has also been under Turkish pressure to pull out of Manbij, and in early February, as you remarked earlier, U.S. troops and Kurdish allies fought a battle with pro-regime forces in Syria. Can U.S. forces sustain themselves in an environment where they are challenged by many sides?
RF: I doubt Turkey would ever attack American forces directly. However, the U.S. position in eastern Syria is fraught with difficulties. For example, I can easily imagine that Turkey and Syria would cooperate to undermine the YPG militia the Americans support. Moreover, U.S. access from Iraqi Kurdistan through the Faysh Khabur crossing over the Tigris River into Syrian Kurdish areas and the Deir Ezzor positions is under the nose now of Iraqi forces, which in turn are exposed to influence from Iran. It is easy to imagine how Syria and Iran can raise pressure on the American position, and escalating American airstrikes will not solve the access problem.
MY: The Russian desire to push for a political resolution, with the recent holding of a conference in Sochi, appears to be stalling. Do you think Moscow can impose the resolution it seeks?
RF: I have long argued that Russia cannot impose its will on Damascus. Influence? Yes, absolutely. Impose terms that the Assad government finds poisonous? No. Look at how the Syrian government just deflected the Sochi meeting decision to establish a committee to write a new constitution. Iran’s steady support, even if not cost-free, makes it easier for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resist Russian pressure. It is also important to remember that Russia does not want to destabilize a Syrian government that is tough, but also at times brittle. The Syrian government’s manpower shortage, which the Americans always predicted, bites Damascus hard now. What we did not expect, however, is that Iran would go to such lengths to make up that manpower shortfall. Iran’s doing so has diminished Russian leverage and completely outflanked the American policy of 2011–2016.
MY: Are there real differences between Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime, as many have suggested, or are they all in agreement over Syria?
RF: Russia, Iran, and Syria agree more than they disagree. They agree that foreign states should not support popular revolutions against standing governments. They agree that international law firmly justifies the sovereign Syrian government’s request for foreign state military aid, while the opposition plea for foreign support lacks any international legality. They agree that the end goal of sustaining those standing governments—whether in Damascus or Teheran or even Moscow—justifies whatever means must be utilized. It doesn’t matter if it is chemical weapons or bombing hospitals or using starvation as a military tactic. The Russians and Iranians may find some of these tactics “distasteful,” but they readily accept them. And the three countries all seek to reduce American influence and presence in Iraq and Syria.
Do all three states share the exact same vision for what the Syrian state and its security institutions should look like after the conflict ends—if it ends? Certainly not, but Russia can live with the Iranian vision, as can Assad. It is also important to remember that Russia’s broad relationship with Iran extends from Syria to issues ranging from the Caucuses to Central Asia and the Caspian Sea. Syria might not even be the most important issue in relations between Moscow and Teheran. How many Americans, do you think, understand that?
MY: What kind of Syria do you expect to see in the coming years?
RF: I have little hope for a Syria that is entirely stable and at peace with itself. I could speak about Israel and Iran, but there is so much more on top of that shrill dispute on Syrian soil. We can expect more fighting in Idlib and the East Ghouta between the Syrian government and its allies and the armed opposition. My position about the Assad government’s behavior, corruption, and atrocities is well known, but I have to wonder about the utility of a doomed fight to defend the East Ghouta. No foreign state will intervene on behalf of the opposition there, and the civilian toll is already horrendous and growing worse daily. Surrender at least would save some civilian lives.
The Syrian government and its allies have largely prevailed in western Syria, but unless the U.S.-backed Syrian “soi-disant” Democratic Forces cuts deals with the government, we can expect low-level fighting in eastern Syria for years to come. Given the American public’s strong desire not to get drawn deeply into a Syrian swamp, I doubt American staying power in the long run if the U.S. takes casualties. But a withdrawal will still leave local forces in eastern Syria potentially pitted against the government and its allies.
In addition, the anti-Syrian government insurgency won’t stop and the occasional terror attacks such as those we have seen in Damascus and Homs serve as examples. On top of this, while there may be a few Chinese, Indian, Russian, and Iranian investments in western Syria, large-scale reconstruction will lag. I genuinely do not know how, in this scenario, most of the Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons can return to their homes. I am not saying the refugee crisis will grow worse in terms of numbers, but donor fatigue already is setting in and, so, suffering among Syrians inside the country as well as among refugees outside the country appears likely to continue for years. Syria probably will be the greatest human tragedy we have seen since World War II.