In his first public comments since stepping down as US ambassador to Syria on Friday, Robert Ford addressed the failure to contain Syria's bloody civil war, laying most of the blame at the feet of President Bashar al-Assad and his government's international backers.
Speaking at a conference at Tufts University last night, his outlook was bleak, warning that a fractured rebellion, the presence of Al Qaeda inspired fighters on the battlefield, and the fears of the country's minorities are a recipe for prolonged conflict.
“You have one Al Qaeda faction fighting another Al Qaeda faction. That’s how fractured this is. One sharp sliver fighting another sharp sliver,” he said, a measure of disbelief in his voice. “I bring no good news to you tonight about Syria.”
His remarks had seven key takeaways.
1. It’s the regime’s fault.
Ford placed the blame for the failure of two rounds of peace talks in Geneva squarely on the regime. Citing private comments by the United Nations special envoy to Syria, he said:
“The major reason for the deadlock, I want to be clear with everyone here. The mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has decades, decades of experience negotiating transitions and negotiating cease-fires, negotiating political settlements… was extremely clear as to what was the problem. He said it is – and this is a quote – 100 percent the fault of Jaafari,” he said, referring to Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, who led the regime delegation at peace talks.
“I’ll give you this little detail about it. Most of the discussions behind closed doors were the regime throwing out insults at the opposition delegation, basically saying they weren’t representative.”
2. But the opposition isn't helping its cause.
Assad’s Alawite support base is much shakier than it appears, Ford said, noting that there have been anti-government demonstrations even in his family hometown of Qerdaha. What keeps the Alawites and other minorities from deserting is a genuine fear that they will be massacred by foreign terrorists if Assad falls. Only the opposition can assuage those fears, he said.
“The Syrian opposition itself has done a miserable job distinguishing itself from the Al Qaeda elements. There are some really bad people in Syria right now, on the opposition side. Can the opposition show that it is willing to reach out and figure out a way security-wise and politics-wise to reunify across that sectarian divide?” he said.
“The sooner the opposition does that, the faster Assad’s support base will crumble.”
At the last round of talks, international representatives were surprised at the number of messages they got from Damascus saying that they hoped the talks succeeded. “Even in the Alawi community, they want an out. They don’t like where they are,” he said.
3. Armed groups will have to be at the table – even jihadis.
The US relationship with the opposition’s armed groups has deepened. Four representatives of such groups – “not the terrorist groups,” Ford was careful to say – were at Geneva II. He would not specify which ones.
The US believes more of that needs to be happening. The consent to negotiations from groups like the Saudi-backed Islamist Front, a collection of jihadi brigades, puts that within reach, according to Ford.
“You can’t have a negotiation, a serious negotiation, without negotiating with the people who have the guns. This is a war, so they’re going to have to be brought in,” he said.
That inclusion should extend to the regime side. The Syrian Army and other regime forces; the Lebanese Shiite militant group, Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to fight on behalf of the regime; and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is less overtly but still seriously assisting the regime; will all have to be represented, he said.
4. Iran, too.
The handling of Iran’s invitation to Geneva II was “a mess,” Ford acknowledged, referring to the chain of events that led to Iran being preemptively issued an invitation to Geneva II. It was revoked just before the talks collapsed because of an opposition boycott.
“I think the Iranians would have been saying to them in private, ‘Hold fast. Make no concessions. We’re with you.’ I don’t think we lost anything,” Ford said, referring to the fact that Iran was absent.
But Iran has more influence over Syria than any other country, as well as real interests in keeping Assad in power, so while its inclusion is unlikely to deliver a more desirable outcome – for the international community, at least -- it’s going to be have to be at the table in the future.
5. Could the US use military force in Syria?
The US threat of a military strike last year resulted in a chemical weapons agreement because Syria and its Russian backer believed the US meant it. Ford warned that such credibility could be easily squandered if the US threatened military involvement again without being willing to follow through – whatever the unpredictable end.
“What the president will decide, I’m not sure, but I do know that this factor weighs in discussions. If we do use kinetic force, and the civil war doesn’t end… people are going to say, ‘Well, now what are you going to do?’ You end up having to escalate. That, I think, gives the president great pause,” Ford said.
“I think he would like to understand if we start, what do we achieve? And if we have to escalate, how do we control where we’re going? It’s very hard to say we’ve got it all covered, Mr. President,” he said.
But President Obama is not afraid of using military force, he asserts.
“He took a chance on Bin Laden and got great results,” he said. “I don’t want to say the United States will never use force in Syria. I don’t believe it.”
6. Assad should not run in June presidential elections.
Assad has assured the Syrians that he will run in presidential elections scheduled for June. That can’t happen, Ford said.
“I can’t in any way imagine circumstances where most of the fighters who are now fighting against the regime or the countries that are backing them… are going to stand down if Assad remains,” he said.
“One man should not hold a country hostage," he said.
Syria is not ready for elections this summer, period, he said. With 9 million displaced and no history of free elections, they would have no credibility.
7. The end game is a bunch of cantons controlled by armed local factions.
So what happens?
Ford was unsparing in his summary: The state is “little by little collapsing.” It lacks the manpower to take back places like Raqaa province and Deir al-Zour, or the Kurdish north. The foreign fighters the regime increasingly relies on cannot be compelled to take on that fight. But neither can the opposition overcome the regime in much of the country.
The most likely end game? De-facto cantons, some of them controlled by local armed factions. Certainly nothing like the Syria Ford saw when he arrived in Damascus in 2010.