What Obama's former Syria ambassador really thinks of US policy

Robert Ford resigned as US ambassador to Syria earlier this year, and this week he broke his silence, harshly criticizing the Obama administration's response to the three-year war.

Stephanie McGehee/Reuters/File
Then-US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford speaks to Reuters during the International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria at Bayan Palace on the outskirts of Kuwait City, Kuwait, January 30, 2013.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is in Lebanon today, where he announced a $290 million aid package for the millions of refugees generated by the civil war in Syria. Mr. Kerry told reports in Beirut that a "human catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes" in Syria and its neighbors, which have been flooded with refugees, and blamed Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and Russia for prolonging the war.

One thing he did not address in a tightly controlled press conference (members of the Beirut press corp complained they weren't allowed to ask questions) were the recent comments of former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. Just a day before Kerry's trip, Ambassador Ford broke the silence he has maintained since his resignation earlier this year, going on a media blitz to criticize the US government's response to the war.

Last night, in an interview with PBS Newshour, he was asked what the greatest Obama administration mistake in Syria has been. His response:

We have consistently been behind the curve. The events on the ground are moving more rapidly than our policy has been adapting. And at the same time, Russia and Iran have been driving this by increasing and steadily increasing, increasing massively, especially the Iranians, their support to the Syrian regime.

And the result of that has been more threats to us in this ungoverned space which Assad can’t retake. We need and we have long needed to help moderates in the Syrian opposition with both weapons and other nonlethal assistance. Had we done that a couple of years ago, had we ramped it up, frankly, the Al Qaeda groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates, who, frankly, we have much in common with.

But the moderates have been fighting constantly with arms tied behind their backs, because they don’t have the same resources that either Assad does or the Al Qaeda groups in Syria do.

Mr. Ford dismissed concerns that weapons provided to less overtly religious groups ("moderates") could end up in the hands of enemies of the US. The US has "plenty of information on reliable groups, and we have long had that," he said. "It's a question of whether or not there's a will to help people whose agendas are compatible with our national security interests." 

This assertion is the point at which agreement on support for the rebels breaks down.

 Is Ford right? I am skeptical, given the Iraq war, where a sustained Islamist insurgency, important portions of it aligned with Al Qaeda, emerged despite the presence of more than 100,000 US troops as well as massive support for Iraqi allies on the ground.

But Ford, a highly respected Arabic-speaking career diplomat, is just as qualified as, if not more than, almost anyone who recently served in the US government to have an opinion on this matter. He developed relationships with large numbers of Assad's opponents over the years and has been privy to US intelligence assessments of the situation.

Even if he – and, judging by his comments, most of the State Department – are right that Obama's going about it all wrong, US political considerations are also in play. Rebel groups are desperately interested in anti-aircraft weapons to defend against the onslaught of barrel bombs being dumped on rebels and civilians alike in rebel-held areas by Assad's forces. If one such weapon ended up with Al Qaeda's allies in Syria and was used to take down a US, Israeli, or European passenger jet, it could provoke a furious backlash.

Perhaps that's a risk worth taking in light of the vast casualties of the Syrian war, the greatest humanitarian crisis of the moment, but that's not usually how calculations are made in Washington. While Ford's comments may stir debate in the US over shifting course, a major arming of rebels in Syria does not seem in the cards, at least not yet.

How much his resignation was motivated by disagreements with the Obama administration is a matter of debate. Ford dutifully defended US policy in Syria, as was his job, for three years. Michael Weiss, a columnist at NOW Lebanon, notes that he was giving a full-throated defense of US policy as recently as three months ago. Ford said the US was concerned about the potential for reprisals against Syria's Alawite minority, to which Assad belongs, if the rebels won.

Diplomats are duty-bound to set aside their personal beliefs and defend US government policy, whatever it may be. But the contours of the conflict, and the wisdom or foolishness of US policy, have been pretty much the same for the past few years, so why didn't he resign then?

Everyone has their limit. Unfortunately the Syrian people, who have been pushed passed all possible points of endurance, will have to go on enduring. 

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