As the civil war dynamic of the Syrian conflict begins to wind down after more than seven years of bloodshed, Robert Ford, who served as US ambassador to Damascus between 2011 and 2014, gave a broad-ranging interview to The Brief on the miscalculations of the the US and the West, the Russian-Iranian dynamic, America’s ongoing military role and offers a bleak assessment for the future of a country ravaged by the 21st Century’s most brutal and destructive conflict so far.
The Brief: Given your previous role as ambassador in Damascus what is your overview of the international – and particularly the US’s – past approach to the conflict now that the civil war component of the conflict is beginning to draw down.
Robert Ford: Well, the American response throughout the Syrian uprising and civil war was one of poor understanding – and I include myself in that – that led to a disjointed policy that continues to this day. But I think it’s also important to note that Americans never had more than a marginal role and that the conflict is, above all else, not a conflict among foreigners but a conflict among Syrians.
TB: But when we look at the early stages of the Syrian war, when it was turning from street protests into armed rebellion, a constant refrain of the nascent Syrian rebels was a demand for external assistance, that they had the will to fight back against the regime but couldn’t confront Syrian troops with placards. And weapons and equipment never really seemed to be forthcoming in a meaningful way that could have perhaps tipped the balance in those early stages.
RF: Yes, I totally agree with you. As I said, the American response was often disjointed and slow and too little, too late. But I’m also struck, as you mention, that there’s this idea, even back in 2012 and 2013, a lot of the Free Syrian Army fighters… all thought they could win if they just had enough weaponry. They ended up with that mentality [that made] it easier for the Syrian government [to defeat them]. One of the things we should have done as we started to provide materials in mid-2013, was to have been tougher on the conditionality about the peace proposals that would go along with the increased military materials.
TB: Was it really realistic to expect the Obama administration to engage in Syria with sufficient strength to actually make a tangible difference when the president was elected largely on a platform of ending US involvement in Middle East strife, not to launch a new entanglement?
RF: Nobody wanted to send US forces in [to Syria]. The objective of keeping American forces out, many of us argued, required helping moderates on the ground, otherwise Americans would have to go in. They did [enter Syria] in 2014. We warned in 2012 that was what was going to happen, and it did. The [Obama administration] consensus back in 2012 lined up like this: it was State [Department] [and] CIA in [for materially supporting the Syrian opposition, along with] the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The White House, National Security Council and … the chairman of the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] opposed. So Obama sat on it for a year. And during the year he sat on it things got much worse and then we had the ‘red line’ incident [when the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians in breach of an Obama warning a year earlier] that just accelerated the downfall of the [opposition] moderates.
I would argue that had we done more in 2012, it might have forestalled the development of the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. But we don’t know. That’s going to be unknowable.
“[H]ad we done more in 2012, it might have forestalled the development of the Islamic State and the Nusra Front”
I think a different question is, and it’s an important question, was the American goal of reaching a negotiated settlement – a kind of transitional, national unity government – ever achievable? Would there ever have been an occasion when Bashar al Assad and his government would have accepted genuine power sharing in a transitional government… I met Assad twice and he did not strike me as suicidal and had there been enough pressure, I think, key members of his government … probably would have split away and negotiated. But that too is unknowable.
TB: Last month, there was expectation of an imminent regime offensive against remaining rebel forces and militants in the Idlib province. That appears to be on hold, in part due to the complex situation on the ground. How do you seeing this playing out?
RF: I don’t think it will be resolved in weeks, I would be surprised if it was resolved in months. There are two separate but very difficult issues. The first is the long-term presence of Turkish forces. In the long run, neither the Syrians, the Russians nor the Iranians want the Turks in north-western Syria. So even in ideal circumstances – the ceasefire holds, the demilitarized zone expands – there will still be pressure on the Turkish troops to depart.
TB: What sort of pressure do you envisage against Turkish troops? Military pressure? Diplomatic? Political?
For sure, diplomatic. For sure, political, and its entirely imaginable that Assad and the Iranians would apply asymmetrical warfare tactics – car bombs, assassinations and that kind of thing. That’s how they play.
The second issue is the future of the foreign fighters there… They can’t stay there. Everybody says they have to go back to Europe, they have to go back to Central Asia, they have to go back to the Arab countries, but nobody is going to want them. So how that is resolved is ultimately a big question. And I don’t think the Turks have an answer and I know the Western countries don’t have an answer.
TB: One of the paramount issues to which people are paying close attention is the relationship between Russia and Iran in Syria. They have been battlefield allies since 2015 and helped turn the tide of war in Assad’s favor, but now that we are coming to the post-civil war phase, the alliance between the Russians and the Iranians is coming under scrutiny. Can, will, the Russians squeeze the Iranians out of Syria or attempt to diminish Iranian influence over Assad or reduce their footprint in Syria, or is this just wishful thinking?
RF: I think that the United States has been guilty of terrible wishful thinking on the Russia issue in Syria and I do not believe that Putin is going to break much diplomatic glassware with Iran over Syria. I think there is plenty of space in Syria for both Russia and Iran… I think they agree on a lot more than about which they disagree. And I think they both agree that, in general, in that part of the Middle East, they would like to see a reduced American presence. So I don’t think the Iranians and Russians are going to come to blows about Syria.
“I don’t think the Iranians are going to leave Syria. Period.”
TB: How do the repeated Israeli air strikes against Iranian assets in Syria figure into this?
RF: I think the Russians are chuckling a bit to themselves because the Iranians can do nothing but take it. And every time the Israelis strike, it boosts Russian leverage a bit with the Iranians. I’m sure the Russians are not unhappy with it. But I doubt very much that the Israelis are going to be able to bomb the Iranians enough to get them to withdraw out of Syria. I think the Iranians will simply break down their forces into smaller and smaller component pieces and make it even harder for the Israeli Air Force to target them.
I don’t think the Iranians are going to leave Syria. Period. Maybe the biggest analytical mistake I ever made on Syria was not understanding how willing Iran was to escalate as much as needed to prevent Assad from having to make any serious compromises.
TB: Can the Iranians afford to simply continue sitting back and absorbing the Israeli hits without any meaningful retaliation?
RF: If they were going to retaliate, they would have made a stronger effort by now. I recall the missile launch they did [firing several rockets toward the Golan Heights in May] that looked pretty calibrated to say, ‘this is what we can do, but we’re not doing it’. And you might even say that the missile launch [on October 1] against ISIS positions in Deir ez Zour province in eastern Syria [in retaliation to a gun attack on a military parade in Iran] was also a message to the Americans and Israelis that ‘we also have missiles and we can strike Israel if we want to’. But I really don’t think that the Iranians are looking for a fight… because they don’t control the escalation ladder once they start. They’re hoping that they may be able to salvage something with the Europeans out of the [JCPOA] nuclear agreement wreckage and they need to play the injured party as much as possible at this stage.
TB: Moving onto reconstruction, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Syria would receive no funding from the US so long as Iran remains in Syria. But how do you see the process of reconstruction unfolding?
RF: I think we have seen from the experience of the United Nations relief efforts that there really is no way around the regime… It’s going to be on Assad’s terms. It’s an unrepentant government and it’s a government that, first and foremost, is not concerned with the welfare of its population… They will focus whatever scarce resources they have on a few key vital communities… There are going to be large swathes of cities that aren’t going to be rebuilt for years… There isn’t going to be any large-scale reconstruction of Syria. The country is going to be in ruins for years and years.
TD: US forces look set to stay in Syria for the time being. But what is the Trump administration’s strategy in leaving some 2,000 Special Forces operators east of the Euphrates river with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia and also around the Tanf border crossing in the south?
RF: I wrote a year ago in Foreign Affairs magazine that there was nothing further we could usefully do in Syria and we should pull out. I still subscribe to that. The reason you can’t discern a strategy is because there is no strategy…. We have allied ourselves with the one group in the Levant that seems to have no other allies – the Syrian Kurds. The Turks don’t like them, Damascus doesn’t like them. The KDP operating on the Kurdish Iraqi side don’t like them. The Iranians don’t like them, the Russians don’t like them. Nobody likes them, just the Americans. Two points: one, as ambassador [in Damascus] in early 2011, I asked for an intelligence briefing on Syrian Kurds. I had worked with Iraqi Kurds for years but I didn’t know anything about the Syrian Kurds. But nobody else in the American government knew anything about them either. Not the CIA, not the Pentagon, not the State Department. They could tell me a couple of sentences but not more than a paragraph. It was just not a place where America had any interest. Now suddenly we do? I have my doubts. Second point: the Americans are out there and so far so good with only two killed in action. But it’s not like the Syrian government and the Iranians and even the Turks are just going to sit there. They get a vote too. And I expect asymmetrical warfare in abundance against the Americans. Syrian intelligence is already mucking around. There have been regular car bomb attacks and IEDs against the SDF forces… and I’m sure the regime has a hand in that. And it’s entirely within the modus operandi of the Assad regime to work with the extremists against the Americans. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Syrians didn’t at some point start helping ISIS to attack us in different ways in eastern Syria.
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Syrians didn’t … start helping ISIS to attack us … in eastern Syria”
TB: We keep talking about the end of the civil war in Syria and that Assad has triumphed and will remain in power for the foreseeable future. But is there now a mood of opposition that cannot be bottled up again or are the Syrian people are so sick and tired of war that their priority will be to resume their lives in as safe and normal fashion as they can hope to achieve?
RF: I think there will be ISIS and Nusra elements circulating underground for a very long time. Even now ISIS is able to ambush government forces in places like Sweida. But remember that the Sunni Arab communities have been really badly damaged and hurt. They have suffered tremendously and I’m not certain that they will be willing to rise up… Will there be some violence? Yes. Will there be large-scale violence? No. But the country isn’t going to rebuilt and there is always going to be an element of recruitment going on… for low-level violence. I wish I could be more upbeat about Syria’s prospects, but I just can’t.
TB: Lastly, is there a lesson for the West to take away from the tragedy in Syria?
RF: I guess, in the end, one of the lessons the stupid foreigners should take out of all this is let these countries evolve in their own organic, gradual, slow way… I was totally struck when dealing with the Syrian opposition how we were in many ways making things worse because the Americans would be helping one group over here and the Turks would be helping another group over there. The Qataris were helping a third group over yonder and the Saudis a fourth group over there. I once bitched about divisions in the Syrian opposition to a leading activist in Homs and he snapped right back at me and said ‘stop blaming us. You, foreigners, are aggravating the problem because you’re promoting all these different groups at the same time instead of just promoting one single chain of command’. He was totally right. When I tried to explain that to a meeting at the White House, it was like I was speaking to them in some foreign language. When I said that it was our fault, they all looked at me and ‘our fault? Why is it our fault? It can’t be our fault?’ I have taken from both Iraq and Syria a sense that we need to leave these places alone a lot more.
Robert Ford is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington and the Kissinger Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was US ambassador to Damascus (2011-2014)