Robert Ford, the former US ambassador in Damascus when the uprising started in 2011, talks to our editor-in-chief Wael Sawah.
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Robert Ford, former US ambassador in Damascus, calls the new US Administration to engage more with both Russia and Turkey to have them take on the anti-Islamic State (ISIS) burden. In relatively controversial comments, he says that while Russia is “a far from perfect partner,” its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes it the right force to take over the counter-ISIS fight. He adds that the US has invested more than needed in supporting the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and that this has created widespread frustration over Kurdish political dominance among Arabs.
In this interview, Robert Ford talks with our editor-in-chief Wael Sawah about his views on where the Syrian conflict is heading and what future US policy could be.
The recommendation you made in your recent article, featured in Foreign Affairs, has instigated serious concerns among the anti-Assad Syrian elite. In particular, you recommend that it would be better to let Russia and Turkey secure their national interests by taking on the anti-ISIS burden. This is a blatant call for the Biden Administration to withdraw from Syria, not only militarily, but also politically. Will such a step not undermine the United States’ role as a leader of the free world?
My strong recommendation that the US withdraw from Syria is about American national security interests, not Russian interests. Let us be frank: (1) Russia, along with Iran, have long been the Assad government’s key partners; (2) Nothing the US has done in the past ten years has changed that; (3) geo-strategically eastern Syria is not, and never was, a vital area for American national security interests. As you well know, no one from the American embassy even visited eastern Syria for years prior to 2011, and yet we never considered that to be a danger for American interests. By contrast, some make the argument that US assistance to the opposition, and to the YPG [People’s Protection Units] and SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces], and especially material assistance to them, has increased Assad’s dependency on Russia and Iran. I am not sure I would go that far – after all, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and others also provided material assistance to the opposition too, not just the Americans. Realistically, however, the presence of some hundreds of US soldiers patrolling in Hassakeh and Deir-ez-Zor province will not diminish Russian and Iranian influence.
Syria has symbolized Russia’s recent return as a major global player, but in your article, you call for working more, rather than less with Moscow in Syria. What do you think are Russia’s core interests in Syria? Couldn’t the US seek to weaken Russia on the Syrian front as a means to have more leverage in its relations with Moscow?
Well, if the US withdrew from Syria, Russia would be obliged to increase its military presence to manage the additional territories in eastern Syria where it would operate. That would cost the Russians more in terms of men, material, and money. By contrast, the existing presence of US forces has not done much to cost the Russians extra resources. And the Russians can continue paying the costs of its operations in Syria. We should be honest about that.
And let me add one last very honest point. China is now America’s biggest foreign challenger, not Russia. The world is different from how it was 15 years ago or 10 years ago. America does not now, and never did, have huge interests in Syria. Our interests in Syria were not as great as they were in Saudi Arabia or even Egypt, for example. It would be better for the Americans to see Russia as relatively neutral in the competition between the US and China. I do not understand why we would aggravate relations with Russia about Syria, where we have few interests, and we have a new, and serious geostrategic competition with China where Russian neutrality would be better for us. The US has worldwide interests and Syria is not at the center of them. I would like Syrians to understand this so that they can make their own calculations about what they should do in their conflict. The worst accusation against me is that I gave Syrians the impression the Americans would fight Assad for them in 2011 or 2012. You were there and you will recall that I cautioned every Syrian I met that the US air force would not come; I reminded them about our bitter Iraq war experience. But I accept that many did not believe my words, especially after the visit to Hama even though I told the Hamwis that they had to maintain only peaceful protests and the Americans would not intervene militarily. And sooner or later, the US forces will leave eastern Syria because American resources are not unlimited. So let us be extremely honest with Syrians now.
Yes, but is the best way to achieve a political solution to leave the country to Russia?
In the end, we cannot fix Syria. I do not know if Russia can, but Russia has some advantages that the US does not. It has open diplomatic channels with all the actors in the conflict, while the Americans have no communications with Damascus and Tehran. But that does not mean that the Russians have the ability to fix Syria. Actually, I doubt they will. Still, even if they cannot fix Syria that will not be a reason for us to stay. In the end, we have to be realistic – a low level of fighting could continue for many years, and the Syrians will have to learn to live with that until they are ready to make compromises.
So you are talking here about the military withdrawal, not the political role?
Yes. I object to sending soldiers with an indefinite mission or timeline. What victory is there in northeastern Syria for us? The Russians have a different set of calculations in Syria: they have a historic presence and relationship with the Syrians.
You are tackling Syria from other countries’ perspectives: Iran, Russia, and China. Isn’t Syria a problem in itself that needs to be tackled independently?
Of course, every country matters. The question is where is the line? I think the line lies in our security interests. We do not have security interests in Syria. There is a moral issue, but we cannot address that without considering our interests. From a geostrategic perspective, the United States now is weaker than it was 10 or 15 years ago. We are compelled to reduce our commitment and need to be selective in where we send our troops, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria? We need to be selective.
So what about the US role as the leader of the democratic world, does this not have consequences and responsibility?
It cannot be the policy of intervening militarily to spread democracy. Take Myanmar for example. There is no way that the US will intervene there to defend democracy. Again, we need to be more selective.
And I have said that many times since 2011. I never stopped to repeat that there would be no intervention in Syria. If we did we would be there forever.
Your analysis barely mentions the Iran dimension of the US presence in Syria. Isn’t the US presence in the Northeast and in the Tanf area an important part of the wider US regional strategy to counter Iran?
You are right that I didn’t mention Iran in my article. Iranian forces are not physically present where the Americans operate. Should anyone be surprised that because of the US presence in Tanf the Iranians have established a strong position in Albukamal? Most analysts think that Iranian influence has grown, not diminished, in the past four years despite the American presence in Tanf. And who is trying to limit the Iranian influence in eastern Syria? American soldiers patrolling around Qamishli and Hassakeh or the Israeli air force? Again, let’s be honest.
Some might argue that in your analysis you make cynical proposals focused on narrow US interests with little regard to the massive destruction and human rights violations perpetrated by the Assad regime. Isn’t the Biden Administration supposed to offer something different from Trump’s in terms of its outlook on the world and on defending human rights?
In the end, the Obama Administration was a public witness to the Syrian government’s atrocities. And American diplomats and colleagues, like you were, witnessed that the demonstrations in 2011 were almost all peaceful. But we didn’t fix the problem of government atrocities. We haven’t even fixed the problem of the regime using chemical weapons. And Biden, like Trump, won’t start a new big war in Syria against Assad. You live in the US and you know most Americans will not support that, especially because Russia and Iran will escalate to match American escalation. As I have said many times America can’t fix Syria. If you don’t believe me, please just look at the last ten years.
Democrat presidents like Carter and Clinton raised the banner of human rights. Republican George W Bush fought heavily for democracy. Do I have the right to understand that you want Biden to recoil from these two areas? Do you want Biden to be a mixture of the worst part of Obama and Trump?
I absolutely do not want military forces to promote democracy. See what happened in Iraq. I have always been against the war in Iraq before it happened, and after that when I was deputy ambassador there after the war. See Afghanistan. We have been there for 20 years. What have we accomplished? Intervention does not change bad governance. It is a fact.
You co-authored an op-ed in Newsweek with Wael Zayat, another diplomat who worked in Syria and is of Syrian descent. In your article, you focused on Idleb. Is your advice to Biden to use micropolitics rather than macropolitics?
My advice is not to mix humanitarian assistance with politics. Avoid politics as much as possible. We need to find new mechanisms to send our assistance to the people in need.