Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford: ‘The regime’s internal cohesion is at risk.’
Washington - Robert Ford, widely regarded as one of the US State Department’s top Arabists, was appointed ambassador to Syria in December 2010, just months before the uprising against the Assad regime began. Ford refused to cover events from the safe confines of the US Embassy even after what began as a peaceful protest movement turned into a civil war. He openly supported the anti-Assad movement and travelled to the city of Hama to express solidarity with local protesters.
In October 2011, Ford was withdrawn from Syria, due to what the State Department termed “credible threats” on his life after Syrian state television launched a crusade against the ambassador, accusing him of supporting opposition death squads. Ford remained the official US envoy to Syria and closely followed developments there until he retired from the State Department in February 2014.
The Arab Weekly recently talked with Ford, now a senior fellow at Washington’s Middle East Institute, about the future of Syria, the role of various actors on the ground and what explains the regime’s recent losses.
Ford sees the possibility of Syria being carved into six areas: In the north, Jaish al-Fatah, which is predominantly Islamist (including al-Nusra Front and other groups). Further east, the Kurds have an autonomous zone. In south Raqqa and Deir al Zour, the Islamic State (ISIS) is the most powerful force. The regime maintains control in Homs, Damascus and along the Mediterranean coast. On the southern front, the first army in Deraa controls up to the southern Damascus suburbs. The Druze may eventually claim their own area as well.
This splitting of Syria “is not particularly good for American interests”, Ford said. “But the alternative is some kind of national reconciliation and we are far away from that.”
Ford attributes recent victories by the opposition to “surging material support from across the Turkish border”. In addition, he said, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have worked through some of their disagreements. “The conglomeration between the Islamic Front, Haraket ash-Sham and Jaish al-Fatah [is] a potent combination,” he said.
In recent weeks, Ford was widely quoted for suggesting that the Assad regime is on its last legs but his view is in fact much more nuanced. “Personally, I never thought [Assad] was doing that well, [but] I think they are nowhere near collapse,” he said. More ominous, though, “are unconfirmed reports of infighting between the National Defence Force and the Syrian Army in Latakia and Homs. If that’s true, the regime’s internal cohesion is at risk.”
Overall, according to Ford, “[Assad] is worse off now in 2015 than in 2013 or 2014.”
Ford finds the role of Jabhat al- Nusra to be especially intriguing.
“They have a foot in two different camps,” he said. “There is a nationalist element and not as much of a foreign jihadi element as with the Islamic State. They do coordinate with the secular opposition and Islamist groups that are not as extreme.”
But the question yet to be answered is, “are they loyal to [al- Qaeda chief Ayman] Zawahiri or to Syria?”
Ford described ISIS as a “potent” force in both Iraq and Syria. “They almost took over Ramadi and are still fighting in parts of Diyala province. I never thought they’d take over Baghdad considering the large Shia population… but they’re still pretty potent.”
Reports that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been seriously injured could slow the group’s progress, Ford believes. “The loss of Baghdadi might delay the Islamic State’s strategy going forward in Syria, and that would benefit the non-extremist opposition,” he said.
Ford was perhaps the last US diplomat to meet with Bashar Assad and does not believe a renewed US dialogue with the regime is likely.
In any event, Ford said: “In the end it doesn’t matter what Americans think, it’s about what Syrians think. If the Syrian armed opposition doesn’t accept Assad, any American [deal] would become rapidly irrelevant. If Syrians were to agree, I don’t think Americans would refuse. Though, after chemical weapons attacks and war crimes I can’t imagine the Americans would be [willing to negotiate with Assad].”