The Future of Syria: A Conversation with Robert Ford
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford discussed his perspective on the events taking place in Syria and the prospects regarding the crisis going forward.
On March 20, 2014, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center held a meeting, “The Future of Syria: A Conversation with Robert Ford.” Aaron David Miller, Distinguished Scholar and Vice President for New Initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event. Jane Harman, Director, President, and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center, provided opening remarks.
Harman began the event by remarking on the number of events the Middle East Program hosted on the region, with particular emphasis on Syria. She expressed that U.S. actions in Libya should have set a precedent for action in Syria but that recent events in Ukraine would make Russia a difficult partner in working for a stable Syria, which Harman believes is also in the Russian interest.
Miller then began the conversation by asking Ford who the opposition forces in Syria were, why they were dysfunctional, and how to address them. Ford broke down the Syrian opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime as an “external opposition” operating outside of Syria and an “internal opposition” operating within Syria. He noted that both sides agree on basic principles such as the need for Assad’s removal and a common vision for a future Syria. Further, he stated that while most of the Islamist groups do not seek to impose an Islamist state, they would advocate for Islamist principles. Where the sides fall apart, according to Ford, is a matter of personal ambitions and lack of trust among each other. Regional players such as Jordan, Qatar, and Turkey all have opposition factions they support, creating an environment that Ford compared to Lebanon in the 1980s. Ford suggested that to repair the situation opposition factions would need to reach a common Syrian-driven agenda, which currently does not exist.
When asked about Assad’s longevity, Ford responded that while many of the Alawites are not fond of Assad because of the harm the civil war has caused them, they find the opposition much more threatening, particularly elements affiliated with Al Qaeda. Christian and Druze populations have similar concerns. He also cited the financial and logistical support from Iran, Russia, and even growing numbers of Iraqi Shiites that mitigate the attrition of the Alawite community. Lastly, Ford said that the Assad regime has remained united, and there has yet to be an effort from within to remove him.
Miller asked if there was a possibility that Assad might remain in control of part of the country in the long term because the conflict might burn out into a stalemate. Ford considered this to be exactly where the conflict is headed, with Assad maintaining control over the major cities and coast, while the various competing opposition forces fight over the remaining parts of the country. When questioned if Iran would be willing to cooperate with the United States to reach a settlement in Syria, Ford noted that he was unaware of any discussions between the two countries regarding Syria. Iran has security and anti-terrorist interests in preventing Al Qaeda groups from getting a foothold in eastern Syria, but Ford was not sure if common concerns would be enough for Americans and Iranians to cooperate.
Miller described American policy toward Syria as “not immoral but amoral” and asked if Ford considered Syria to be a vital national interest. Ford noted it was an interest in that the United States had spent $2 billion on Syria, but he felt the issue was frustrating for all Americans. He noted that Geneva II peace talks saw genuine efforts from the opposition but no interest from the Syrian regime to negotiate change. Ford then stated that military force will not result in a solution, but it is merely a tool meant to address a political issue. For comparison, Ford cited that in Iraq, it was not the 170,000 American troops on the ground but a negotiated settlement between the major Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish groups that enabled the Americans to leave Iraq. Despite military action in Libya, political issues remain. Miller concluded the discussion by asking Ford how he foresees the situation a year from now. Ford surmised that the situation will likely be the same; localized ceasefires indicate that the sides are exhausted from fighting, but the country will become more “cantonized” as various factions control different territories.
By William Drumheller, Middle East Program