Despite stern rhetoric and barrages of missiles from Western forces, ISIL, the insurgency that calls itself the Islamic State, isn’t looking very degraded or destroyed. While the coalition led by the United States , as the crucial test of its effectiveness, focused its attention and more than 270 airstrikes on the fight for Kobani, the predominantly Kurdish town in northern Syria where small gains have been made against ISIL, the terrorist army captured two gas fields in central Syria, murdered 300 members of a Sunni tribe that dared to oppose it in Iraq, and beheaded 26-year-old American aid worker Abdul Rahman Kassig, also known as Peter.
ISIL, with its extreme religious ideology, states its aim as the creation of a caliphate, a temporal expression of its draconian theology—one shared by few in the Sunni branch of Islam, for which its leaders claim to speak. More extreme than Afghanistan’s Taliban—famous for its banning of women from public life and girls from school—ISIL has made a specialty of beheading its enemies, even Sunni Muslims.
On top of the 1,500 additional troops President Barack Obama approved for deployment to Iraq, the Pentagon requested $1.62 billion from Congress last month, funds sought for training and equipment for the Iraqi military, Kurdish forces, and Sunni tribal forces against ISIL. Noticeably absent in the budget were any funds allocated to the so-called moderate Syrian rebels.
Obama’s strategy faces serious obstacles—an Iraqi army riddled with corruption, a Turkish government wary of military action in Syria, obstinate opposition from Russia, and the continued flow of money and fighters to ISIL from the Gulf states. And although Turkey finally agreed to let Iraqi Kurdish fighters cross its border to help Syrian Kurds defend Kobani, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains firmly against providing arms to Kurdish forces due to their alleged connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey and the U.S. classify as a terrorist organization. As late as 2013, the PKK was engaged in an armed struggle with Turkey—a fight for Kurdish self-determination.
The American Prospect sat down with Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, to discuss ISIL, the Syrian civil war, and how the U.S. should deal with both. Ford resigned his post in February, writing on the New York Times op-ed page that he “found it ever harder to justify our policy”—at the time, the U.S. declined to arm Syrian rebels. Ford is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.
The following discussion has been edited for concision and clarity.
Katherine Downs: If the U.S. wants to avoid putting American troops on the ground inside Syria, but we agree that boots on the ground are necessary to stop ISIL and other extremist groups, is it too late to start arming the Syrian opposition?
Robert Ford: So whose boots are going to be on the ground? And my answer to that would be that it has to be moderate Syrian opposition fighters. There have to be more of them, they have to be more effective, and their primary concern is not terror attacks outside Syrian borders—they’re living with terror every day from the regime. So they’re going to have to be reinforced for both taking on the Islamic State and taking on the regime. So I don’t think it’s too late, but I think it needs to get started. And helping the Kurds in Kobani is O.K., although it’s going to cause a lot of problems with Turkey, and it’s going to cause a lot of problems with other Syrians—but in any case there aren’t going to be enough Kurds to act as those boots on the ground. We still have to get Sunni Arabs on board, and the longer we wait, the harder that actually becomes.
KD: It seems to me that a lot of ISIL’s recruiting success is due to a sense of worldwide Sunni oppression intensified by the exclusiveness of the former Iraqi government led by Nouri al-Maliki,(who favored his fellow Shi’ites at the expense of that nation’s large Sunni minority), and the repression of Sunnis in Syria by President Bashar al-Assad (who belongs to the Alawite minority that is allied with Shi’ites). How does the U.S. counter that in order to be able to recruit people to moderate opposition groups instead?
Robert Ford: Certainly that sense of Sunnis being unfairly persecuted helps the recruitment by the Islamic State—it’s not the only factor but it’s one of them—and so you can’t fix that right away. In some cases, places like Iraq, what’s done is done. It’s history; we can’t change that history, so we have to work on getting an Iraqi government that Sunni Arabs, or most of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs, view as fair and treats them fairly. In Syria, frankly, our watching barrel bombs rain down on Sunni cities daily—and our lack of response to pleas for help against the al-Assad regime that was doing these things—is aggravating the problem. If we had a better relationship with these moderate groups, it would help counter the narrative, but it is what it is.
KD: You were in Algeria in the 1990s as a member of the Foreign Service and saw what happened there as a result of transitioning to Western-style democracy too quickly. What is the risk of moving too fast in Syria in terms of a transition? Can we avoid the problems that came about in Algeria because of that?
Robert Ford: I think one of the things that has always scared many people about getting involved in Syria is [that] if Assad was replaced, it’s not clear who or what would come in his place, and it’s a valid concern. The goal is not to get to a military victory; it’s not, as Tom Friedman said, to try to topple the regime. What we do want is a negotiation. Bashar [al-Assad] may never negotiate himself; that’s a real possibility. [As World War II drew to a close,] Adolf Hitler refused to negotiate all the while, even as the Russians closed in on the Fuhrer bunker. But there may well be people around Assad, as there were people around Hitler, who decide that they might need to negotiate as the situation turns against them. That’s the kind of thing we need to encourage—and it’s actually less important for the Americans to encourage it than for the Americans to get the Syrian moderate opposition to reach out to those people.
There were press reports that there’s a movement calling, inside the Alawi heartland [Assad’s sectarian base of support] for Alawis not to join the army. That’s exactly the kind of group that the moderate opposition needs to reach out to. And we should condition giving our help to the moderate fighters on their undertaking these kinds of initiatives. It’s perfectly fair for us to demand stuff in return.
KD: Are there other tools, not necessarily military, that the U.S. and its allies can use to put pressure on Bashar al-Assad? Some have advocated for purely diplomatic measures without any military component. Are those realistic solutions?
Robert Ford: We’ve been talking to the Russians for three and a half years now about this business in Syria. I don’t think the Russians are going to do much. Like us, they don’t understand what would replace Assad, and unlike us, they’re not really willing to see a negotiation start to try to develop that alternative. I don’t think there’s a whole lot the Americans can do outside of changing the balance on the ground right now. We have a very thick set of sanctions applied to the Syrian regime. We just added a few more names to our sanctions list, and it’s a nice symbolic gesture, but none of those cabinet members have bank accounts in the United States, so we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that that’s a serious action. This is a regime right now which is dependent on Russian and Iranian aid. In a sense our sanctions have already throttled its economy.
But there are some things that need to be done at the same time, maybe not against the Assad regime, but against the Islamic State. The administration must intensify its discussions with the Turks. The United States and Turkey are not on the same page at all about Syria. That is a major problem. Turkey has a 500-mile border with Syria, and if the Turks are not willing to help us they could cause a lot of problems. So we need to get more on the same page, and if that requires [President Obama] himself to have more conversations with the Turks then the president will have to do that. And from the Saudis and the Gulf states, we need them to crack down harder on private money flows, and they need to disrupt the movement of their nationals who flow into the Islamic State. We need to work with the North African countries on the same thing, countries like Libya and Tunisia and Algeria. It will help the situation in Syria if the Islamic State weakens, so all we can do to weaken it is a positive.
KD: In 2011 you were still warning the Syrian opposition against taking up arms. At what point did you decide that it was the best course of action for the opposition to be armed?
Robert Ford: Well I’ve never ever been comfortable with the opposition using weapons, and I think if we look back in history, their doing this will be considered a mistake. I raised it at the time, repeatedly. I remember one very prominent political activist said to me, “You expect us to act like Gandhi when the regime that we’re fighting is a lot worse than the British in India.” There is some truth to that: The British never used chemical weapons, never dropped barrel bombs on residential districts. The most important thing is to figure out how to pressure the regime sufficiently to get it to negotiate.
We went to Geneva last January and February, and the opposition put on the table to the United Nations a written proposal for a transitional unity government, and the proposal didn’t even ask Bashar to step aside. The U.N. tried to get the regime to accept to negotiate it as a way out of the Syria crisis; the regime absolutely refused to negotiate it. So under these circumstances, it’s not reasonable to expect the regime to negotiate if it doesn’t feel more military pressure. That’s why I had to leave government. Because until we are willing to do more to pressure the regime, we will never achieve the negotiated political solution that we say we want.
KD: What are one or two things you want the American public to know about the situation on the ground in Syria?
Robert Ford: The first thing I would want them to know is that the problem with Syria and Iraq isn’t going to go away. It’s going to take a long time to fix because it took a long time to get this bad. And so we’re going to have to be strategically patient; this isn’t something we can fix in a month or two. Even American boots on the ground won’t fix that problem. So the second thing I’d like them to know is that people in countries like Iraq and Syria just want decent lives. But they also want their basic dignity to be respected by their governments and by foreign countries, which is a perfectly reasonable demand. So things we can do to help them get to that point where they have governments that respect their dignity and treat them fairly will be in our own long-term interest. We should remember what we learned after 9/11, that repression in that part of the world ultimately generates problems for us.
KD: The New America Foundation published an article recently about the world’s neglect of the efforts of Syrian women to end the conflict over the past three years, including a women’s group that negotiated a cease fire in the suburbs of Damascus. Do you have any thoughts on the role Syrian women will play going forward, maybe not immediately but in a future transition?
Robert Ford: Syrian women are suffering horribly right now; in some ways it’s worse for them than it is for the men. There was just a video put out a couple days ago of a woman being stoned to death on an accusation of adultery in the Islamic State-controlled city of Raqqa in north central Syria. Just unbelievable, abominable. And of course, they’re often left trying to take care of children [where] there’s no food and there’s no shelter. It’s a nightmare. So if they can negotiate local ceasefires so that food can get in and people can arrange some shelter—winter is coming, I fear many people will freeze to death—so much the better. So over the longer term, I think in many cases, Syrian women, if they can straddle the sectarian and ethnic conflict lines, could play a huge role in binding the nation’s wounds. There are a lot of people who think Syria can never be put back together. They might even be right. The first place I would look for people to prove them wrong would be Syrian women, who concentrate less on seizing political high ground and instead concentrate more on improving the lives of people on the ground.
KD: Do you see a role for yourself going forward in Syria?
Robert Ford: No. Nope. I’m out of government now, and I enjoy being able to say and write what I want. I don’t have an official role anymore, and I shouldn’t. There are other people who have my job now, so we need to support them.