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Ex-Ambassador To Syria: Civil War Could Drag On For Years

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford covers his nose from the smell of dead bodies during a visit to a mass grave in the country in 2011. Ford has criticized the U.S. failure to back opposition forces early on.
Bassem Tellawi
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford covers his nose from the smell of dead bodies during a visit to a mass grave in the country in 2011. Ford has criticized the U.S. failure to back opposition forces early on.

When Robert Ford — the U.S. ambassador to Syria — resigned in February, he said he no longer felt he could defend American policy in that country. Ford faults the U.S. for having been unable to address the root causes of the conflict and for being consistently behind the curve as the Syrian civil war intensified.

The diplomat had to leave Damascus in early 2012 and had been working on Syria from Washington until his resignation.

"The situation in Syria has gone from bad to very bad to still worse, and the measures we have taken have been, in most cases, too little and too late," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

Ford criticizes the failure by the U.S. to back opposition forces with arms and military training early on.

"From the beginning of the armed opposition, they sought help from outside countries and they were very quickly competing for recruits, competing with al-Qaida groups who had better funding and they could get ammunition in," he says. "So now we have a pretty serious al-Qaida problem in Syria and we were very slow to react to that."

You can read highlights from the conversation below.

Interview Highlights

On what the U.S. could have provided to opposition forces

It doesn't even always have to be arms ... just providing cash, just providing ammunition would allow and would have allowed groups that are not ideologically close to al-Qaida ... to compete for recruits. And most Syrians are not Islamic fanatics, but there are a lot of young men who really do want to fight the regime, and so they'll join whatever group offers them material resources to do that.

On when he decided to resign

I thought that if you work inside the system you can bring change to the policies; you can move them in the directions that you want to through reasoned argument. And at a certain point, after the Geneva talks failed, by then there was just nothing left that we could do. So I think that was an appropriate time for me to leave and I think it is time, really, for the administration to reconsider where it is going in Syria. Events on the ground are dynamic; we're not going in a good direction.

On Russia's role in mediating the Syrian conflict

I think many of us felt disappointment that the Russians in Geneva did not weigh in more strongly with the Syrian government delegation in Geneva and so we're very disappointed about that. I also think ... it's fair to say that the Russians have a very different view of what's happening in the Middle East. They are alarmed by the growth of al-Qaida; I think that it is a genuine interest that we and the Russians share. However, whereas we see Assad as the root cause of the al-Qaida problem in Syria, that is to say, we see he is a magnet pulling in jihadis to fight against him, the Russians seem to view Assad as a bulwark against al-Qaida and they ignore the cooperation between the regime and al-Qaida that dates back to the time of the American troop presence in Iraq.

On how long he thinks the conflict will continue

First of all, it pains me to even have to say it because it means that a lot of people are going to die. Syria was a beautiful country. People who have visited know how wonderful its cities were and the fabulous historic monuments there, many of them dating back to stories about St. Paul, for example. So it pains me to say that the fighting will have to go on, but it's going to. I mean, even today, the day after the elections, there was fighting up around Aleppo and Damascus. So I think it's going to take at least a year to two years before the regime itself understands that this is a war from which they cannot impose terms but they will have to negotiate terms.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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