Former U.S. ambassador to Syria offers sobering analysis of conflict

Robert Ford, veteran diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Syria, began his Yale talk about peace prospects in that war-torn nation with a grim disclaimer.

“I have no good news,” said Ford, the Kissinger Senior Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, speaking on Feb. 9 to a crowded room in Horchow Hall.

Talks held in Geneva, Switzerland last week aimed at ending the brutal, nearly five-year, Syrian civil war were suspended after two days.

“The whole process broke down almost immediately,” said Ford, who served as ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014.

The retired diplomat explained that the talks failed for three reasons: First, the Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad, and its Russian allies intensified, rather than halted, airstrikes against the armed opposition.

Second, the Syrian government continued to block humanitarian aid to an estimated 180,000 civilians under siege by government forces. (Ford said, by comparison, the armed opposition has 12,000 civilians under siege. Another 200,000 civilians are trapped in northern sections of Syria held by the Islamic State, which will not participate in peace talks, he said.)

Finally, instead of honoring a planned ceasefire, the Assad regime ramped up military action on the ground, Ford said. Government forces are now on the verge of encircling the rebel stronghold in the eastern part of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war, which would cut off several hundred thousand civilians from humanitarian aid.

United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura postponed the next session of the Geneva peace talks to Feb. 25.

Ford said that de Mistura is hoping for help from the International Syria Support Group, a group of 17 countries that is meeting Thursday in Munich and includes key countries in the conflict, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia.

While it is important to include those four key players, Ford said, the Munich meeting involves too many countries to be effective.

“What are the other 13 countries doing?” he said. “If you’re trying to have a private conversation, does it help to have 13 bystanders?”

Ford expressed doubt that Russia is interested in negotiating a compromise agreement with the Syrian opposition.

“I think the Russians are more interested in pushing the Syrian armed opposition to surrender,” he said.

“There is no due process in Syria. There is no rule of law.”

Ford told the audience he doubts the opposition will surrender given the bad blood between the rebel groups and the Assad regime, which has attacked its own people with chemical weapons.

“The Syrian armed opposition knows that if they surrender or even if they just go back home and live under the Assad regime again, they will always have to worry about a knock on the door late at night from the Syrian secret police,” he said, adding that the Syrian government features four secret police agencies. 

“Even Saddam only had one,” he said. 

Ford referenced a cache of thousands of photographs smuggled out of Syria in 2014 depicting torture and atrocities committed by the Assad regime.

“There is no due process in Syria,” he said. “There is no rule of law.”

Ford said opposition fighters and their families are more likely to flee to Turkey or Lebanon as refugees or join Islamic extremist groups such as the Islamic State or the al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda.

He said the Islamic State feeds off of the absence of a political solution in Syria.

“The Islamic State recruits people in part because they are so angry at what the Assad government and its Iranian friends have been doing in Syria,” he said.

The Assad regime’s reliance on Shia militias, often recruited from western Iraq, to retake Sunni territory held by the Islamic State risks aggravate sectarian tensions throughout the region, he said.

“I have no good news on how this works with the Islamic State; I have no good news in terms of how this is going to work toward getting to a political solution; and I have no good news about what it means for Syrian refugees,” Ford said.