Ambassador Robert Ford, who has served in Syria bravely in the face of physical danger, spoke in Washington, D.C., at a conference held by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. It is somewhat jarring when someone who has been at the center of our Syria policy (or lack thereof) calmly recounts the suffering that has transpired while the United States has remained largely on the sidelines. He told the attendees that “there is an al-Qaida in Iraq affiliate operating now in Syria more and more, the Jabhat al-Nusra, and there are groups that are cooperating with it. And that really is a problem. . . .. And so extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra are a problem, an obstacle to finding the political solution that Syria’s going to need.” Yes, when bloody civil wars drag on, extremists do rush in.
He continued with the catalogue of catastrophes: “We estimate now that there are about 1 ½ million displaced people – Syrians displaced from their homes still inside Syria. One and a half million out of a population of 23 million – it’s a huge number. And in addition, there are roughly 470,000 Syrians who’ve had to flee their homes and leave Syria. And they are now principally in the neighboring states of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, although there are Syrians who’ve gone as far away as Libya to see refuge.” Oddly, he didn’t mention the 38,000 dead Syrians. It is, however, a metastasizing crisis. (“But it also causes instability. And you have seen the little skirmishes, for example, on the Syrian-Turkish border.”)
When it came to what we are doing about it, one could almost feel a measure of empathy for the foreign service veteran. In short, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is talking to the Russians and the Arab League and we say Bashar al-Assad must go and dare not use chemical weapons. Umm, that’s it? Just about. Ford contends that we have encouraged (from afar, I suppose) the “Syrian Opposition Coalition.” What we have not done is do much to assist them either by supplying weapons or erecting a no-fly zone. But rest assured: “I can tell you that the regime is losing, that its days are numbered, that it’s increasingly visible to everyone and that this transition needs to go forward and that the Syrian opposition’s steps to unify its ranks.”
One could feel mortified when he described that Russia has played a “pernicious role” in Syria, for example by supplying the helicopters to enable “towns [to be] bombed. The Dar al-Shifa Hospital in Aleppo being one of the worst examples of this – a hospital that was bombed up in Aleppo, but by no means the only hospital; many hospitals have been attacked.” The United States dutifully goes to the Security Council not once but three times to be slapped down by Russia. Is no one in the administration humiliated by this performance? (And surely someone must have known the outcome on the second and third trip, making you question why we invited two more kicks in the rear from the Russians after our initial foray.)
What a pathetic policy we have undertaken that consists largely, if not entirely, of rhetoric backed up by little concrete action. Ford could not bring himself to give the body count, but our lack of decisive action has had a price – in tens of thousands of dead Syrians, in Syrians who surely must be convinced we are worthless friends, and in an ever-more emboldened Iranian regime, which sees how feckless we are.