U.S. envoy to Syria warns of worsening violence

October 14, 2011

The top U.S. diplomat in Syria warned Friday that rising violence in Syrian cities is fueling concerns of civil war, and he accused the Syrian government of deliberately exacerbating tensions between ethnic and religious groups.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford said the Obama administration is encouraging opposition groups to stick with nonviolent protests or risk giving the Syrian government a pretext to escalate a crackdown that already has killed more than 3,000 people.

“I worry a great deal when people say that sectarian civil war can’t happen here — it reminds me of what I heard in Iraq in 2004,” said Ford, who spoke by Skype from Damascus to an audience of Washington journalists and policymakers.

Ford said he does not think that sectarian conflict was inevitable, but said the country has grown increasingly unstable after seven months of unrest. More street protesters are speaking openly of taking up weapons to defend themselves from security forces, he said, warning that such a move “would be a mistake.”

“The reality is, the Syrian forces are very strong,” Ford told participants in a seminar on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There is not an armed opposition capable” of overcoming security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, he said.

A new and potentially volatile addition to the mix, he said, are what he described as “armed gangs” that have attacked government employees as well as civilians. Although the numbers, origins and intentions of the groups are unclear, at least some of the armed factions appear to have connections to Islamist militant groups, he said.

Ford, whose outspoken support for the opposition has frequently angered the Assad government, said the most critical task facing opposition groups is building its support base, particularly in the country’s larger cities where protests have been fewer and less visible.

His advice was echoed by Syria expert and author Andrew Tabler, who said Western countries that are sympathetic to the opposition should take a more active role in schooling protesters on effective civil disobedience, including the staging of general strikes.

“We also have to help the opposition to develop a plan for a post-Assad Syria,” he said.

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