In a candid and brave op-ed, Robert S. Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, writes: “In February, I resigned as the American ambassador to Syria, after 30 years’ foreign service in Africa and the Middle East. As the situation in Syria deteriorated, I found it ever harder to justify our policy. It was time for me to leave. The media attention about my departure, however, misses the real point. What matters is that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad can drop barrel bombs on civilians and hold sham elections in parts of Damascus, but it can’t rid Syria of the terrorist groups now implanted in the ungoverned regions of eastern and central Syria.” And he tears down President Obama’s favorite straw man that our choice is war or doing nothing:
We don’t need American airstrikes in Syria, and we certainly don’t need American troops there. But with partner countries from the Friends of Syria group like France, Britain, Germany, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, we must ramp up sharply the training and material aid provided to the moderates in the armed opposition.
Over the past two years, I met fighters from the Free Syrian Army many times. These men were not angels: Many were former regime officers; all had military experience. In a memorable meeting last November, we exchanged barbs for hours, but they made clear that they did not accept Al Qaeda’s philosophy. They acknowledged that they would ultimately have to fight Al Qaeda and the foreign jihadis.
And unlike some on the far right, Ford dismisses out of hand the notion that we can do business with Assad. (“He was suave, but three years after the peaceful protests started, his record of relying on horrific brutality to maintain power is clear. Moreover, his regime has a history of implicit cooperation with Al Qaeda, as we saw in Iraq. This is not a man with whom the United States should align itself. Mr. Assad now depends on Iran and Hezbollah for his survival, and Iran’s influence in Syria is likely to remain as long as Mr. Assad does.”)
This raises a number of interesting questions:
What was Obama’s rationale for doing nothing? With good although not perfect options, he preferred inaction, almost inexplicably. Both he and his two secretaries of state should shine some light on why nothing was the default choice for the president. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies observes via e-mail that “the White House has punted on making the tough decisions for more than two years. After each punt, the situation in Syria has become more complicated and more dangerous. 160,000 lives later, the choices are tougher because the strongest counter to Assad are the jihadists. This explains the current paralysis, but certainly not the initial indecision that brought us to this point.”
Why didn’t Hillary Clinton, and later, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power quit over the Syria crisis? Ford did, out of principle. Clinton and Power claim to be so very dismayed that things didn’t go well, but not so dismayed to give up power. It is a good question for Clinton who, at least in her book, says there were many things she disagreed with, of which our amoral and geopolitically disastrous Syria policy was only one. Certainly, her departure or threatened departure specifically over the mishandling of the Syria crisis may have made a difference in U.S. policy and saved thousands of lives.
The administration has argued for some time that it is aiding the rebels, but is this true? “Cash for small salaries, together with reliable supplies of food, medicine and ammunition, would also put the moderate armed forces on an equal footing with the Qaeda groups that have long offered these enticements to recruit Syrian fighters,” writes Ford. “The Free Syrian Army commanders often pleaded with me for such basic items.”
Ford’s nomination was opposed on the grounds that the United States should not have sent an ambassador to Syria at a time the regime was behaving in despicable ways. But once there Ford served honorably, continuing to meet with Syrian citizens and rebels despite danger to his personal safety. He reported honestly about the goings-on there. When he could not justify staying in the administration, he resigned and now is telling inconvenient truths to the administration and the public. This is a model public servant. Too bad there aren’t more like him.