The horrific terrorist attacks on Paris on Friday have sparked renewed interest into the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq — how terrorist organizations have flourished in those countries, how that growth led to the tragedy in Paris, and what we could possibly do to contain that threat going forward.
There may be few people better qualified to discuss those issues than Robert Ford, a distinguished diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014 and the deputy U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2008 to 2010.
I spoke with Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, on Saturday about the Paris attacks and the Syrian civil war. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the most important thing to understand about what's happened in France?
That the Islamic State poses a real danger not only to people in the Middle East and North Africa, but also to people in Western countries. And that the attacks in Paris are not the only ones that the Islamic State wants to implement. You probably remember two weeks ago, the head of British internal security, MI5, said that the British had interrupted six different operations that the Islamic State tried to implement in the U.K. So, the Islamic State may not threaten the existence of Western countries, but it certainly is a national security threat.
There is one other thing which I’d like to say. When I look at this horrible tragedy in Paris, there’s an unmentioned victim in all of this: the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Because the vast, overwhelming majority of them have nothing to do with terrorism. They are fleeing violence. They are victims of violence. They’ve now announced that one of the perpetrators of the atrocity in Paris was himself registered as a refugee. So my guess is that there will be a strong backlash against bringing in refugees, even though there is this intense humanitarian crisis. And I think that makes everything about the Syrian situation even more tragic.
What could be done about the refugee situation?
It underlines the importance of having some kind of a screening process. But screening is very labor intensive, and it’s very slow. So there needs to be more resources devoted to the screening process.
What about the Syrian crisis? What could be done there?
The most important thing is to address the root cause of the crisis itself, from which the Islamic State draws Syrian recruits. And that is the broader Syrian conflict between the Assad state and jihadis, of which the Islamic State is one piece. That’s what [Secretary of State John] Kerry and others are trying to work on in Vienna. We need to understand that the Islamic State is an organization of people, but it’s also a political idea that feeds off the grievances and resentments of minorities. You can’t defeat resentment and anger with military weapons alone. So we have to deal with the root causes of the conflicts in places like Syria and Iraq over the long term, recognizing that the military is not always a perfect solution.
Explain the current situation in Syria for the average person in the U.S.
Well, the situation in Syria is a fundamentally three-sided conflict between the Syrian government on one side; jihadis on the second side, including the Islamic State; and a more moderate — some people use the word nationalist — opposition on the third side. The real question is, can we get to a situation where a new Syrian government mobilizes both the government resources and the resources of that moderate opposition together to fight and expel the jihadis out of Syria. Bashar al-Assad hasn’t been able to do that; he actually has made things worse.
What are the ties between the situation in Syria and the attacks in Paris?
Bashar al-Assad's government years ago lost control of the eastern half of Syria. And that uncontrolled space has given the Islamic State a large territory in which to organize and to build up resources, including some rudimentary petroleum resources, and to plan and to build up a network. So you see people from the Islamic State now spreading out across the region. That’s not an accident. They use the space in Syria and western Iraq as a territory from which they can build forces and organize and strike out.
Looking back on our policy toward Iraq and Syria, did the Obama administration do enough?
Well, the administration I think made one major mistake in both countries. Which is that it didn’t seek to implement policies that would help address underlying Sunni-Arab grievances. For example, Assad's unbelievable brutality in Syria. Removing sarin gas was a small step, but the regime still uses chemical weapons. On the Iraq side, there was a similar problem. There the administration in 2010 strongly backed Nouri al-Maliki returning as prime minster. There were some in the administration who thought that was not a good idea because he was very sectarian, but the administration went ahead anyway.
The problems that Maliki caused among Iraqis combined with Bashar al-Assad's actions in Syria created this devil’s brew that is the Islamic State. The administration is trying to address it now. They finally dropped their support of Maliki, and they’re trying to address it in a very narrow way in Syria, but it got very bad before the administration started to make changes.
What do you mean by addressing the problems in Syria in a narrow way, and what would be the better approach?
They work primarily with Syrian Kurds on the ground in a sort of out-of-the-way location in Syria in the far northeastern part of the country, but the Syrian Kurds are not going to be able to liberate all of eastern Syria, which is a large space. Syrian Kurds are not going to go into communities that are not Kurdish, that are Arab, for example. So the one group that the administration has decided to give air support to — frankly because they’re secularists, and the administration is more comfortable with that — it’s very limited. The administration has not chosen to work with the very large Arab groups that are fighting Assad on one side and the Islamic State on the other. The administration is uncomfortable with those groups, mainly because in the past they have coordinated with al-Qaeda. In its search for the perfect, they have ended up with a very narrow approach.
The U.S. is now backing an umbrella group called the Syrian Democratic-Forces, which includes the Kurds and some Arabs, is that right?
The Syrian Democratic-Forces is itself kind of like a coalition of several other fighting groups. The only Arab one that has had any noticeable presence on the ground over the last several years is called the Raqqa Revolutionaries. They have been on the ground, but they’ve probably never had more than at most a couple hundred fighters. I’ve actually met them. They are nice enough people, they know how to say the right things to Americans, but they’re not a big fighting force. Let’s say the Islamic State has 10,000, 12,000 fighters; in Syria, they have a couple hundred. The Americans are going to try to build up the Raqqas and others and I wish them good will in that effort, but I’ve never understood why they don’t work with other groups that fight the Islamic State.
Can I give you an example? I’m going to take you into the bowels of the civil war in Syria, but there’s a lot of fighting to the north and east of the city of Aleppo, pretty far from where the Americans are operating with the [Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or] YPG. Over there, there are several groups fighting the Islamic State. They fight Assad to their south and they fight the Islamic State to their east and south. Some of these groups are related to Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. They have pleaded for help, but so far the American focus has been much more focused on the YPG.
How do you expect the French and American governments to respond to the attack? Do you expect their operations in Syria to intensify?
I think they will certainly want to intensify them. But I’m not sure they’re going to have a lot of good new air targets. The Islamic State seems to be learning that moving around in large visible convoys is dangerous, so just bombing them by air, they don’t always have an effective target list. And that’s why there aren’t that many air raids — it's not because the U.S. military is lazy, far from it. I just don’t think they can find a lot of good targets.
So the focus shifts to doing more on the ground. The U.S. has announced that they will send a Special Operations team into Syria to carry out missions. They’re already doing that in Iraq. And, over time, as those teams find people that they’re comfortable working with, I can imagine that those Special Operations forces might receive additional missions beyond the train and assist that they’re supposed to help with now. But that’s really dependent on having people on the ground that the Americans are comfortable with.
What would you say to Americans who are asking, “Is there any hope for Syria?”
The Syrian civil war is not really that complicated. It’s a three-sided war: the Assad government, jihadis, and a more nationalist, moderate opposition. So far, neither the jihadis nor the Assad government has been willing to negotiate a political settlement. Only the moderate opposition has been willing to negotiate a political sentiment. Those same moderates on the ground are fighting both Assad and the Islamic State. So it’s just logical to help those people who are trying to achieve the same thing that the Americans are trying to achieve and are fighting the same enemies that just bombed Paris and are using the barrel bombs and chemical weapons that multiple United Nations resignations have said they should stop using.
There is no perfect angel in the civil war, but clearly some sides are much worse than others. I think one of the worst things that people do in the Syrian conflict is that they equate the different sides. So Assad, who has killed seven times as many people as the Islamic State, becomes equal to or as bad as the Islamic State.
There were some protests of solidarity in north central Syria today, where they've been fighting the Islamic State, and I saw one protester holding a sign. The sign said something like, “Killing Parisians is terrorism. Isn’t it terrorism when Assad bombs and kills civilians too?” This is what I’m talking about with the Sunni-Arab grievances. I don’t mean to justify joining the Islamic State, but the reality is a lot of people joined the Islamic State because of that. The intelligence community twice in the last six months has said that our bombing doesn’t seem to be cutting into their numbers much. It’s because they recruit new people.