You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A Middle East Expert Explains Assad's Dangerous Charm, ISIS's Plans, and the Future of the Region

An Interview With Robert Ford, the Former Ambasssador to Syria

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Robert Ford, the former American ambassador to Syria, stepped down from his position in February. He did so because he no longer felt he could or should defend the Obama administration's policy. While long controversial, that policy has become even more passionately debated now that the instability in Syria has contributed to the violence in Iraq, where ISIS fighters have been battling Nouri al-Maliki's authoritarian Shia regime. (Ford favored increased support for Syria's more moderate rebel forces.)

Ford and I met at Washington D.C.'s Union Station, as he was making his way back to his home in Baltimore. (He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.) Ford is soft-spoken and considerate in person, and would often pause to gather his thoughts. When I asked if he had spoken to Obama since leaving his job, he said that he hadn't. In addition to his role in the administration, we discussed his personal impressions of Assad and Maliki, his explanation of Iran's role in the region, and the lesson we forgot after 9/11.

Isaac Chotiner: Right now, in 2014, is Assad or ISIS the bigger problem for America and American interests, and is there a contradiction between solving both of those problems at once?

Robert Ford: ISIS represents an immediate threat to the United States. It has resources—financial and human resources—that it can use to attack our homeland, the homeland of immediate allies in places like Europe, NATO countries, as well as friends in the region. The Assad regime is a threat to American interests in the sense that it is a problem for regional stability. It has, at times, threatened Jordan, a friend of the United States, and Israel. It has worked against our efforts to stabilize Iraq in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008. But ISIS represents an immediate problem. 

IC: Are you worried about our opposition to one hurting our policy of opposition to the other one? Because ISIS is also fighting Assad.

RF: You cannot find a sustainable long-term solution to the jihadi problem in Syria as long as Bashar al-Assad is a magnet pulling in new jihadis from different Muslim countries around the world. He—Bashar—has become a symbol of oppressed Sunnis in the minds of thousands of young people around the Muslim world who are signing up to go fight against him, and therefore you can’t find a durable solution to the jihadi problem without also finding a solution to the governance problem in Syria.

IC: It seems like what you’re saying is: Although Assad is a long-term threat to United States interests, there’s also a way in which, at least indirectly, he’s a short-term threat because he makes the short-term threat of ISIS worse.

RF: Right. But I distinguish between the kind of immediate lethal threat that ISIS poses—you have no doubt seen the strengthened security measures for commercial aviation coming to the United States from the Middle East and Europe. That’s not directly because of Bashar al-Assad. That’s indirectly because of Bashar al-Assad.

IC: There’s a theory that the White House and the West are okay with a stalemate in Syria because they’re concerned about jihadis overrunning Syria if Assad falls, and they also don’t want Assad gaining too much strength. And so a stalemate, from a very cold, realist perspective, suits Western interests. I know you don’t believe it suits Western interests, but do you think that that point of view is prevalent in the White House or in Washington?

RF: I think there are many in Washington who believe that after Afghanistan and Iraq, there is little appetite among the American public to be newly involved in yet another Middle East conflict. That’s actually easy to understand, especially since the American public really wanted to get out of the Iraq war. For that reason, it’s especially important now for people who are watching the situation carefully to explain to the broader American public why ISIS is a threat to America here at home in our own country and why the Syria conflict which has now merged with the Iraq conflict—why this greater conflict in the Levant is also a threat to American safety.

IC: So are you saying that people are in fact okay with a stalemate?

RF: Well, for example, before I came and met you I was meeting with two different American senators. And both of them highlighted how their own constituents do not understand the need to get involved in the Syria and Iraq conflicts. So it is very difficult in Washington now, where the budget climate is so tight and money is not on trees. It is very difficult to make the case that yet again the expenditure of large amounts of American resources is justified. And so that case has to be made.

IC: Okay, let me phrase the question another way. Do you think that the people who are making policies, or Senators, whoever, in Washington, people at the State Department—do you think that if they had the resources and the political will they would pursue the policies you’ve talked about, of increasing aid to rebels? Or do you think that there are actually different intended ends between you and others, and it’s not just a matter of “we don’t have the means to get there?"

RF: The administration about twelve days ago announced that they would provide greater help to the Syrian opposition fighting the Islamic state inside Syria as well as the Assad regime. And at the same time the administration has dispatched more military advisers to help the Iraqi army fight the Islamic state inside Iraq. So I think the administration understands where our interests lie, but at the same time in order to get the money necessary, there is an appropriations process, and the appropriations process takes time, by nature of our own Constitution itself. So there’s a real challenge in front of the administration now to generate action and to generate resources to help the people that need help right now, even as the appropriations process is still some distance from a conclusion.

IC: So you aren’t worried that you have a different end game that you want to see than policymakers— 

RF: I know what you’re driving at, Isaac, is that the administration might accept that Assad stays. I have never heard anyone in the White House or the State Department say “it would be better if he stays” or “we want him to stay.” 

IC: That’s interesting.

RF: I think there’s a lot of speculation in the media that there’s some kind of American plan to do that. I think it’s important for your readers to understand the difference between caution and conspiracy. They’re two very different things.

IC: Following that line, do you feel that the administration has been too cautious?

RF: I didn’t say that. You’re putting words in my mouth.

IC: Oh no, I’m asking.

RF: There is no question that our policies to date with respect to both Syria and Iraq have not brought us to a place where our interests are secured. Just the opposite. The Syrian conflict in particular has metastasized into something which now is in a position where we’re having to do, at a minimum, special checks on airplanes coming to the United States. It’s brought us to the situation where we have jihadis from Florida going and blowing themselves up, right now in Syria—we hope never in the United States. It’s brought us to a situation where the British have actually interrupted terrorist operations inside Britain emanating out of Syria. And if it’s Britain today, will the United States be far behind? So we unquestionably needed to do more in the past but I do think the administration now is moving in the right direction. There’s just a problem of the speed at which we get resources to the people that need them.

IC: Do you think the latest aid proposal for rebels is more about pleasing Saudi Arabia and our Gulf allies than about toppling Assad? Those allies are already pissed that we have reached out to Iran.

RF: Well there’s no question that the Saudis in particular are unhappy with our policy on Syria. Turkey is as well. I think so is Qatar. I can’t speak to the administration’s seriousness except to say the proof will be in the pudding. There certainly are groups that you could work with quickly. They already have experience working with groups. They’re making the case hard on Capitol Hill. We’ve seen the administration when it lobbies an issue hard, whether that be health insurance reform or budget issues more broadly, the federal budget. So the administration knows how to make the case and make it hard when they want to, so let’s see what they do and then we’ll make that judgment. I think right now people are just speculating, and I don’t find the speculation very helpful. 

IC: The main proposal for doing more that’s been in the news was this idea that supposedly Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus were behind to aid the rebels —I guess it must have been in 2011.

RF: 2012.

IC: 2012, excuse me. Do you think that that plan would have made a huge difference or do you think by then it was either too small or too late?

RF: Well I certainly talked to Secretary Clinton and David Petraeus about it. And it’s important to understand that it would have helped. It would not have solved the Syria conflict, but it would have probably put us in a better position. Why? Because it would have provided groups competing against Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and they would have been better able to recruit young people away from the Al-Qaeda groups. We’ve heard over and over from people on the ground in Syria that the reason so many people have joined the ISIS or joined Al-Qaeda is because they pay salaries. They have the money to do that. Because they have steady supplies of ammunition—they have the money to buy them. Because they have better equipment. Et cetera, et cetera. And so empowering more moderate elements to compete against the extremists has always been in our interests in my view. That is harder now in July 2014 than it was two years ago. It’s harder now than it was even three or four months ago. In the last three or four months, ISIS has acquired substantial new financial resources.

IC: They don’t have to go through the Washington appropriations process for money that you were referring to earlier. 

RF: No, they don’t.

IC: Did you have any personal experiences with Assad?

RF: Met him twice.

IC: And what did you make of him?

RF: Well, I mean, he has a very charming side. Very suave, very debonair. He can be a very good conversationalist. At the same time, when I met him the first time, I did raise human rights issues. This was in the beginning of February, 2011. It was well before the uprising in Syria started, but I raised the case of several human rights lawyers that had been in detention for years, and he bristled at that, he got quite angry in fact. It was the sharpest exchange we had in that meeting. And so I think from the beginning Assad has been extremely leery if not downright hostile to political reform in Syria. And I think we need to understand that up front.

IC: How big a role from your time there do you feel like Iran has in the actual war against the rebels?

RF: Iran’s had a huge role. Probably without Iranian help, the Assad government would have already negotiated a transition. Probably Bashar would already be gone. 

IC: So you believe that the Iranian regime has actually kept—

RF: They have provided fighters: The Revolutionary Guard corps has provided units that have gone and either participated in battle directly—the Iranians have lost several generals as well as other officers on the ground in Syria, they just lost one about a month ago. They have brought in Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, several thousand of them, who have spearheaded government attacks. The Iranians have organized Iraqi Shia militia to go and fight in Syria. They’ve even organized Afghans to go and fight in Syria. And this matters because Assad—

IC: They’ve gotten Shia Afghans to go fight in Syria?

RF: Yes. This matters because Assad has only solid support from about 20 percent of the population, which is to say the Alawite community, which is roughly 12 to 14 percent, the Christian community, which is maybe 6 or 7 percent, and then some Sunni sectors. But in a war of attrition, 20 percent of the population is not going to prevail against 80 percent of the population in a war of attrition. And therefore the Irani mobilization of manpower has been instrumental as well as the money that the Iranians have provided and the weaponry the Iranians have provided.

IC: The two different ways I’ve heard people talk about Iran’s role is, one, that this has been a tremendous boon for Iran because they’ve kept their ally in power and, two, that this is Iran’s Vietnam, that they’ve sunk a huge amount of resources in, and so on. And now they’ve empowered ISIS.

RF: Well they’re not mutually exclusive. Certainly they look like a more reliable ally than some of the Assad opponents do. If you were a dictator in the Middle East and the Iranians say we’re going to back you to the hilt, do you take their word as credible or not? I think based on what they’ve done with Assad in Damascus, you’d have to say they really do stand by their friends. But it comes at a price. I don’t know how much the Iranians have expended inside Syria. I do know that Iran faces its own financial and economic problems inside Iran, and so every million dollars spent inside Syria is a million dollars not spent inside Iran, but it seems like, for now at least, there aren’t people on the street in Iran demonstrating against it, so the policy seems sustainable. Is that Vietnam? I don’t know, that might be a bit of wishful thinking.

IC: And how would you describe the Russian role? How important has that been?

RF: It’s very important. I don’t think it’s quite as important as the Iranian role. But the Russians have provided political cover at the United Nations. The Russians have provided military equipment. We see these helicopters dropping barrel bombs—the spare parts for those helicopters are coming from Russia. We see Syrian regime airstrikes against cities as well, not just barrel bombs but missile attacks and such things, against hospitals, against schools—spare parts for the missiles are coming again from Russia.

IC: I just wanted to switch focus. Did you have any experiences with Maliki when you were Ambassador?

RF: Quite a few. Many.

IC: What did you make of him?

RF: Nouri? Nouri al-Maliki is a very tough guy. He’s been through a lot in his life and he’s physically courageous and he’s physically tough. He’s a very hard worker. He’ll work himself to exhaustion. He’s not lazy. There are a lot of Iraqi politicians who are lazy. He’s not one of them. He has been through a lot in his life as I said, and he has a visceral distrust of the old Saddam Hussein regime. He was chosen as prime minister by the Shia community because he was so anti-Baathist they thought they could trust him. He has transferred a great deal of that mistrust of the old Baathi regime onto the Iraqi Sunni community more broadly. In some cases that’s fair but in many cases that’s not fair, and it has caused a lot of problems over the past year.

IC: When you had your experiences with him, I mean things aren’t quite as bad as they are now, but was this sectarianism visible? 

RF: Yes, absolutely. I don’t mean only from the prime minister himself, but people around him, even as early as 2009 and 2010, members of the Iraqi Sunni Arab tribal community, people who had been fighting Al Qaeda in places like Anbar province or west Baghdad around Abu Ghraib, were being arrested and held without trial. These were people who had been fighting against Al Qaeda, but the prime minister’s office didn’t trust them, and they did have guns, it’s absolutely true. But they were using them against Al Qaeda, not against the government, as far as I know. Over a period of years, Isaac, as that kind of thing happened over and over and over again, the trust between the central government in Baghdad and the Iraqi Sunni Arab community degraded to the point where we now have an uprising that is not just an Islamic state but is some broader uprising composing many different elements of the Sunni Arab community.

IC: In hindsight, do you think it was a mistake for American policy to put so much trust in Maliki and do you think there was an alternative after the election in 2010? 

RF: Well one of the great things about Iraq now is that there’s real politics there. And so I don’t think that Maliki was the only possible choice in 2010. He’s the choice that Iraqis ultimately picked. And I don’t think I would blame the United States for him being prime minister now. Certainly we did support him: As the process went on, the administration wanted closure so that they could finish the negotiations about American forces still in Iraq. But the real responsibility ultimately lies with Iraqis who voted for him in parliament. Were there alternatives? Yeah, absolutely, just as there are alternatives to him today. That doesn’t mean he won’t get a third term. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t, I don’t know. But there are lots of politicians in Iraq, and so my sense is it’s important to let the Iraqis take the time to negotiate out a really solid package of cabinet and senior what they call “presidency officials”—president of the parliament, president of the republic, president of the cabinet, or the prime minister—to give them the time to not rush that too much. There’s a saying in Arabic as there is in English about haste makes waste.

IC: Last question and then I’ll let you go. You served in Algeria before the Arab spring. I’m just wondering, emotionally, how you felt about the Arab spring when it started and how you feel about it now.

RF: I think people in these countries deserve the same respect for basic human rights that we enjoy in places like the United States, Canada, western Europe. There’s a United Nations Universal Charter on the respect for human rights and it’s just as applicable in Arab countries as it is anywhere else. I think many people, not just me, many people in the region, thought that the demonstrations occurring in places like Cairo, Damascus, Tunisia, Yemen, would lead to governments that would respect the dignity and the human rights of every citizen in those countries. That process I don’t think is finished. I don’t think the Arab spring is finished. I don’t think the process of push and pull for change and political reform in the Middle East is finished. Not in Egypt. Not in Tunisia. And Tunisia actually seems to be going better than in some other places. Not in Yemen, not in Bahrain, certainly not in Iraq. And not in Syria. So the final chapter isn’t closed. I think if we should have learned anything out of 9/11/2001, it’s that these societies cannot be pent up and caged forever, and that you will get violent outbursts if you don’t have a steady—can be slow, can be gradual—but a steady flow process of liberalization. Each society will do it in different ways, but they all need to be going in a slow, steady direction of greater freedom and greater respect for the individuals in those societies.

IC: It seemed there was a realization of that after 9/11. It seems to have drifted away a little bit.

RF: It’s drifted away because people are so turned off by the violence and the extremism, which is understandable, but the violence and the extremism comes out of the violence imposed on these societies by the governments themselves. I don’t mean to excuse people like Morsi in Egypt who appointed an Islamic extremist who was the governor of Luxor—it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. But the overall trend needs to be towards more liberalization over time. I’m not in favor, having seen what happened in Algeria up close in the 1990s, if you go too fast, it is absolutely destabilizing. But steady, sure direction toward liberalization gives people the sense that things are going to improve over time. And that’s what they need. They need hope.

This interview has been edited and condensed.