TheDC Interview: US ambassador to Syria on what comes after Assad, witnessing regime’s brutality
“I’m sorta amazed that they’re not fucking crazy,” said Robert Ford, America’s chief diplomat in Syria in an atypically undiplomatic moment.
Ford was discussing how impressed he is with those standing up to the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and specifically his amazement at how the “many [who] have been in prison for years and years, often in solitary confinement” have mentally persevered under trials that would have broken lesser men.
“The street protestors and the street protest organizers just amaze me for their sheer courage,” he raved of the regime opponents more generally. “I don’t think Americans can really get a grasp on really how dangerous this is, to go out on these streets with this army and these thugs.”
Nominated in 2010 by President Obama to be America’s first ambassador to Syria since 2005, Ford ran into opposition from Senate Republicans who didn’t think America should assign the state sponsor of terrorism an ambassador. But President Obama circumvented Senate opposition and gave Ford a recess appointment. He arrived in Damascus at the beginning of 2011, immediately before protests erupted against Syria’s dictatorial regime.
Since then, the regime has killed more than 2,700 Syrians and injured many more, according to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
In an extensive interview with The Daily Caller from his mission in Syria, Ford detailed the difficulties of being an ambassador in Syria at this moment of tumult, his quest to bear witness to the evil of the Assad regime and what a post-Assad Syria might look like.
While Ford says he “can move around Damascus very easily,” he says he has to “ask for permission” if he wants to leave the capital — requests the Syrian government routinely denies.
“I have asked for permission to visit five cities in the past week and every request has been rejected,” he lamented. “So when I go out, and I ignore it, I always get this very stern warning that there will be consequences.”
Though defying the regime carries risks, Ford says sitting at his desk all day would be “the worst thing you can do.”
“At a certain point you just say, I do the best planning me and my security teams can do, and then you go out there and you do it.”
Ford has made multiple trips outside of Damascus to meet with protesters and bear witness to Assad’s brutality, most notably a visit in July to the Syrian city of Hama. In 1982, Bashar-al Assad’s father, Hafez, massacred tens of thousands of people in Hama while attempting to put down opposition to his regime. But Ford said that a massacre on that scale is unlikely today given how modern communication has made it near impossible to cover up.
“I think the technology of modern communication has overruled the government’s capacity to just kill,” he explained. “It doesn’t work. And I mean, the protestors, unlike 1982, are fully aware that the international community is watching them.”
Also significant, Ford said, is his presence as a personal representative of the American president, which is why he says it is imperative the Senate officially confirm him.
“Lower level diplomats are great, but they don’t carry the weight, they don’t carry the prestige of the president’s personal representative,” he explained.
If the Senate doesn’t confirm Ford, his recess appointment will expire at the end of the year.
As the Arab Spring upends the old order in much of the Arab world, many observers fear that the revolutions will just replace one form of tyranny with another, more religious kind. Does Ford fear that Islamists could take over in a post-Assad Syria?
“My own sense is, from my own discussion with Syrians, is that the Islamist element is actually not very strong in this country,” he argued. “The Muslim Brotherhood is pretty much stamped out by Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad. And so most of the Islamists that are active politically are outside of Syria.”
“I think the internal opposition, there are absolutely Islamists among them,” he continued. “When you look at the street protests, they are on Fridays, so there is probably an element of people being in mosques and then going to the protests, but there are plenty of people who don’t go to the mosques but are also marching… It is a pluralistic kind of opposition.”
Assad’s Syria had helped facilitate the entry of al-Qaida terrorists into Iraq to fight the American forces there. Ford says some of those terrorists are now among the opposition forces attempting to bring Assad’s regime down, though he doesn’t believe they are a significant presence.
“I think those who live by the sword so shall they die by the sword, and what we understand is that Islamist extremist elements who went into Iraq through Syria are now starting to trickle back into Syria to fight this government,” he explained. “I don’t think we’re talking about a lot of people. I think we are talking about tens not hundreds, but they absolutely do exist, they’re out there.”
Though civil war is feared in a post-Assad Syria given the ethnic and religious cleavages, Ford says he doesn’t believe such a scenario is inevitable.
“There could be civil war. I don’t think it’s inevitable, but I think there could be,” he said.
“It depends on what happens with the Syrian opposition, and if the Syrian opposition is able to unify around a common vision for what the principles should be that guide the future state and if the Syrian opposition can unify around a transition plan and attract support from elements that have been supporting the regime. If they can pull those regime supporters back to the opposition plan, then I don’t think a civil war is inevitable.”
While Ford says he has been personally welcomed as a foreign witness to the regime’s horrors, he says the opposition certainly isn’t waving American flags.
“I will be honest with you, the reputation of the United States after Iraq and after our policies with respect to the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, a lot of Syrians look at us with very mixed emotions,” he said.
In August, many months after the protests first erupted, President Obama finally called for Assad to step aside. Ford took it a step further, telling TheDC that he believes Assad is evil.
But it is an evil that Ford suspects will be short-lived.
“I don’t think the regime is going to come crashing down tomorrow or next week,” he said. But “time is not on the side of the regime.”