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.”