“Effective” Policy in Syria: Ambassador Robert Ford’s View

I wrote here yesterday in response to a post by Marty Lederman and Ashley Deeks about the recent, much-publicized dissent channel cable signed by 51 US diplomats. While my discussion centered on the legality of the approach proposed in the dissent cable, which Lederman and Deeks disputed, they also made this policy argument about what would be “effective” policy in Syria:

[I]t is striking that the [dissenting] foreign service officers do not offer any basis for their assumption that “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons” by the United States would materially increase the odds of securing an effective cease-fire in Syria, even if it did result in “ground[ing] of “the [Assad] regime’s warplanes,” which the diplomats (perhaps optimistically) assume.

Obviously, the authors of the dissent cable include some of our leading diplomatic experts on Near Eastern policy using the dissent channel to write to their equally expert bosses. Surely, they can be forgiven for not laying out what they think everyone inside the State Department already knows.

But if you have not already done so, it is worth reading Robin Wright’s interview in The New Yorker with our courageous former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, one of the leading policy experts on what would be “effective” Syria policy.

The key exchange is as follows: 

[Wright:] What would you advocate?

[Ford:] A reinvigorated effort to secure negotiations for a new government with strategic patience in the fight against the Islamic State. The Administration has relied on Kurds, which will pay short-term dividends in recapturing some territory from the Islamic State. That is good. But it will also sow certain seeds of future ethnic conflict between Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds. The dissent message makes clear that the focus on the Islamic State will not win the hearts and minds of enough Syrian Sunni Arabs to provide a long-term, sustainable solution to the Islamic State challenge in Syria. The Syrian Sunni Arab community views the Assad government as a greater problem than the Islamic State. Syrian human-rights organizations have pointed out that that government has killed seven times more civilians than ISIS has. Fast-forward two years. In 2018, Raqqa may be retaken. ISIS may lose Deir ez-Zor. Will the Islamic State still be there? Yes, but as an insurgency. The danger is that, just as the Palestinian center collapsed, so will the moderate Syrian center collapse. That’s the message from the Dissent Channel. It says we have to win over the Sunni Arab community to defeat ISIS.

[Wright:] Do you really think Assad is willing to negotiate a political transition?

[Ford:] No, as long as he thinks he can win militarily, even it takes twenty years.

 

About the Author(s)

Harold Hongju Koh

Sterling Professor of International Law, Yale Law School; Legal Adviser, U.S. Department of State (2009-13), Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (1998-2001)