Near-Term Settlement In Syria Not Likely, Says Former U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford

May 6, 2014

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford.
Credit U.S. Department of State

Robert Ford, who was U.S. Ambassador to Syria until he stepped down in February, will be speaking at the World Affairs Council of Connecticut Luminary Award event on Wednesday. His visit coincides with an announcement this week by U.S. officials that they plan to allow Syria’s main opposition alliance to open a diplomatic mission in Washington.

"A lot of efforts are aimed at trying to pull the Syrian opposition together, and to get them to go in one common direction."
Robert Ford

The State Department is also expected to increase funds in non-lethal assistance, and to  increase deliveries for the Free Syrian Army.  

WNPR's Diane Orson spoke with Ambassador Ford, and asked about his outlook on Syria.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford: The Syrian crisis is far from resolved. The humanitarian crisis is getting worse. There are over two and a half million Syrian refugees in the neighboring countries, for example, and that number is growing. And so the administration is trying to increase its support for the Syrian opposition in order to put pressure on the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus, and try to push for an eventual negotiated deal.

Yet we hear that the opposition is very fractured in Syria. 

The opposition is divided between those armed groups, and the political opposition, with some representatives of  groups that are visiting Washington this week. A lot of the American efforts -- and those of our friends in the region like Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia -- these efforts are all aimed at trying to pull the Syrian opposition together and to get them to go in one common direction.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Undersecretary Wendy Sherman, and U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford sit with United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, Lakdhar Brahimi, before a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on September 12, 2013.
Credit U.S. Department of State

Let’'s talk about efforts at dialogue. How hard has it been to get the stakeholders to the table? What are your thoughts about including armed opposition groups in this conversation? 

It's been extremely difficult to get a serious negotiation started. I was very involved in the effort in the Geneva peace talks in January and February with Secretary [John] Kerry. That process, basically, was stillborn, because the Bashar al-Assad government is refusing to discuss any kind of a transition government, any kind of a serious negotiated deal. We're going to have keep putting pressure on al-Assad in coordination with our friends in the region. It will be very important, in order for any negotiated deal to be eventually struck; for that deal to stick, it will be very important to include armed opposition groups in those talks. That’'s a must.

Has the conflict between Russia and Ukraine influenced in any way events in Syria, since Russia ha’s been an ally to the Bashar al-Assad gov’ernment?

I don’'t think there'’s any immediate connection between what'’s happening in Syria and what’'s happening in Ukraine. The Syrian crisis long predates the current problems in Ukraine.  But what both problems indicate -- Ukraine and Syria -- is that Russia is determined to assert its own independent role within the world political system now.

What about the idea of the U.S. using military force in Syria? 

This is a huge debate in Washington, with people like Senator McCain pushing very hard for some kind of American military action. Certainly, [it's] something that the administration has thought about. Any use of American military force would have to be very limited, because most Americans don'’t want to get involved in another war in the Middle East. It really would have to be aimed in a very targeted way to get us to a negotiating table.  It's not exactly clear yet how that would work.

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford interacts with Syrian refugees at Islahiye Refugee Camp in Turkey on January 24, 2013.
Credit U.S. Department of State

So can you give us a sense of what you see as the long-term prospects for the Syrian situation?

I think the crisis is going to churn along for some time yet. It's basically a stalemate between the government fighters and the armed opposition fighters on the ground.  Unfortunately, the prospects for any near-term settlement are not very good.

And it's very important for people to understand the extent of the humanitarian crisis. We have two and a half million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries now, and the United Nations says that number could go up to four million by the end of year, putting huge pressure on the infrastructure and the economies of countries like Jordan and Lebanon in particular. 

The effort that we'’re making to get assistance to the refugees is really important. It's expensive. Our total spending on refugees is up to $1.7 billion in the last two years and climbing.