Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford: ‘I don’t think the surrender of Aleppo will bring an end to the civil war’

Pro-Assad forces captured at least three east Aleppo districts and continue to make near-hourly gains on Tuesday, reducing rebel control of Syria’s second city by more than 50 percent since Russian and Syrian regime forces launched their campaign three weeks ago to reclaim the provincial capital.

The three-week battle for east Aleppo, the opposition’s largest urban stronghold, has killed hundreds of civilians, sent tens of thousands more fleeing and decimated the city’s medical infrastructure. If Aleppo falls, it will be the single largest victory for the Assad regime since rebel forces first took the city in 2012. But will it end the war?

The loss of Aleppo “would be a huge defeat for the Syrian opposition—both militarily and politically—but I don’t think it will bring an end to the civil war,” Robert Ford, the last American ambassador to serve in Syria, tells Syria Direct.

When peaceful demonstrations first began in Syria in 2011, Ambassador Ford traveled the country in an unprecedented show of support for the protestors. Most notably, in July 2011, thousands of demonstrators received the ambassador with olive branches and flowers in tow when he visited the tank-lined city of Hama, days before the regime cracked down and began firing on the protests.

Ambassador Ford resigned from the Foreign Service in 2014, saying he could “no longer defend US policy” towards Syria and has since publicly criticized the Obama administration's “strategic incoherence” and unwillingness to support the Syrian opposition.

This conversation with Syria Direct’s Justin Schuster is the latest in a series of interviews with analysts, academics and diplomats examining the future of US-Syria policy. Previous installments include Syria Direct’s conversations with Dr. Joshua Landis, former US Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and the executive director of the Syria Institute, Valerie Szybala.

While the larger external powers negotiate the future of Syria, Ford reminds us that, ultimately, this remains a war by Syrians against Syrians.

“You cannot expect this war to end until there is some kind of an agreement whereby a much larger number of Syrians accept the government in Syria as legitimate.”

Q: In the past week, the Assad regime has captured up to 50 percent of rebel-held east Aleppo. What would the surrender of Aleppo mean for the Syrian opposition?

It would be a huge defeat for the Syrian opposition—both militarily and politically—but I don’t think it will bring an end to the civil war. I don’t think the opposition will surrender to Bashar al-Assad and accept the terms of a Russian- and Iranian-imposed peace settlement.

That means the fighting will go on despite the big loss to the opposition.

The armed opposition’s challenge going forward is to adapt their tactics. They have tried for the last five years to hold territory—cities and suburbs—which is becoming impossible when the Assad government and its allies have superior airpower and superior firepower. The armed opposition is going to have to think about adopting new tactics, more along an insurgency. Otherwise, the regime will gain ground slowly but surely.

Q: With the regime closing in on an estimated 200,000 citizens in east Aleppo, do you expect to see a protracted street fight with block-to-block urban warfare over the next few weeks, or do you believe that it is in the regime’s best interests to instead allow Aleppo’s rebel forces to leave to Idlib?

I’m not sure. I can imagine that the Syrian government might allow them to withdraw to Idlib and that the fighters would accept such a deal once they reach a point of absolute desperation. It still won’t change the political and military loss that the opposition suffers, even if some of their several hundred fighters in Aleppo survive and move to Idlib or another place.

Q: Idlib has become the Syrian badlands, with the regime relocating thousands of rebels there as part of the negotiated surrenders of more than half a dozen towns and cities across Syria. Do you see the regime positioning itself for a final battle with the opposition over Idlib?

The armed opposition’s strategy now would be to hold the major cities and towns of Idlib province, places such as Idlib city, Maarat a-Numan, Kafr Nubul and Jisr a-Shughour. But they will not be able to do that against sustained Syrian government, Russian and Iranian militia attacks. It’s impossible even with the closer supply lines to Turkey. They won’t be able to overcome that firepower. They couldn’t do it in Aleppo even though Aleppo was originally very close to their Turkish supply lines.

Moreover, with the introduction of such large numbers of Iranian-backed militia from Iraq, Lebanon and even Afghan refugees, the war of attrition no longer works in the favor of the opposition. It actually works in favor of the Syrian government. If the armed rebel groups want to sustain their opposition, they’re going to have to change their tactics and develop more of an insurgency strategy rather than trying to hold ground against superior firepower.

Q: Can the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance win this war militarily?

I can easily imagine that if the armed opposition changes its tactics to an insurgency, what you will get is the Syrian government in control of major cities but sustained fighting in rural areas and even occasionally in towns. It will make it even more difficult than it already will be for the Syrian government to rebuild the country.

Q: In a June interview with Robin Wright for the New Yorker, you said that there are “many indications” that the opposition can be “unified enough to present a relevant and cogent program and alternative” to the regime. Since August the regime has made significant ground advances both in the Damascus countryside and Aleppo. Do you still believe that the opposition can meaningfully unify? Would the United States even want to work with this opposition, or will it be so strongly dominated by Islamist opposition groups that a “moderate opposition” would be unrecognizable?

I distinguish between Islamists and extremists. I don’t think all Islamists are extremists. There is a broad political program embodied in the High Negotiations Committee, with a large amount of consensus between someone as secular as Riad Hijab and someone as Islamist as Mohammad Alloush. On that level, I can see the outlines of a moderate, political opposition. There’s enough unity there that you can take that seriously.

However, [the opposition] has two big hindrances. First, they are becoming way too sectarian in terms of a failure—an unwillingness even—to reach out to communities that are still supporting the Assad government. It is not a secret that communities in places like Tartus, Latakia and Qardaha have suffered terrible casualties. A lot of their young people have fled the country because they don’t want to be sucked in to military service. But despite that, neither the political nor the armed opposition has ever reached out to them. They’ve never said “we’re not coming after you, we’re just trying to rid the country of Assad.” I think that’s a terrible mistake by the armed and the political opposition. They have allowed extremist language to seep into their normal day-to-day language. How many times do you hear the word Nusayri [Ed.: A derogatory term for Alawites] instead of saying “people who support the Assad government?” It’s a terrible mistake.

The second problem is that there’s an unwillingness to publically confront the Sunni extremist elements that are also fighting Assad. In so doing, the opposition leaves Sunni Arab communities in places like Damascus, Homs and Hama thinking that Riad Hijab or Mohammad Alloush actually support the Al-Qaeda program for Syria even though they do not. This isn’t a new problem. It goes back years, but the opposition’s time to fix it is diminishing.

Q: Looking where we are today, you wouldn’t say that it’s already too late?

That’s a fair question. I know they are running out of time, but I don’t know if it’s too late. But it shouldn’t matter because the opposition has to do it no matter what if they hope to succeed. They have no choice but to adapt their military strategies and their political outreach strategy.

Here’s another example. The opposition is fighting tooth and nail against Iraqi Shiite militias in Aleppo. They’ve captured some Iraqi Shiite militiamen, and I guess they’re holding them as prisoners. To what end? I don’t understand why they don’t take those prisoners and deliver them to the Najaf clerical authorities and say: “We’re not fighting Iraqi Shia. You had to live under Saddam Hussein; you know what that’s like. We’re trying to get rid of Bashar al-Assad who’s just as bad as Saddam Hussein. Why are you doing this to us?”

That’s a sophisticated political outreach to separate the Iraqi Shia from the Iranians, but the political opposition seems completely incapable of doing that because they’re so sectarian. They have allowed the extremist language to seep into their thinking. It’s a real problem.

Q: Come January 2017, what can the new administration realistically do that is both in the best interests of the Syrian people and serves America’s national interests?     

The most important thing for the administration to do in the Middle East writ large is to re-stabilize traditional alliances, whether it be with Turkey, Saudi Arabia or even, to a certain extent, with Egypt. There is a real incongruence of strategies.

I think the new administration has to understand why Saudi Arabia and Turkey perceive what’s happening in Syria to be against their interests, and Americans need to understand that these are our friends. They help keep the Middle East stable so that we don’t have to have American forces on the ground as we do in Iraq and now in Syria. If there’s an agreement between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States, for example, to support Euphrates Shield and to not promote the PKK-affiliate PYD party, that makes huge sense to me if it’s part of bolstering Turkish-Saudi efforts to stabilize the region against Iranian expansionism.

If there’s a plan to help the remaining moderate opposition, I’m all in favor of that, but it only makes sense if Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States work together. If everybody is off supporting their own clients in a completely uncoordinated manner—as has been the case for the last five years—it’s useless.

We need to get the Turks and the Saudis to work in a more constructive manner with us rather than everybody chasing their own particular little clients, which has led to the fracturing of the armed opposition.

Q: In November, Dr. Joshua Landis told Syria Direct that to keep on sending arms and money to the rebels would only “prolong the civil war,” and the United States should not do so “unless it means it.” How do you respond? Will further American involvement inevitably prolong the war and increase the rates of casualties and displaced Syrians?

I read what Josh Landis said, and I have two thoughts on it. Number one, the United States does not control Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and it certainly doesn’t control Turkey and Saudi Arabia when it stays aloof from the Syrian crisis.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have their own interests in Syria, and they will pursue those interests regardless of what Washington does. The question is, how can Washington steer them. By just saying, “We accept Assad. We fold and go home,” it would leave Turkey and Saudi Arabia to go ahead and do what they do. Yemen is a case in point.

The second point I would make to Josh is that it doesn’t really matter in the end what the foreigners think because the Syrians are still fighting against Assad. It’s not American soldiers, it’s not Turkish soldiers and it’s not Saudi soldiers that are fighting Assad. It’s tens of thousands of Syrians, and you cannot expect this war to end until there is some kind of an agreement whereby a much larger number of Syrians accept the government in Syria as legitimate.

That’s how this started in the first place. It wasn’t started by foreigners; it was by Syrians. Until you address that problem, you will not bring the war to an end. Josh seems to think that it’s only because of foreign states that there’s fighting, but there was fighting in Syria long before foreign states ever got involved. I was on the ground in 2011 and 2012, and there was very little foreign involvement at all back then. There was growing fighting and it escalated. It’s not so simple as the foreign states come to an agreement, and it ends magically. I wish that it were.

Q: On a final note related to regional partnerships, today, the US is simultaneously supporting both the SDF-led advance on Raqqa and the Turkey-backed advance on Mosul, both with airstrikes. Moving into the new administration, do you think it is sustainable to continue walking the fine line between these two diametrically opposing Turkish-Kurdish agendas, or are they bound for a collision course, forcing the United States to choose a side?

They are obviously bound for a collision course. We’ve already had multiple instances where the Syrian Sunni Arab opposition groups—basically the same ones that are in Euphrates Shield—have come in to violent armed clashes with the YPG and its allied SDF forces. This is part of the strategic incoherence of the Obama administration, and I do mean strategic incoherence.

The Americans need to decide who would be the best over the medium and long term to contain and limit extremist recruiting in Syria among the disgruntled Sunni Arab communities. I would suggest that the Syrian Kurdish YPG and its PYD political overlord are not the ideal partner for that mission.

Q: The Kurds have proven to be the Untied States’ most successful partners in combatting the Islamic State. Why are they not best suited to limit extremist recruiting in Syria?

A variety of Sunni Arab officials and fighters bitterly resent what the PYD has done in northeastern Syria. They reject the idea of an imposed autonomous zone. They reject Kurdish language instruction being imposed. They reject Kurdish separatism out of Syria. That’s one of the few things that the Assad government and the Sunni Arab opposition both agree on. 

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.