Ford: The Kurds will pay the price of their trust in the Americans … Obama did not leave Trump a lot of options. Said in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that Iran and Hezbollah were spared Assad and wanted to crush the Syrian opposition
London: Ibrahim Hamidi
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former US President Barack Obama has left little choice for President Donald Trump to change the rules of the game to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria, the last US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, told Asharq Al-Awsat in London, pointing out that the Iranians would push the Americans to withdraw. From eastern Syria and withdrew from Beirut in 1983 and Iraq.
Ford said the Kurds would pay dearly for their trust in the Americans, and that the US military was using them only to fight a “preacher” and would not use force to defend them against Syrian regime forces or Iran and Turkey. “What we do with the Kurds is immoral and a political mistake,” he said. Ford left Damascus in 2012, but remained America’s envoy to Syria until he resigned in 2014 and became a research fellow at the Middle East Research Center in Washington and a professor at Yale University.
Here is the text of the talk, which was held in London yesterday:
* Let’s start with a pivotal point, your visit to Hama in June 2011. Why did you go? Do you think the decision was wise?
– The questions are two. why did you go? The answer is easy. We had information that Hama was besieged and the army encircled the city and we were worried about violence in the demonstration the next day. I went Thursday to witness the violence if it happened to know who started it because the question in Washington would be: Who started the violence? The demonstrators or the government? If they asked me from Washington and I said I do not know because I am in Damascus they will not accept my answer. I also thought that if I sent diplomats from the embassy it would not be as effective as if I had gone myself.
My visit also includes a message to the Syrian government that we are taking the issue seriously and should not send the army into the city. Hama has a tragic history as it is known. I did not seek approval from the US State Department. I just said I was going. I sent to Jeffrey Feltman (Assistant Secretary) Wednesday and said I was going to Hama Thursday and demonstrations on Friday.
Q: Did you inform the Syrian government?
– We sent a note saying we would send a diplomatic car with four diplomats. I did not say I would be among the diplomats. And arrangements with the Syrian Foreign Ministry, including the obligation to inform them 48 hours ago, and if there is no objection, we proceed with the implementation of what we have said. So I traveled, although I did not expect to be allowed into Hama.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There was also French Ambassador Eric Chevalier?
– Yes in a different car.
Q: Was it a wise decision?
There are two aspects. Positive and negative. Positive, my visit has shown the Syrians that we are interested in human rights issues. So far, when I meet Syrians they say to me: I went to Hama, thank you. Also, I knew a lot about the opposition from the visit. Before that, we did not know how organized they were. They have their own security, a unified command, and an economic relief agency for families. This was not the reason we went, but I learned.
There are two passions to go. First, the Syrian government used my visit to support its propaganda that the Syrian revolution was an external conspiracy. Second, one of my students at Yale writes a thesis about it: My visit and other work in Syria in 2011. Encouraged the protest movement to grow, but the Americans were not ready to send the army to help the Syrians. This means that we have given the Syrians false hope.
* False hope?
– Do you know the story of Hungary in 1956? In the Cold War. (President Dwight) Eisenhower and the Soviet President (Nikita) Khrushchev. At that time, the Hungarians demonstrated in Budapest. Before that, there was American propaganda to help people and demonstrate against communism in Eastern Europe, including Hungary. The West was sympathetic to them. The Hungarians rose in November 1956 during the Suez Canal crisis. Of course, the Americans did not do anything. The Hungarians were crushed by the Soviet army and there were victims, arrests and disappearances. For the Hungarians, it was a terrible experience. Some people say that the visit you made and (Ambassador) Chevalier was like what happened in Hungary: we gave people hope and then we left them. It was never our intention. As you know I always said in Damascus, the US military did not come. I have often discussed with opponents. I told everyone: After the Iraq war, the US military will not come to your aid. I told the people in Hama: Stay peaceful. If there is violence, the US military will not come.
Some people have heard my message, but not everyone. Which meant there was encouragement even if it was not intended. My answer is, I do not think the Syrians demonstrated and rebelled because they wanted to help America, but to get Assad out of power. They demonstrated in the streets not because of America, but because of what they saw in Egypt and Tunisia.
Then, in August, there was a discussion in the White House, and then President Barack Obama announced that Assad should step down. what happened?
– I was not sure about the meeting, but they called me from Washington to tell me in Damascus. The debate lasted weeks before that. I was against Obama’s statement.
Is Assad legitimate?
There were dozens of meetings. They sent me the meeting agenda in Damascus on the eve of Obama’s speech. After the meeting, a senior White House official called me. He tried to call the secure phone but did not work in Damascus. It was a hangover. Then call me on an unsecured regular phone. He said: Robert, do you remember the subject we were discussing in a regular way? I said yes. He said: “We have had other meetings and we believe that the issue is about the special decision we will make. Do you know what I’m talking about? I said yes. He said: What do you think? I said: Nothing will change here in the government. May change the protest movement, but certainly will not lead to major political changes. I could not say: Assad will not step down because I know that Syrian intelligence is listening to me.
“Would you be safe if we did?” He said. I said: Sure I’ll be fine. Repeat as saying: Are you sure. I said: Because of the Russian veto, there will be no problem and my life will not be in danger. I added: You know that this position will ultimately achieve the goal I have come to, that is, talk with the government. He said: We understand that.
This is the error you have made. I should have said: No, Obama should not say so. But because I know there is political pressure in Washington, I said to him: Yes, I will be in a safe position.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A US official told me that he was at the meeting and opposed Obama’s saying that Assad should implement his military decision to step down.
– I should have said to the high official: If you are not able to implement the permit, you must remain silent.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Six years later, did you expect Assad to remain in power despite everything that happened in the country?
– The end of 2013. I thought that the war of attrition would be harsh on the regime and they would negotiate a deal. Some will ask for amnesty and go to Algeria, Russia or Cuba, and there will be a coalition government that includes perhaps (the head of the National Security Bureau) Ali Mamluk or (the head of the General Intelligence) Mohammed Dib Zitoun under the leadership of a former deputy president Farouk al-Sharaa with the opposition and the independents.
However, because the Syrian regular army will be weak, the regime will accept to save itself in return for abandoning the families of Assad and Makhlouf.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you really think that the regime will end?
– Yeah. This is the biggest political mistake he has committed. I did not expect Iran and Hezbollah to send thousands of fighters. I did not expect Hezbollah to sacrifice its reputation in the Arab world for Assad. I thought they would negotiate a political coalition first. This is the biggest political mistake we have committed. We never expected that.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you think that the militarization of mobility was a correct decision?
Until I left Damascus in March, I was asking for political dialogue. I even thought that because of my position in the fall of 2011, I would have problems in Congress. I’ll tell you how he started talking about militarism. Even when the embassy closed and I returned to Washington in March 2012, we were saying: dialogue and dialogue and no violence. We have been adhering to the initiative of Kofi Annan (former international envoy) with six points. They did not call for violence to stop negotiations. Of course, it failed.
Then, Fred (Hoff, the US envoy) went to Congress to present his testimony. In that debate as he was speaking, a member of Congress was asked about violence: Do you think it is justified for the Syrians, the protest movement and the opposition to use violence? Farid said: When someone comes to your house to pick you up and then you are tortured and killed, it is normal to use violence against your family. This is understandable.
It was the first time an American official said that he was “OK” to use violence against the regime. We were surprised when we heard him say that. We seemed to have crossed a red line.
This made Congress happy because they heard what they wanted to hear. On the other hand, it was not possible to continue: No to violence, only to dialogue, especially with continued escalation, explosive drums and chemical weapons. This is some of the destroyed Homs.
* I resigned from your position at the end of February 2014. Before that there was a debate in Washington about arming the opposition and the Free Army at the end of 2012?
– When Fred Hoff passed the line, it seemed to me that we had to do what we could to put pressure on the regime, especially after the failure of Annan’s plan. In May, the international observer mission, Robert Maude, failed. Back then, I went to Washington and visited (CIA Director) David Petraeus in May 2012. I knew him from Iraq and we worked together. I said: Greater effort must be made in Syria and attention must be paid to the infiltration of terrorists from Iraq. We must think about helping the moderates, pressuring the regime and stopping the progress of extremists. That means, you should help the moderates. Petraeus looked at me. He is intelligent and not stupid. He did not say much, just said: Let me talk to my group in the CIA about this.
* Then he made a proposal to arm the opposition?
Two months later, I spoke to Clinton and interviewed the CIA. There was agreement on what to do. Must help the moderates.
* With weapons?
– Yes, with weapons. In June and July I spoke to Clinton about the matter. I expected to reject this and we will not arm the opposition because this is a major change in our policy and we want dialogue, the Geneva Declaration, a negotiated solution and a national transition authority. I expected the meeting to be difficult with Clinton, but the reality was that it immediately agreed to end the “victory front” and support the moderates with arms and aid to support the citizens in order to pressure the regime to accept the Geneva Declaration.
You know what she said?
– She also said: We will have more influence on the opposition to accept a political negotiated solution. The meeting with Clinton was easy. I did not know the details. An American journalist said: Clinton met with Petraeus in June and talked to her about it before she met him. So neither of them told me about it.
Obama rejected Clinton and Petraeus’ recommendation to arm the opposition?
– did not refuse, but put the recommendation in the drawer. In American culture it means rejection.
* The CIA secret program began after that?
– I have to be careful. I can not talk about the secret program. What can be said: the debate continued on several occasions in the months following to 2013. At that time, there were reports that the regime used chemical weapons in small quantities in the province of Aleppo and the countryside of Damascus. There were reports that al-Qaeda and al-Nasra were becoming more widespread. And (John) Kerry got Obama’s approval in 2013. His first meeting was about Syria. And talked with him about arming the opposition and Obama’s rejection. Kerry said: This must be done. I said: The president did not agree. He went to Obama and talked about it. He returned and said to me: I have approval from Obama to provide non-lethal aid to the opposition. Food, communications, medicine and clothing, but not a weapon. I asked: What about the weapon?
Kerry said: Weapon, no. But he asked me to start immediately. Kerry then announced at a meeting of “Friends of Syria” in Rome with the head of the “coalition” Moaz Khatib. The first batch arrived at the end of March and came from Kuwait.
What about arming? When did he start?
– The first Washington Post report on the CIA program appeared in September 2013. I will just say that my press sources were excellent. I did not read anything wrong in my article. Then the articles began to appear after September. And then Ben Rhodes (White House official) said after the chemical use in 2013, that President Obama decided to «take additional steps» without specifying.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But Assad remained until 2017?
– No, I expected that the (regular) army will shrink back to the defensive lines and then in the war of attrition, some soldiers will leave and then will negotiate. Got a little bit. But they left the border in 2012. We thought that the worse the military situation, some people within the system will say: Let’s start negotiating.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you put a list of those who accept any solution?
– We set up a list of three circles in the system: the narrow circle, the second circle, and the third circle. I asked the opposition to prepare a list. It does not matter if Americans have a list. What is important is that the opposition has a list. I spoke to opponents to present a “black list” of people you believe should be deported. I was very upset, because the opponents travel a lot and when we ask for the list, they say, “We want you to intervene and we want an air embargo. I was saying: We are not talking about an air embargo, but a negotiated solution with the regime.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Washington did not want to change the regime, but rather a negotiated solution.
– In 2013, I told the Syrian opposition: You should be open to Assad. If you convince Assad to change the head of air and military intelligence, political security and public intelligence. If the head of the Central Bank and the Minister of Finance changes, and then appoints independents instead of Assad’s control, his survival can be accepted. Gosh!. They said: This is impossible.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So, Washington accepted Assad’s survival in 2013, contrary to the statements?
– Yeah. Because the Geneva negotiations were making no progress. I expected the Geneva negotiations to be doomed to failure, especially because of Iranian support. I did not expect Russian support. With Iranian support, I expected Assad to remain, so I left office.
* In September 2013, she participated in the Kerry negotiations with his Russian counterpart
Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on the chemical agreement. Was the deal: Assad remains in exchange for giving up the chemical?
– No, vice versa. There was a meeting between Kerry and Lavrov about the chemical and I was present. The subject was not the chemical, but the Geneva negotiations and the political transition. We asked for the meeting and the Russians accepted the meeting. Kerry said: We do not want the collapse of the state. This is not our goal. We just want a transitional government and are ready to negotiate. “We want the Syrian army and the free army to work together to fight terrorists like Nasra and terrorists,” Lavrov said in a humiliating way. Kerry said: Sergey. That’s what we want too. Lavrov: So they agree. Kerry: But this can not be done with Assad’s presence and there must be a transitional body through negotiation. But the Free Army can not expect to include the Syrian army without change in government. This is impossible. Lavrov: If you try to change Assad, the whole system will collapse. We said: Well, this is about negotiation so we can achieve the goal without it. Lavrov: If you think we’ll take the lion and offer asylum, you’re wrong. Kerry said: We do not want that, but we want a negotiated and transitional solution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you think that Lavrov used Kerry?
– Yeah. I told Kerry after signing the chemical deal: The Syrian government will be cheated. You know they will fool us. They (in Damascus) are not honest, and always cheat. Kerry said: This goes back to the Russians. The Russians will prevent the regime and the most important thing is the investigation and control system. Kerry said the Russians had agreed to a transparent process of inquiry. I told Kerry: The details of the verification is important because the Syrian regime will cheat.
* What has changed?
– At the beginning of 2013 expected to go to Assad and then took the battle of the short and entered the “Hezbollah” in a large and non-dynamic war and then used a chemical signal of military pressure. By the end of 2013, what happened? The chief of staff of the “Free Army” Salim Idris and the pillars faded and emerged «Ahrar Cham» and «Nasra». And the “Free Army” in the south has not made any progress. The chemical used. The Iranians are sending more militias. Iraqis come to Syria. There was a big recession.
In contrast, there was no US escalation. Therefore, the Iranian position will advance. Assad may retreat, but he will remain in Damascus and the coast. We believed that in a recession, Assad would keep Damascus, the coast, Homs and Hama, but he would not take Aleppo and would not go east. That is, we expected to divide the fait accompli. Which we did not expect, in 2014 and 2015. More Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans and Hezbollah, and then Russia sends its air force.
* Account error?
– Yes we had to expect it. It was a big mistake. We did not expect stagnation because it was in favor of Assad.
Why did not Washington change the recession?
The lion won. He is victorious, or he thinks so. Maybe in ten years it will take all the country.
The regime will not be held accountable for chemical weapons, fighting, torture, “explosive drums”, refugees and displaced persons. No accounting. Assad may not visit Paris or London, but no one will go to Damascus to take regime officials to the Hague trial? no one. The system may take some time to recover a shield. Sooner or later he will go to Idlib. The Russians will help him and go to Qamishli and conclude an agreement with Iran and Turkey to destroy the Kurds.
Q: What about the Americans? Will not protect the Kurds?
– Do you think the Americans will fight in Qamishli?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Americans support the Kurds to liberate Al-Raqqa from “urging”.
– Have you heard of an American official or read an American statement saying: We will defend the “West of Kurdistan” after the defeat of “Da’ash”?
* No? what does it mean?
– Is this by accident? They will not defend the Kurds against the Assad forces.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are they using the Kurds to liberate Al-Raqqa?
– Yeah. So, I think that what we’re doing with the Kurds is not only politically stupid, but immoral. Americans used the Kurds for many years under Saddam Hussein. Do you think the Americans will treat the “Democratic Union” and the “People’s Protection Units” in a different form than former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (when he abandoned them)? Frankly, US officials told me that. Syrian Kurds make the biggest mistake in their confidence in Americans.
Do you think US officials are using the Kurds?
– Yes, in a tactical and temporary manner and will not use the US military to defend the “West of Kurdistan” as an independent region in the future of Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But for the first time, the US military defended its allies in the Syrian Badia and the Al-Tanf camp against Iran’s allies.
– Why did they do that? Not to push Assad to reach a political and negotiated solution, but to defend the opposition fighters who are fighting “dashing.” There is a difference between fighting a “push” and seeking a concession from Assad on the future of Syria. Last thing, Trump management will not do this.
* It has been said that the management of Trump two priorities: to fight «urging» and reduce the influence of Iran and control over eastern Syria will achieve both?
– Some officials in Washington believe this, but the Americans will soon know that Iran will step up and that America will not have the patience and the military power to make a counter-escalation.
* what does it mean?
– The Americans will withdraw. As you know, we withdrew from Beirut in 1983 and withdrew from Iraq as well.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the Iranian Crescent will retreat?
– There is an “Iranian crescent” which exists and cannot be defeated in eastern Syria. Iranian influence comes in Syria from western Syria, Damascus airport, the relationship between Tehran and Damascus, and Iran’s support for the regime in Damascus.
How can the Iranian Crescent be defeated?
– by imposing a negotiated solution on Assad and the opposition. But Iran and Russia are giving support to the regime, taking Aleppo and destroying it. For the first time since 2012, the Assad forces on the borders of Iraq and not the Kurds.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are they Iranian forces?
– True, Afghans, Iranians and Iraqis ….
What is Iran’s goal?
– The Iranians want to end the Syrian opposition once and for all. The military solution only. They prefer a route that passes through western Kurdistan, Raqqa, Aleppo and then to Lebanon. If the Syrian Kurds surrender, it will be acceptable. But the condition of full surrender and taking instructions from Damascus otherwise the Kurds will destroy and the Turks will be happy and cooperate with Iran against the Kurds.
* What is the ultimate goal of Trump?
– He wants to reduce Iranian influence so I heard from one of Trump’s advisers a few weeks ago, but does not know that the game is over. They were too late. Obama has not left Trump’s management a lot of options to achieve its goal.