The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The Syria Nightmare Former Obama Ambassador Blasts Syria Policy Failures

President Obama’s former Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, publicly lambasted the Administration yesterday, stating that its Syria policy was a failure, and that he resigned because he could no longer support it. He further argued that timely intervention could have empowered moderates and prevented violent jihadists from gaining the upper hand in the Syrian resistance. Instead, new terrorist threats are now emerging, not just in Syria but in the U.S. and Europe. In an interview with PBS NewsHour, Ford said:

I worked from Washington on the Syria issue for two years. Events on the ground were moving and our policy was not evolving very quickly. We were constantly behind the curve, and that’s why, now, we have extremist threats to our own country…  finally I got to a point where I could no longer defend it publicly….

We need—and we have long needed—to help moderates in the Syrian opposition with both weapons and other nonlethal assistance. Had we done that, a couple of years ago, had we ramped it up, frankly the al-Qaeda groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates who, frankly, we have much in common with. But the moderates have been fighting constantly with arms tied behind their backs because they don’t have the same resources that either Assad does or the al-Qaeda groups in Syria do…

It is a question of whether or not there’s will to actually help people whose agenda is compatible with our national security interests, and then to make a decision and push forward.

Obama personally selected Ford as his Ambassador to Syria, going so far as to give him a recess appointment in the teeth of Republican resistance. Ford now joins the ranks of former Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in criticizing their old boss’s Syria strategy. Ford made it crystal clear that “it’s on record now that the State Department, for a long time, has advocated doing much more to help the moderates in the Syrian opposition.” Such blunt comments from an ex-official make it clear that America’s inaction was a personal decision of the President, made against the counsel of his advisers.

As an example of his security concerns, Ford cited Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, an American citizen and Florida native who drove a truck full of explosives into a Syrian Army outpost in a suicide attack on behalf of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Abu-Salha’s case exemplifies a much wider failure. Not only have we renounced control of the Syria situation; the U.S. can’t even gather enough intelligence to keep track of what’s going on there, the Washington Post reports:

U.S. officials said that dozens of fighters from the United States, and much larger numbers from Europe and the Middle East, all but disappear from view once they are inside Syria’s borders.

“It’s a bit of a black hole,” one U.S. counterterrorism official said. “We don’t have a lot of collection there.”

U.S. officials described Syria as a daunting environment for espionage. The CIA pulled its people out of Syria when the U.S. Embassy was closed as the conflict moved toward civil war. There are also legal impediments to tracking U.S. citizens or monitoring their communications.

Twelve thousand foreign fighters, 3,000 of whom come from Western nations, have entered Syria as jihadists since the war began. The prospect of experienced terrorists with Western passports, native accents, and ties to local communities returning home to the United States and Europe presents a daunting security challenge.

In Europe, this specter has already taken shape. Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen, returned from a year’s fighting in Syria to slaughter two Israelis in their fifties and a French woman at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium. Nemmouche was captured in Marseilles with an AK-47, a .38 special, a gas mask, and film footage which he was presumably planning to use to claim credit for the attack. France has moved to interdict its citizens before they head to the Levant, but this may be a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

The Soufan Group, an international intelligence and security firm, offered a stark warning this weekend that, as a result of the Syrian war, al-Qaeda “is probably in a better position now than at anytime since October 2001.” On Tuesday, Bashar al-Assad held sham elections that sent a clear signal to the world that he was bound and determined to remain in power. Ford is just the latest of many Washington figures, professional as well as political, Democrat as well as Republican, to decry the President’s weakness in response to the ever-worsening crisis. Will he now act? Can he?

Published on June 4, 2014 2:45 pm
  • qet

    I strongly doubt that anything the US could have done would have resulted in al-Qaeda being unable to “compete with the moderates.” al-Qaeda is not merely a supply and command network. It offers a purpose, something in which to believe, something with a far stronger appeal than some vague, undefined notion of a quasi-democratic, quasi-pluralist constitutional order according to foreign (i.e., Western) cultural and political ideals.

    In WW2, Chiang Kai-shek spent more time fighting Mao and the Chinese Communists than he did fighting the Japanese, using our military aid to do it. The Communists won despite the US supply of arms because they offered something to their followers that Chiang could not offer to his. US funding, training and arming of the Contras for years did not result in an overthrow of the Sandanistas.

    Talk is easy and diplomats like Ford specialize in it. I am not a fan of this Administration or its foreign policy, but I have always wondered, and still wonder, how anyone could believe that US military intervention there–whether directly or through proxies like the alleged “moderates”–would have solved anything, even if started early in the conflict. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the US would have had to escalate its involvement into direct action in support of its chosen faction, and even if it did not, after a year or three “world opinion” would have decided regardless that the US was at fault and responsible for all of the killing and atrocities etc. The “coalition of world opinion” that assembled during the Iraq war and constantly opposed and undermined the US would have reassembled over a Syria effort. Like the Sun flipping its magnetic field, the poles of the geopolitical field would have become: the US is killing Muslims again, neocolonialism, war for oil, racism, etc., insensitive to the subtle and historically-determined issues and distinctions within the Muslim world, yada yada yada. Syria-trained jihadis are returning home to the US and we worry, but in the other scenario, arms we supplied to “moderates” would inevitably have found their way into the hands of “extremists” and we would be all outraged about that today instead.
    In short–this situation is a Gordian knot that cannot even be cut.

    • Bruce

      Obama is hapless and a Marxist, but even a competent president would have had no good alternatives. And look what happens to moderates in countries where we support them and then leave. Al Qaeda has great fun butchering them and putting their children in ovens etc. There are competent ways to stay out and incompetent ways. This buffoon did it the incompetent way, but Syria was probably not salvageable. Were the moderates really moderate or were they like the moderates in Egypt, during the glorious Arab Spring?

    • rheddles

      Well, it certainly can’t be ameliorated if you don’t even try.

  • Misanthrope

    I can guarantee Obama’s “do-nothing” policy does not go against the counsel of his only advisor who matters – Iranian-born Valerie Jarrett.

    • Fred Garvin

      Mr. Non Sequitur:
      Are you equally upset that Sen. McCain’s birthplace is in Panama? Or Sen. Cruz’s in Canada?

      • Misanthrope

        The article stated Obama’s decision went against his councilors’ advice. Valerie Jarrett is inarguably his most influential advisor. I offered the opinion that her background a) influences her advice, and b) makes her favorably disposed to Iran. That opinion may be wrong (though that is doubtful, given Obama’s indifference to Iran’s nuclear program and support of terrorists), but that hardly makes it an incongruous or unwarranted conclusion.
        I’m unfamiliar with Senator McCain’s or Cruz’s attempts to determine US policy toward Panama and Canada. If you’re unable to enlighten me on those efforts, I’m afraid the title of Mr. Non Sequitur passes to you.

        • Fred Garvin

          1. McCain as pretty damned favorable toward Operation Enduring Freedom.
          2. Jarrett left Iran at the age of five. She was not involved in nuclear negotiations with Iran. That allegation seems to be single-sourced from Yediot Ahronot, an Israeli right-wing rag owned by the American traitor Sheldon Adelson.
          3. Obama has not supported terrorists. Those who advocate aiding the “moderate” Muslim insurgents in Syria–now they wish to support terrorists.
          4. I married a Canadian. They cannot be trusted, eh?

          • Misanthrope

            1. Supporting a military operation is not at all the same thing as deciding policy. You are not only Mr. Non Sequitur – you are also Captain Irrelevant.
            2. To suggest the President’s most influential advisor plays no role in the administration’s policy decisions toward Iran is just plain stupid. Stop embarrassing yourself.
            3. Obama has actively supported the Muslim Brotherhood, and gone out of his way to avoid harming other Islamic terror groups – though he doesn’t seem to have a problem with dropping an occasional bomb on innocent civilians. Your second sentence here makes no sense – learn to write effectively.
            4. Actually, I’ve never met a Canadian I didn’t like.

      • http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CEED81431F935A35750C0A9619C8B63 ɹǝzıuɐƃɹo ʎʇıunɯɯoɔ

        A US military base in Panama?

  • amcalabrese

    It is not our war. How about we stay out. No more red lines no one plans to enforce or threats or anything. Just offer a nice conference room for the two sides to talk in and leave it at that. Both sides are awful and whomever wins means an enemy of ours is sitting in Damascus

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Look, Muslims have declared Western Christian civilization their enemy. Obama has stumbled into the right strategy in Syria, a time honored strategy called “Divide and Conquer”. As long as the Shiites and Sunnis are focused on killing each other, there will be fewer resources available to attack innocent westerners and this will save lives. The “Divide and Conquer” strategy was used by the Byzantine Empire to great effect, by getting the barbarians on its borders to fight each other. This allowed the Empire to survive long after its power had declined.

    So let them fight, in fact make sure to prolong the fight until even the bloody minded Muslims are sick of the bloodshed.

  • http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CEED81431F935A35750C0A9619C8B63 ɹǝzıuɐƃɹo ʎʇıunɯɯoɔ

    Clearly Assad is the lessor of the three evils.

    Like Saddam, he will rule his country as ‘he’ needs to, not as outsiders believe it should be run. He knows the threats his people face from terrorist groups and he brings stability to the region.

    If Assad should threaten other countries, then let him know he will be forcibly removed.