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?