Former U.S. ambassador to Syria on why ‘it was time for me to go’

BY Larisa Epatko  June 3, 2014 at 2:07 PM EST
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford in an interview with the PBS NewsHour.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford in an interview with the PBS NewsHour.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said Tuesday he resigned his post earlier this year because the U.S. policy on Syria was evolving too slowly. “We were constantly behind the curve,” which is only increasing the extremist threat in the United States, he said.

The U.S. policy wasn’t keeping up with how Syria’s civil war was developing, Ford told PBS NewsHour chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner in an interview that will air on Tuesday’s broadcast. “Finally, I got to the point where I could no longer defend [the policy] publicly.” At that point, “it was time for me to go.”

Ford resigned as ambassador in February. He had left Syria a year earlier when the U.S. Embassy closed in Damascus, but he continued working at the State Department on Syria during that year. He is now a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Institute.

The longer the war in Syria goes, “it can’t help” but increase the terrorist threat in the United States, said Ford. The large parts of Syria that are ungoverned are breeding grounds for al-Qaida, just like in Afghanistan, Somalia, Mali and Yemen, he said.

“It’s very dangerous. We warned about this years ago, the Syria team at the State Department,” he said. “We expected this was going to happen. The policy has evolved very slowly and events on the ground have not evolved as slowly.”

On Tuesday, Syria held presidential elections, which current President Bashar al-Assad is expected to win. Ford said the election was meant to signal that Assad is “going nowhere” and has no intention of negotiating a possible transitional government.

Assad might continue negotiating local ceasefires with rebels to maintain certain neighborhoods, but the regime lacks the manpower to retake the two-thirds of Syria under opposition control, said Ford.

He said the slow U.S. policy has frustrated large segments of the Syrian population and he hopes President Obama’s recent foreign policy speech, where he spoke of ramping up military and other aid to the moderate opposition, shows the U.S. “is getting more serious.”

If the United States had helped the moderates with weaponry years ago, according to Ford, the opposition would have been able to compete with al-Qaida elements and governmental forces.

“This is a civil war and we can’t get to a political negotiation until the balance on the ground compels … Assad to negotiate a political deal,” he said.

Watch the full interview on Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour.