Former U.S. ambassador says he could 'no longer defend' Obama administration's Syria policy
JUDY WOODRUFF: Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner sat down with Ford today, on the first day he has agreed to be interviewed on television since his departure, to discuss the election and what he sees as the failures of U.S. policy.
MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Ford, thank you for joining us.
ROBERT FORD, Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria: It's my pleasure to be here.
MARGARET WARNER: So, President Assad seems to be coasting to another victory in an election. What's going to be the impact of that, both on the political situation and the battlefield situation?
ROBERT FORD: I don't think it will have much impact on the battlefield. I have no indication that the opposition and the armed opposition groups are going to stop fighting, so I think the election will have no result on that.
Politically, it will cheer Assad's supporters. I have seen pictures today of celebrations in Syria. But it really is simply a signal. The election is a signal to us to, to other countries in the region, to Europe, et cetera, that Assad is not leaving, he is staying, deeply entrenched in the capital in Syria, even as other parts of the country remain outside his control.
MARGARET WARNER: And so is it time for us to recognize that, in fact, he's going to be there a long time, that the whole strategy both of the opposition and the Western- and Gulf- and neighbor-backed efforts has not worked?
ROBERT FORD: Well, certainly, the efforts we have made to date have not worked. They have not put enough pressure on the regime on the ground.
And that's why the peace talks that we tried to do in January and February in Geneva, when I was there, and the regime completely refused to discuss a political settlement. The policy has not brought them to the point where they feel they have to negotiate. They're not under enough pressure. So, so we need to think about how to escalate pressure.
MARGARET WARNER: And certainly not a transition that didn't include Assad as a part of it?
ROBERT FORD: Well, the message of the election today is that he's not going anywhere.
MARGARET WARNER: You left as ambassador in early 2012.
ROBERT FORD: In February, right.
MARGARET WARNER: Under fears for your own safety and the safety of the entire embassy.
ROBERT FORD: Safety of the team, yes.
MARGARET WARNER: But you stayed at the State Department. Why have you left now?
ROBERT FORD: In the end, Margaret, I worked from Washington on the Syria issue for two years.
Events on the ground were moving, and our policy wasn't evolving very quickly. We were constantly behind the curve. And that's why now we have extremist threats to our own country. We had a young man from Florida, apparently, who was involved in a suicide bombing, and there will be more problems like that, I fear.
Our policy wasn't evolving, and finally I got to the point where I could no longer defend it publicly. And as a professional career member of the U.S. diplomatic service, when I can no longer defend the policy in public, it is time for me to go.
MARGARET WARNER: What was the biggest mistake you think the Obama administration, this government made?
ROBERT FORD: We have consistently been behind the curve.
The events on the ground are moving more rapidly than our policy has been adapting. And at the same time, Russia and Iran have been driving this by increasing and steadily increasing, increasing massively, especially the Iranians, their support to the Syrian regime.
And the result of that has been more threats to us in this ungoverned space which Assad can't retake. 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-Qaida 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-Qaida groups in Syria do.
MARGARET WARNER: But you know the arguments we all heard from many in the White House, which is, if we arm the opposition, we don't know who will get ahold of these advanced weapons.
ROBERT FORD: I have heard those arguments, Margaret.
To be very frank, we have plenty of information on reliable groups, and we have long had that. It is a question of whether or not there's a will to actually help people whose agenda is compatible with our national security interests, and then to make a decision and push forward. And that really is the question before the administration.
MARGARET WARNER: And who lacks the will? Is it the president?
ROBERT FORD: I'm simply going to say that I think 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, these moderates, by the way, who evolved directly from the peaceful protest movement that I saw with my own eyes in 2011.
And those people need more help. And arguments that were worried things are going to trickle into bad hands or that it's going to bring in American troops directly, nobody is asking for American troops to be sent there. I was in Iraq for five years. The last thing we want is to have a repeat of the Iraq experience.
But there are other tools in our toolkit, and those are the things we need to work on, in conjunction with our allies in the region.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, President Obama in his West Point speech last week said he was going to ramp up support to the opposition, but it was left totally unspecified. What did that say to you? What does that mean?
ROBERT FORD: It's not clear to me yet if they are prepared to ramp it up in such a way that it will be meaningful on the ground, and that's really what matters. This is a civil war.
And we can't get to a political negotiation until the balance on the ground compels — and I use that word precisely — compels Assad not to run sham elections, but rather to negotiate a political deal. But the situation on the ground is key.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it's too late at this point?
ROBERT FORD: No, I absolutely don't, but I do think that the way the policy has been moving has been so slow on our part.
And that has caused frustration in the region. It's caused huge frustration among large segments of the Syrian population. And so I'm hoping that the president's speech signals that now we are getting more serious. But we will have to see what happens on the ground.
MARGARET WARNER: And if this conflict continues for years as it is now, does that increase the terrorist threat here to the United States?
ROBERT FORD: I think it can't help but do that, because there's large parts of Syria that are basically ungoverned.
And just as happened in Afghanistan, just as happened in Somalia, just as has happened in Mali and Yemen, when you have large ungoverned spaces, groups especially like al-Qaida are quite skilled at setting up operations there, and then sending out people, sending out resources, sending out money, coordinating.
It's very dangerous. We warned about this years ago on the Syria team at the State Department. This is — we expected this was going to happen.
MARGARET WARNER: But the warnings went unheeded?
ROBERT FORD: The policy has evolved very slowly. And events on the ground have not evolved as slowly. Events on the ground, it's a dynamic situation. It changes.
MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Robert Ford, thank you.
ROBERT FORD: No, it was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
JUDY WOODRUFF: This afternoon, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was asked about Ambassador Ford's criticisms of the administration's Syria policy and why it compelled him to leave government.
Here is an excerpt of her response from the daily press briefing.
MARIE HARF, State Department Spokeswoman: Ambassador Ford served a very long, distinguished career here, is now a private citizen, obviously entitled to his own views.
The president was clear in his speech last week. We have all been clear that we're frustrated by the situation in Syria. You heard the president at West Point say we're going to increase our support to the moderate opposition, because we know more needs to be done.
No one working on this issue can look at the situation on the ground — I mean, just look at today, the photos — disgusting photos of President Assad voting, acting like this is a real election. Nobody working on it is happy with where things are. We're all frustrated, and I think you heard some of that in Ambassador Ford's comments.
GWEN IFILL: That was U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.