DecodeDC Q&A: Former US Ambassador to Syria on refugee crisis and removing Assad

Key to fight against ISIS lies first in removing Assad regime from power.

Following the Paris terrorist attacks, there’s been pushback by a growing number of American politicians to halt the flow of Syrian refugees to the United States. DecodeDC’s Marc Georges recently spoke with Robert Ford, the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, about the Syrian refugee crisis and its roots in the Syrian civil war. Ford is currently Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.,where he writes about developments in the Levant and North Africa. Below is a condensed version of their conversation.

Q: There was a lot of rhetoric towards Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks that culminated with the House vote last week which would essentially halt the flow of Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. But the US has accepted less than 2,000 refugees from Syria. The administration has said it wants to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year while President Hollande has pledged to accept three times that number in the next two years. Can you put into context for our readers the Syrian refugee crisis?

RF: The Syrian refugee crisis is the biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. From a country of 23 million people when the uprising began in 2011, about half the population has been displaced. Roughly four million are refugees outside of Syria and the other seven million are displaced inside Syria, meaning they left their original homes and are now staying with a brother in a different city, or a son or a daughter in another town somewhere. It would be the equivalent of roughly 160 or 170 million Americans displaced from their homes. It’s hard to imagine the scale of the human catastrophe.

Secondly, the conditions the refugees encounter, especially in Lebanon but also in Jordan have been very difficult; Turkey, too, and Iraq. In some cases, Syrian refugees have literally frozen to death. Last winter I think the saddest picture I saw the entire Syrian conflict came out of a refugee camp where two newborn infants had frozen to death and their bodies were wrapped in newspapers and put in a cardboard box for burial.

In the American context, we have taken very few refugees relative to other countries. The screening process for all refugees, including Syrians, is very thorough. It’s important to remember that if we’re concerned about terrorism, there are lots of European citizens with European passports that have gone and fought for the Islamic State in places like Syria and Iraq. They are not Syrian refugees and can come into the United States quite easily with their European passports. It’s not to say there’s no risk with Syrian refugees, but I think it’s much smaller relative to other risks we face, either from Americans who are recruited by extremist groups or by people of other nationalities who move around with other passports.

Q: Last week, the president intimated that this kind of reaction was potentially playing into radicalists’ hands – that it could be used as a recruiting tool. Is that something, in your experience, that rings true?

RF: Absolutely. The Islamic State has criticized Syrians for seeking refuge in places like Europe. It undermines the Islamic State’s argument that they are a natural home for Muslims when hundreds of thousands Syrians vote with their feet, going to Europe rather than the Islamic State’s territories. It makes the Islamic State look like what it is, a dictatorial, totalitarian, ruthless government.

When people in places like the United States or in European countries say we want no Syrian refugees, it fuels the rhetoric of the Islamic State which says that we are in a war of civilizations, Muslims against Christians, or Muslims against the inheritors of Byzantium. So, absolutely it plays into their hands.

Q: Looking outside of the US, we saw what happened this summer in Europe with what at the time was being called the ‘migrant crisis’. EU member states have pledged to relocate 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy. The number of migrants arriving in just those two countries in the last year is over 800,000. There are the conditions you’ve mentioned in places like Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East. In your view, is there a clear and cogent strategy among the international community for resettling Syrian refugees?

RF: No, not at all. The mechanism for admission of refugees is nowhere near set up to handle these kinds of numbers, just not even close. And you see that in the confusion and the anger and the frustration among countries in central Europe.

There’s just a lot of frustration and suspicion. None of these countries and their societies are prepared to easily absorb this number of refugees. Even in a country like Sweden, in Scandinavia, they have a new, much more conservative government and part of that is just from the pressure of having let in over the years so many refugees. And the process takes time.

Q: Do you see the violence in Paris hindering resettlement efforts in Europe and other places like it seems to be doing here in the United States?

RF: There are now people commenting openly, including the president of the European Union Council, that the Schengen agreement is at risk, that free movement between countries is at risk. And so, I think, absolutely, it’s going to both hinder movement of refugees but also there’s going to be pressure in places like Europe, especially if the United States acts to restrict the flow of refugees, to follow suite and themselves restrict the access of refugees.

Q: What potential solutions do you see?

RF: The most important thing is if countries are not going to accept refugees, then their living circumstances in the camps and the towns where they’re located have to be substantially improved. You can’t expect Syrians to sit still in Lebanon and freeze to death, that’s not reasonable. There’s going to need to be a greater response to United Nations efforts to raise money, to help refugee camps and to help refugee communities in the countries neighboring Syria, like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

If the neighboring countries cannot be given the assistance to do these things, that’s not fair for relatively small countries like Lebanon or Jordan to do this on their own. It’s not even fair for Turkey, with 80 million people, to do this by itself. The international community has got to step up with resources. This is an inescapable problem. You will either have refugees banging on your doorstep or you will have them in the camps where you’re helping provide sustenance to them. It’s one or the other.

Q: We’ve seen in the last couple days, President Hollande and Western leaders try to gather a coalition as part of a political response, trying to get Russia back to the table. These efforts have focused specifically on ISIS. In the past, you’ve argued that to really combat ISIS, we have to focus on resolving the issue surrounding the Assad regime. What are the major roadblocks to doing that?

RF: There are three. The first is that Bashar al-Assad is not willing to leave and the people around him are not willing to leave. They’d rather control one-fourth or one-fifth of Syria then to step aside and allow a new national transitional government come forward that could try to begin to bring Syria back together and to confront the Islamic State that way.

Second off, the Iranians are not willing to press Assad to make concessions. They talk about a ceasefire and maybe setting up a new government themselves but they make it very clear that Assad has to stay and he has to stay in charge of the security system. The armed opposition is not going to stop fighting if Assad is still there and in charge of the security apparatus.

And then the third is, Russia themselves are not going to press Assad to step aside. Yesterday, Putin and Khamenei in Iran agreed on that. So we have to understand the Russians and the Iranians are less interested in fighting the Islamic State than the Americans are. I want to be very clear about that. The Russians and the Iranians are more interested in maintaining the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus.

Are they concerned about the Islamic State? Yes. But is it their primary concern? No. And so, as long as it’s not their primary concern, there really isn’t a lot that can be done to address the root of the Islamic State.

Q: So what in your view is a realistic expectation for these talks? If you were in the room with these leaders, what would be your recommendations to convince Iran and Russia that removing the Assad regime should be their primary focus?

RF: I would say to the Russians that if their goal is to preserve a Syrian state with whom they can have good relations, a continuation of a war of attrition would almost ensure that there is no Syrian state left. I’d say to both the Russians and the Iranians, in a war of attrition, ultimately the Assad regime is not going to be able to maintain control, even over the last fourth or fifth of the territory they control: Damascus, Homs, and the Mediterranean coast. Eventually the greater numbers will subsume the minority Assad government and so it’s better to make a deal now.

Their negotiating position will deteriorate with time. Frankly, they would have been much better negotiating at the start of year than at the end of the year. The Assad government had more territory at the start of the year than they do now.

Q: Setting aside the political conversations that are happening, American military options are currently focused on airstrikes. A couple of years ago, there was an argument within the administration that you were a part of over arming the opposition groups. Has the time for that option come and gone?

RF: The option of arming Syrian rebels, the time for that has never passed. Why did the Russians intervene last September? Because, frankly, the armed opposition, not the Islamic State, including people we supported, were prevailing over the Assad forces.

I find this argument that I see in the media, especially the American media, that there is no moderate armed opposition to support and that time has passed – I simply don’t understand where that comes from.

The mere fact that the Islamic State beheads people on television doesn’t mean that they are the predominant force of the Syrian opposition, it just means they get a lot more media attention. Just because the Nusra Front puts out videos of whipping people for not wearing Islamic dress does not mean they are the predominant force in the armed opposition, it just means they are also more media savvy.

There are plenty of people that are fighting in Syria who would accept a negotiated, political deal and who want a political process to follow whenever Bashar al-Assad steps down. And they’re still out there and they’re still fighting. So yes, absolutely they need support. Not in order to win a military victory, but to help them press demands for a national unity government to end the negotiations so that Bashar al- Assad understands he can’t stay in the chair forever.

Q: Do you see the Obama administration, given present conditions, reassessing their position to arm the opposition?

RF: One thing I’ve noticed, is that there seem to be an awful lot of American made anti-tank missiles flying around in Syria these days, certainly more than we saw two years ago. That has to have been done on some level with American acceptance, even if it’s Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia, whoever is sending them in, I don’t know. There is a level of American acceptance there because those rockets’ export is controlled by the United States government.

So I think the Americans are already upping the pressure a little bit. But I don’t think Barack Obama is trying for a military victory, he is just trying to get to a negotiation and he understands that he’s dealing with countries – Iran, Russia and with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria – that don’t negotiate and don’t make concessions except when they are under pressure. For that, I applaud the administration and I would just urge them to redouble their efforts on that.

The second thing I would say to the Obama administration is they need to talk to the widest range possible of non-jihadi opposition elements. Because those people, a lot of them are very conservative Islamist fighters but they have a lot of fighters on the ground and they are going to matter in the negotiations. And if the Americans want to influence where this is going, they better start having channels with those people before the negotiations begin.



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