Syria remains mired in conflict despite repeated international efforts to manage it since 2011. The latest moves to broker a negotiated settlement failed to offer a way of policing a cease-fire, leaving President Bashar al-Assad’s forces free to continue capturing opposition-held towns in piecemeal fashion, says Robert Ford, the last-serving U.S. ambassador to Syria. Meanwhile, the new administration of U.S. President Donald J. Trump has inherited a military campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, says Ford, but neither the United States nor Russia has a plan to address the underlying roots of the insurgency. In the coming years, he says, “it’s easier to imagine the country being segmented than being stitched back together.”
Trump has expressed some support for safe zones as places to which Syrian refugees could return. Is that a plausible proposal?
There already are some de facto safe zones [that are not being contested by Syrian government forces]. They include the area where the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are fighting against the Islamic State in north-central Syria in an operation called Euphrates Shield. It extends about twenty miles into northern Syria from the Turkish border. Russia doesn’t bomb there, nor does the Syrian government, and Turkey is setting up a civil administration in the border town of Jarabulus. There’s a similar zone east of that where the American-backed, largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are operating against ISIS.
There are only two places I could imagine a new safe zone: Idlib, in northwest Syria, or in the south along the Jordanian border. Russia said it wants the United Nations and Syrian government to approve it, so it would likely have to be negotiated. The last thing Americans want is to risk a direct confrontation between Russian and American aircraft.
This seems not yet well-developed. If they do set them up, how are they going to support refugees? Is aid going to flow in? Who’s going to manage that? There’s a lot more to it than just saying we want refugees to go there. Why would they? They have to have food, water, sanitation.
Another rationale sometimes given for establishing safe zones is that they might change the dynamics of political talks, hastening a resolution to the conflict. Does that argument have merit?
Not even a little. And over time, my guess is that safe zones would involve more military action, because the Bashar al-Assad government has made clear that it intends to retake all of Syria. While it might agree to the safe zones in mid-2017, its attitude in 2018 or 2019 might be very different.
Is Assad really in a position to take back control of all of Syria?
He’s serious about it. His government understands it might take ten years, but it doesn’t have the same time pressures, like election cycles, that Western countries operate under.
“Safe zones would involve more military action, because the Bashar al-Assad government has made clear that it intends to retake all of Syria.”
But Assad has big problems. The economic situation in areas he controls is bad. The exchange rate is one-tenth of what it was six years ago, and that has largely impoverished the Syrian middle class. The Syrian army is not nearly as functional as it used to be. The army is relying more and more on militias, and Assad is dependent on manpower mobilized by Iran. Russia is trying to rebuild parts of the Syrian army now, but just as the United States found in Iraq, Russia will find it difficult.
A year or two ago, Assad’s position seemed more tenuous. I don’t think anyone now thinks he is going to be forced out of office. Turkey has decided that Syrian Kurds are a bigger threat than Assad, which further consolidates Assad’s position.
Will Russia back Assad’s maximal demands?
They’d like a political solution, but I don’t think they have the leverage to stop Assad from testing the edges of envelopes all the time. The Iranians, by contrast, do back the Assad government’s testing those envelopes. This is a war of manpower more than one of airpower. The Russians have airpower, but they don’t put a lot of men on the ground, so the Iranian influence is more important.
When you talk about Assad sort of testing the envelope, what does that look like in practice?
The Syrian government is picking off some specific locales one by one by one. It’s like what we’ve seen in the suburbs of Damascus since the December 29 Russian-Turkish-Iranian call for a cease-fire. The Syrian army, with Hezbollah, promptly launched an attack on Wadi Barada, northwest of Damascus. They prevailed over the opposition after three weeks, and the Syrian government imposed a local cease-fire on its own terms. Opposition fighters and their civilian supporters were sent to Idlib.
All in spite of the ostensible cessation of hostilities that’s in place?
Exactly. The communiqué from Russia, Iran, and Turkey said that the three countries would discuss a monitoring mechanism, but none is yet in place. Even in Wadi Barada, the Russians went to negotiate an end to the fighting, but were unsuccessful. Originally they criticized the Syrian government, but then dropped it. They’d rather shut up than look impotent.
I don’t think they want to withdraw their support, at least for a while, because Putin has gained international credibility from this campaign. Their number-one tactical objective, preventing the Assad regime from being overthrown, has been achieved, and Assad has pretty much secured the western part of Syria, where the big cities are, with the exceptions of these Damascus suburbs, which are being reduced and retaken.
Russia’s strategic objective is getting a political deal that leaves their new airbase and upgraded navy base in place, and demonstrating that Russia is a reliable, serious ally in the Middle East. Moscow is now involved in diplomacy in the Middle East in a way it hasn’t been for twenty years.
Turkey has backed away from its stance that “Assad must go.” What is it hoping to achieve in this diplomatic process?
Turkey’s number-one objective is to prevent a Syrian Kurdish autonomous region like the Iraqi Kurds enjoy in Iraq. There was no border [where the current Turkey-Syria one is] prior to the end of World War I, and linguistically, tribally, and socially, Turkish and Syrian Kurds are one large people. Turkey is worried that an autonomous zone in Syria would attract support from Turkish Kurds, which would put Turkish territorial integrity at risk. That is why Turkey is so angry at the United States for backing the Syrian Kurds, and why it has deployed troops. The last time it unilaterally sent its armed forces to a neighboring country was more than forty years ago, in Cyprus.
What do you see as the Trump administration’s likely approach?
They’re not going to push to remove Assad, which makes sense at this point, because with Iranian and Russian involvement, it can’t be done without a massive U.S. military effort that nobody wants.
My guess is the Trump administration will just focus on the Islamic State, but I don’t think they have a sense of how the Islamic State is more a political problem than a military problem. I keep hearing about plans to accelerate the military campaign, but the Islamic State is a symptom of a broader sense of maltreatment and deep grievances among a Sunni Arab community that stretches from west Baghdad to Tripoli on the Lebanese Mediterranean coast. If you don’t treat that set of grievances, there will constantly be new jihadi groups and recruitment. I don’t think the Obama administration was ever able to figure out how to deal with that, even though they understood it intellectually.
What do you make of Trump’s argument that the United States can productively join forces with Russia to combat the Islamic State?
I’m not against the Americans and the Russians teaming up militarily if there’s some specific advantage, but the problem isn’t that the military campaign against the Islamic State has had difficulty generating enough bombs. The fighting is tough in many places, like Mosul, but not because there isn’t enough airpower. Troops on the ground are a bigger issue. It’s not clear to me that the Russians can help with that, and the idea Russia is pursuing, that moderate rebels are going to team up with Bashar al-Assad against the Islamic State, is a fantasy. As much as the moderate rebels dislike the Islamic State, they hate Assad and his government, which, in 2016, killed eight times more civilians than the Islamic State did.
“It’s easier to imagine the country being segmented than being stitched back together.”
I don’t see the Russians addressing the fundamental political problem. They put forward a draft constitution in Astana that would involve a breathtaking amount of social engineering: setting up an autonomous zone for the Kurds, taking “Arab” out of the Syrian Arab Republic’s official title, and saying that Syria needs to decentralize and give local councils more authority. But Syria has been heavily centralized since the state was created. The Americans tried something similar in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with 170,000 troops there and couldn’t make it work. The Assad government has already rejected large segments of this, and I don’t think Iran is interested in the draft.
Would the opposition groups that attended the talks accept that?
The opposition’s number-one objection to the Russian draft was that it would leave Bashar al-Assad in place. But they too don’t want Syrian Kurdish autonomy, because they think that kind of decentralization would break up the Syrian state.
Is there a plausible outcome of this diplomatic process that could be acceptable to the opposition?
It’s too early to say. If the terms of the deal don’t change, Iran might come around, and a cease-fire would leave different groups in control of different areas: Syrian Kurds in the northeast; the Free Syrian Army in the south between Damascus and Jordan; and up in Idlib the harder-line Islamists, including the al-Qaeda affiliate, which is now locked in battle with more moderate Islamist and secular groups. It’s easier to imagine the country being segmented than being stitched back together.
Nobody will sign a political agreement to break up Syria. But even de facto segmentation will still have the Syrian government testing the edges of the envelopes, so the prognosis is for continual conflict, even if it’s on a smaller scale than in 2015 and 2016, with the Syrian government taking village by village back in Idlib or Hama provinces, where the opposition still holds territory, and continual fighting against the Islamic State in eastern Syria. The scale of human tragedy may be reduced, but it certainly won’t be a country at peace.
This interview has been edited and condensed.