Few names in US policy circles have become as synonymous with the Syrian uprising as that of the last US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. His 2011 visit to Hama, where people poured on to the streets to protest against Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, was seen as a pivotal moment in the uprising, and by the Assad regime as a provocation. Mr Ford’s visit and criticism of Syria’s crackdown on protests led to what US officials described as credible threats on his life and, ultimately, his departure from Damascus later that year.
Now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, Mr Ford offered a sobering outlook on the conflict in an exclusive interview with The National, saying Mr Al Assad had won and might never be held accountable.
Q: Every time we have talked about Syria in the last year, the Assad regime would be making more gains. Where do you see the war now? Has the regime prevailed?
A: Yes. The war is winding down little by little. Assad has won and he will stay [in power]. He may never be held accountable, and Iran will be in Syria to stay. This is the new reality that we have to accept, and there isn’t much we can do about it.
So you’re saying the rebels have basically lost and have no chance of coming back?
Unless the foreign governments that in the past have backed elements of the Free Syrian Army are prepared to send money, weapons - including surface-to-air missiles - and provide the kind of military advisers that the Syrian Democratic Forces are receiving against ISIL, it would be impossible [for the rebels] to defeat Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. And even if those foreign governments did that, it would be a long war that probably ends in a stalemate instead of an Assad victory.
Is that why we see regional pressure on the Syrian opposition to offer concessions on Assad’s future in government?
It’s an acknowledgment that the military situation is strongly in favour of Assad, Russia and the Iranians, and that it is impossible to roll it back.
How will a more confident Assad operate in Syria?
I was very struck by what [Syrian deputy foreign minister] Faisal Mekdad said recently [calling the upcoming provincial elections in the Kurdish region ‘a joke’]. His statement falls in line with what Assad himself believes and confirms they will not accept elections in north-eastern Syria. Added to that is the Syrian government's consistent effort to destroy civilian governance structures in the suburbs of Damascus.
The Syrian government cannot and will not accept local administrations or decentralisation, despite the fact that the Russians keep talking about it. I never met a Baathist in the Arab world who liked the idea of decentralisation, not in Iraq, not in Algeria, not in Syria.
So if they won’t accept decentralisation or federalism, what changes do you see the regime accepting?
Maybe they change the prime minister or few cabinet ministers and claim it is reform. But will they change the elements of the security state? Of course not.
Do you see the regime going for a full military victory?
Yes, they are already bombing targets in Homs and Jobar. The regime ignores the Russian de-escalation zones when they have a military advantage. Sooner or later they will go back to the south to take Deraa, or Idlib. It might take two or four years, but they can’t accept other governments - local or foreign - to control these places. It is clear that the Russian-sponsored ceasefires will not end it. Assad ignored it in Wadi Barara, and while Moscow may complain in private, it won’t penalise him.
But to what extent is Assad dependent on Russia and Iranian militia forces?
He needs the Iranian militias and the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] leaders. But Iran is not trying to restrain Assad in these offensives in Ghouta and Homs. Iran has no incentive to back the ceasefires, and the war has brought them [Assad and Iran] closer.
How will those in the West adjust, do you see the Europeans reopening their embassies in Damascus?
The Europeans will consider what’s in their interest. They may see one in security cooperation, though it isn’t clear to me that the Syrian government can help very much on the salafi-jihadi front. Assad has a history of manipulating those groups. But to pursue that interest, they don’t need to have an embassy in Damascus. Intelligence cooperation can happen without having an embassy. Politically, there will remain some difficulty in France, Germany, Britain and even Italy with opening embassies when the Syrian government has committed war crimes as evidenced by the UN.
How about economically?
The sanctions imposed by the EU and the US Congress limit what these countries can do legally in Syria. They can’t fund reconstruction or do trade. The intel cooperation may happen, but economic openness is very unlikely. It’s even difficult for the US to sell medical equipment to Syria.
The US Congress is not anywhere near repealing sanctions. If anything, the concern about Iran in Syria makes it more likely that the US will be even tougher, because now Israel is getting involved.
Do you see Assad becoming another Omar Bashir, the president of Sudan?
Probably. Bashir cannot visit Western Europe or North America, he can go to Moscow or some of the Gulf countries. Assad may go to China, Iran, maybe India. If there is an arrest warrant put out for him, however, that would limit his movement.
How big is Israel’s concern about Iran in Syria?
Israel’s concern is growing about Iranian presence in Syria for two reasons. Firstly, you have tens of thousands of pro-Iranian fighters [Iraqis, Afghanis, Lebanese, Pakistanis], and they are not going home after this settles. And if there is another Hizbollah-Israel war, a lot of these fighters are battle-hardened and would reinforce Hizbollah in any new war against Israel.
Secondly, the increased Russian air presence in Syria and Hizbollah’s deployments near the border are of big concern to Israel. It’s both the combat air operations and the new surface-to-air missile batteries the Russians have deployed in western Syria, as well as Russia’s presence at Khmeimim airbase.
The Israelis used to fly with no worry over Syria, but now their whole calculus has changed. The shift in the dynamic in Syria has made the situation worse for Israel.
How about the Kurds? You said before they shouldn’t rely on the US to protect them after ISIL is defeated.
After ISIL is booted out of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, there is a high likelihood that the Iranian militias and Assad would start an offensive against the Kurds and will not respect the Rojava ceasefire. In that case, the Americans won't use troops to defend the Syrian Kurds. There is no appetite for this among the American public. Donald Trump - similar to Barack Obama - wants to avoid involvement in foreign civil wars. Turkish president [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan will be happy with an Assad offensive, and the Kurds would be making a terrible mistake thinking the US will come and save them.