A Rebuke From Within Against Obama’s Syria Policy

In an interview on Tuesday, former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford let loose with harsh criticism:

Ford, who served from 2010 to 2014, basically thinks that Obama was warned that Syria was going to hell, and did nothing to stop it.  “We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat,” the ambassador said. “We warned even as long as two years ago that terrorist groups” would take advantage of the chaos in Syria to build a base of operations — a warning that, of course, turned out to be correct.

He also doesn’t see the deal removing most of Syria’s chemical weapons as making up for…much of anything, really. “There really is nothing we can point to that’s been very successful in our policy except the removal of about ninety-three percent of some of Assad’s chemical materials. But now he’s using chlorine gas against his opponents.” According to Ford, the State Department believed “as much as two years ago” that the US needed to give much stronger support to friendly, non-extremist Syrian rebels. Support the right guys, the argument goes, and the terrorism problem doesn’t loom so large.

Greg Scoblete takes down Ford’s argument for arming the “right” Syrian rebels:

Ford blithely brushed off the question of how the U.S. would ensure custody of those weapons by assuring us that the U.S. government had “information on reliable groups” whose “agenda was compatible with our national security interests.” Of course, even if the U.S. did have a finely tuned understanding of various rebel groups and how they would act if they were to receive large shipments of U.S. weapons (a skill that Washington has curiously failed to manifest elsewhere) this is hardly the only argument against arming factions in Syria’s civil war.

A more serious objection is that backing one side to “victory” does nothing more than implicate the U.S. in the creation of yet-another failed state. Ford, and those cheering him on, have a [surprisingly] naive faith in the power of Syria’s rebel groups to not only depose Assad but to stand up a relatively cohesive and secure state in his wake. Where is this faith coming from? It couldn’t be from Iraq or Libya, where the U.S. directly and indirectly toppled regimes only to see chaos flower in the aftermath. The U.S. directly implanted a government in Afghanistan at the cost of billions of dollars and is now leaving the country at the mercy of a still-potent insurgency.

Larison piles on:

Ford unintentionally draws attention to some of the main reasons why it has never made sense to arm any part of the Syrian opposition. First, there is no such thing as a truly “reliable” group in these conflicts. No matter how agreeable a group’s stated agenda and ideology may appear, the U.S. gains no meaningful influence and control over the groups that it arms, and it cannot rely on these groups to do anything except pursue their own goals. In the short term, that may seem expedient because they claim to have similar goals, but that guarantees nothing later on. The main problem isn’t that the U.S. lacks information about the groups requesting weapons, though it might, but that it doesn’t know what will happen if it succeeds in promoting regime change by proxy.

But Walter Russell Mead agrees with Ford that Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Syria has created international security problems:

Twelve thousand foreign fighters, 3,000 of whom come from Western nations, have entered Syria as jihadists since the war began. The prospect of experienced terrorists with Western passports, native accents, and ties to local communities returning home to the United States and Europe presents a daunting security challenge. … The Soufan Group, an international intelligence and security firm, offered a stark warning this weekend that, as a result of the Syrian war, al-Qaeda “is probably in a better position now than at anytime since October 2001.” On Tuesday, Bashar al-Assad held sham elections that sent a clear signal to the world that he was bound and determined to remain in power. Ford is just the latest of many Washington figures, professional as well as political, Democrat as well as Republican, to decry the President’s weakness in response to the ever-worsening crisis. Will he now act? Can he?

Beinart weighs Ford’s views alongside the similar argument that Vali Nasr makes in his book, The Dispensable Nation:

The Ford-Nasr critique is hardly self-evident. Nasr assails the White House staff for putting domestic politics too much at the center of foreign policy. But Obama’s refusal to take bigger foreign-policy gambles may reflect an accurate assessment of the domestic mood. (It’s noteworthy that the one time Obama did take a big overseas risk—the raid on Osama bin Laden—it was in pursuit of a goal Americans truly cared about). …

Either way, the Ford-Nasr critique deserves more attention because it’s the one most likely to influence Hillary Clinton, who was more supportive of arming Syria’s rebels than Obama, more supportive of a larger Afghan surge and, according to Nasr, more supportive of talks with the Taliban earlier on in the conflict. Intellectually, Clinton has been more influenced by the Balkan Wars than Obama has, and less by the trauma in Iraq. And her self-declared doctrine—“smart power”—which envisages the coordinated use of different aspects of American might, is closer to what Ford and Nasr are proposing than to the Obama Doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit.”