Robert Ford is one of the outstanding Arabists of his generation—a diplomat who has capably represented American interests in Iraq, Algeria, Syria, and other countries. The New York Times had reported earlier this year that he was next in line to become ambassador to Egypt, yet on February 28 he announced he was stepping down as envoy to Syria and leaving the government.
He did not reveal at the time why he quit—but now he has. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour he said:
Christiane, I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy. 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.
And there really is nothing we can point to that’s been very successful in our policy except the removal of about 93 percent of some of Assad’s chemical materials. But now he’s using chlorine gas against his opponents in contravention of the Syrian government’s agreement in 2013 to abide by the chemical weapons convention. The regime simply has no credibility and our policy is not addressing the Syrian crisis as it needs to, frankly speaking.
Coming from a soft-spoken diplomat such as Robert Ford, that’s a bombshell. Elsewhere in the interview he made plain that—like David Petraeus, Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton, and other senior members of the administration—he favored providing more support to the non-jihadist opposition at the beginning of the conflict. He said:
Had there been more military assistance and logistical assistance—and even things like cash—two things would have happened differently. Number one, the opposition would have probably been able to gain more ground a couple of years ago more quickly and been able to go to a negotiating table in a much stronger position; the regime would have been much weaker.
And the second thing is—and this is really important, Christiane—the ability of al-Qaeda and Islamist extremist groups to recruit away from the moderates would have been less. And we would have less of an extremism problem in Syria now. Had there been more systems provided to the moderate forces even a year or two ago, it would have made a big difference.
Alas President Obama failed to follow his advisers’ policy on Syria and is still equivocating about what to do even as the situation goes from bad to worse. Ambassador Ford has delivered a much-needed rebuke from the inside to the president’s scandalous failure to address the worst human-rights and strategic disaster of the past decade. The only wonder is that more administration officials who have staked their careers on the cause of humanitarian intervention are not resigning in protest.