State Department Dissent On Syria Approach Signals Divide Within Administration
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Something highly unusual happened in the world of American diplomacy this past week. A deep, internal rift at the U.S. State Department over the war in Syria was made public in the form of a letter. The New York Times got a hold of this memo, signed by 51 State Department diplomats and mid-level officials, urging the Obama administration to use military force against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in order to bring an end to the civil war that has raged on there for five years. To talk more about the significance of this, we are joined by the last U.S. ambassador to serve in Syria before the civil war consumed the country. Robert Ford joins us on the line now. Thanks so much for being with us.
ROBERT FORD: Pleasure to be with you this morning.
MARTIN: This letter - this memo came through a designated channel at the State Department that was set up a long time ago for this very reason - right? - as a place to voice dissent without fear of reprisals. How often is it used, though?
FORD: In my 28 years at the department, I heard of numerous dissent channel messages - in the dozens. But I never heard of one that had more than four, five, six signatures. So what's really unusual about this is that 51 people signed it. That's remarkable.
MARTIN: The memo essentially says the current policy regarding Syria is broken. The diplomacy hasn't worked. Assad has not given an inch. And there has to be more pressure on him if anything's going to change. So may I ask you where you come down on this? Do you think military strikes are the best way to achieve that?
FORD: First of all, the political process necessary to get a negotiated deal to negotiate a new government is broken. It's not working. And a cease-fire isn't working. We all saw the bombs falling on Aleppo. So the administration needs to do something different if it hopes to get to the negotiation that it says it wants. U.S. military force should be considered as an option. But it is certainly not the only option. To me, it should be the last option. And I would much prefer to see an effort on - directed towards helping opposition fighters on the ground to put more pressure on Assad to negotiate.
MARTIN: Why hasn't there been more robust support for opposition forces?
FORD: I think the main reason is that the administration is nervous that either, A, it would topple the Assad government. Of course, the point is not to topple the government. The point is to get the government to negotiate. This is not about regime change. This is about a negotiation. And the second reason the administration has been reluctant is they fear that this would eventually lead to U.S. military involvement in Syria. But the U.S. military already is involved in Syria, out in eastern Syria in the war against Islamic State.
MARTIN: How much of the complicating factors in Syria has to do with how the U.S. has prioritized the threat? I mean - correct me if I'm wrong - but the U.S. priority in Syria - the administration has prioritized the threat against ISIS, not the instability wrought by the civil war.
FORD: And the memo that we're talking about - the dissent memo addresses that point precisely and says that it will be impossible to get a sustainable, long-term solution to the Islamic State challenge in Syria if you don't address the broader Syrian civil war because the Islamic State gains credibility and gains new recruits on the ground.
MARTIN: Has this been personally frustrating for you? I mean, it's - you left this position critical of the administration's policy in Syria.
FORD: I think it's been frustrating for everyone. I think it's been frustrating for the people even at the top of the administration. The real question is not to be frustrated. The question is how to be creative and find ways to resolve the Syrian crisis and how to contain the problems that it's creating in Europe, creating in the Middle East.
MARTIN: Robert Ford is the former U.S. ambassador to Syria. He is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. Thanks so much for talking with us.
FORD: It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.