Robert Ford was one of the State Department’s leading Middle East experts. He joined the Foreign Service in the 1980s serving across the Arab world including appointments to Bahrain, Egypt and Algeria . During the 2000s he served three tours in Iraq as a political adviser and Deputy Ambassador before going on to be the Ambassador to Syria from 2011-2014. Ford is now a resident scholar at the Middle East Institute . This is an interview with Ford about his time in Iraq and Syria and some lessons learned for American foreign policy.
1. You first went to Iraq in 2003 to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority. Paul Bremer’s original plan was for a long term occupation that would include institutional reforms to Iraq’s politics and economy. That contrasted with the view of many in the American military leadership that believed the U.S. presence in the country was the cause of violence and therefore advocated for a speedy withdrawal. Was either of those a viable plan right after the invasion?
It would be generous to say that there was any detailed American plan in 2003. The complete meltdown of the Iraqi state was a surprise, and there was no detailed plan to manage security after the state collapse. In the absence of serious provincial or national security forces, had the U.S. military withdrawn in 2003, most likely local armed groups would have seized control of localities. We saw this in the autumn of 2003 when the nascent Jaysh al-Mahdi seized control of parts of Kufa, for example. It perhaps would have come to resemble parts of Syria now under fragmented opposition groups' control. Meanwhile, by the summer of 2003 the CPA launched an effort to stand up in stages a new, permanent government. Sometimes its objectives were laudable -- building up institutions to protect human rights, for example -- but my own sense is that American efforts were too broad and because all institution building projects and draft laws were important, in the end nothing was. Above all, we failed to understand quickly enough the latent divisions in Iraqi society that truly hobbled, for example, American efforts to build new Iraqi army units.
2. In 2004 you went to work as an adviser to Ambassadors John Negroponte and then Zalmay Khalilzad. Both tried to come up with comprehensive strategies to take on the insurgency. Then in 2007 you were a member of the Joint Strategic Assessment Team put together by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to give advice on the Surge. Despite the changes in personnel the U.S. goals in Iraq remained the same, bring down violence to an acceptable level that would allow for a U.S. withdrawal. The period of Negroponte and Khalilzad was considered a failure, while the Surge is widely praised. What do you think were the big differences between those two times in the occupation?
Ambassadors Negroponte and Khalilzad had the same strategy: strongly support Iraqi efforts to establish first a transitional and then a permanent Iraqi government that would (a) take some of the wind out of the various insurgencies by including representative political elements in political structures and (b) take the lead in maintaining internal security such that American military and political involvement could diminish steadily with time. That was still the plan during the surge - the surge was simply a complement to efforts to better ground the permanent government. Notably, the Jaysh al-Mahdi was still a serious problem in 2008 but especially after then prime minister Maliki confronted it successfully in Basra more of its moderate elements shifted their attention to politics. Sadrist elements, for example, were in the Maliki cabinet. (This left out hardline groups like Asa'ib Ahl Haq, obviously.) We no longer had the constant JAM incursions into Najaf and Karbala, for example. The biggest strategy difference between the 2003-2006 period and that of the surge, starting in the second half of 2007, was that the Americans understood that they would need to be more serious about mobilizing Iraqi Sunni Arabs in order to marginalize the al-Qaida in Iraq elements. Maliki's confrontation with the Jaysh al-Mahdi in Basra helped the Americans make the pitch to the Sunni Arabs that Maliki was not an Iranian pawn, and there were promises of Sunni Arab access to government hiring, project largesse and power sharing all made to the Sahwa. The goodwill among Sunni Arabs that the Americans managed to generate started to dissipate as the Iraqi government began to break these promises as early as 2009, and the Americans didn't react much. It was striking how Sunni Arab tribal figures from places like Diyala and Abu Gharieb who had been helpful to us landed in Iraqi detention without any kind of judicial process. While I personally raised cases with Maliki's chief of staff, overall we failed to react strongly. That was a harbinger of what was to come later. Also a lesson in the limits of institution building.
3. Your third and final tour in Iraq was from 2008-2010 working as the Deputy Ambassador. That covered the 2010 elections where Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya came in first place, but Nouri al-Maliki was able to maintain the premiership. Ali Khedery and Emma Sky have recently written about there being a huge divide amongst Americans officials over how to deal with the voting results and the government formation process. What was your position in this debate, and what did you think about the final decision that was made?
There was a disagreement among American officials for a time after the 2009 Iraqi election, but when Vice President Biden decided we would back Maliki, those disagreements didn't much affect U.S. policy. My sense at the time in 2010 was (a) we needed a prime minister who would be much more supple dealing with Kurds and Sunni Arabs and (b) who could better focus on the economy, and in particular the energy sector so that Iraq could start to rebuild as the security situation in 2010 was improving. I basically left Iraq in February 2010 for my Damascus assignment but my colleagues told me that the drive to back Maliki basically was that it would be faster for him to assemble the needed confirmation votes in the Iraqi parliament than anyone else, and as so often was the case with American policy in Iraq, we were in a hurry; in this case the Americans wanted a new government stood up as quickly as possible in order for us to have a partner with which to negotiate the future of American military forces in Iraq. It is important for outsiders like us to understand that Iraqi politics and consensus-building is not only difficult but very time-consuming.
4. In 2011 you moved on as Ambassador to Syria. The Obama administration’s policy there has been roundly criticized.Could you clarify what the strategy was and was it sound?
The Syrian uprising started three weeks after I arrived in Damascus when there was a spontaneous demonstration in downtown Damascus in response to police abuse of a motorist. From the beginning of the uprising we urged in public and in private for the Syrian authorities to (a) not use an iron fist against what were basically peaceful protest marches and (b) to open a genuine dialogue with opposition figures who would have some influence with the protesters. I told senior Syrian officials at the Presidency and Foreign Ministry specifically that they couldn't hope to repeat the Hama tactics of 1982 and succeed in 2011 in an age of phones with cameras, internet and satellite TV. At the same time, we urged the Syrian opposition activists to eschew violence and I constantly warned them to avoid provoking a Syrian government crackdown since the U.S. would not respond militarily to such an iron fist. I urged the opposition to negotiate with the government.
Some in the Syrian government said they wanted dialogue and to be fair to the government in early 2011 they released some dissidents like Haithem al-Maleh. A large number of key opposition activists got permission to hold a first-time meeting in Qabun to organize themselves to parley the government. However, on the eve of the June 11 meeting Syrian secret police elements occupied the meeting hall and arrested scores, thus forestalling the meeting. The most powerful elements in the Syrian government clearly wanted any dialogue to be only with opposition it chose and essentially controlled. As the government cracked down harder and used more violence in late June and July, we recognized that no matter what a few disingenuous Syrian officials might say, the government was not interested in dialogue and negotiating reform. Thus, the US government tightened sanctions and its rhetoric against Assad personally sharpened. I cannot see how we could have followed any policy other than (a) and (b) at the start of the uprising in the spring of 2011.
Our publicly saying Assad has no legitimacy and should step down turned out to hurt our credibility because we couldn't take steps to make it happen. There were big international and domestic pressures on the White House in mid 2011 for that statement, but the end result didn't help us find a solution. More importantly, however, we didn't understand in the first half of 2011 how hard the regime would fight not only to stay in power but to avoid making any serious concessions. It was clear by September 2011 that the country was headed towards widespread fighting and civil war; much of what I saw on the ground reminded me of Algeria in the early 1990s [during the civil war there]We still hoped to get to a dialogue and peaceful negotiation, but without changing the military balance on the ground, there was never any hope that would happen.
5. You ended up resigning as Ambassador to Syria because you could not support the White House’s strategy. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and ex-CIA Director Leon Panetta also criticized the administration’s Middle East policy. A common theme amongst all thee of you was that the president did not seem to want to be involved in either war. Would you say that is a correct characterization of Obama and what does it say about his stance towards the region?
The President is rightly cautious about getting involved in other countries' civil wars. And after the terrible losses and problems in Iraq, and Afghanistan, the American public is extremely reluctant. The President is also keenly interested in the legalities of what we do abroad, and much of our Syria policy stems from the interpretation of administration lawyers that we can't intervene military across the Syrian border and thus violate Syrian sovereignty no matter how many people the Syrian government kills inside its borders. There is a good study to be done one day on the humanitarian ramifications of existing international law and the shortcomings of responsibility to protect resolutions.
6. What do you think the U.S. should be doing about the wars in Syria and Iraq?
The administration now has a bifurcated approach. It is backing a wobbly Iraqi state, and I sincerely hope it will be tough about the conditionality linked to political progress in return for American military support. I worry about that because my experience is that once we get into these military situations in Iraq we tend to focus more on military angles rather than being tough on the politics. Will we really be ready to withhold help if the Iraqis won't make the hard political decisions and concessions to each other? I get concerned when American officials praise the Popular Mobilization Units without also warning that we can't work at all with fighters who viciously violate any community's human rights.
In Syria, by contrast, the administration has always avoided working with the Syrian state or the opposition. It is not a secret that we have given a few armed opposition groups limited aid, but the accent has to be on the word "limited". Meanwhile, we have countenanced other countries' giving material aid to their client groups. The overall levels of aid have been far too small and thus armed opposition groups have competed with each other for scarce resources and foreign patronage. That is the key reason they are divided; withholding aid from them and allowing different countries to operate in a patron-client relationship has made them divided.
In Iraq we have declined to provide direct aid to Kurds and Sunni Arab tribal elements, insisting upon respect for a central Iraq command.
In Syria we have consistently done just the opposite. We could have built, and could still build, an effective Syrian armed opposition that would fight the Islamic State and Asad. The advances the armed opposition groups have made on the ground in 2015 after other regional countries increased their aid sharply shows what might have been done far earlier. But the most important thing to remember about our strategy in Syria that whatever we do has to aim at building support inside the Syrian government, inside the Syrian opposition and among the various international actors for a national political negotiation.
7. Emma Sky who spent just about the same amount of time in Iraq as you did has written that what happened in Iraq after the 2003 invasion was not inevitable. She argued that there were many possible paths the country could have followed. That challenged the conventional wisdom that the U.S. made so many mistakes for so many years that Iraq was doomed to become a failed state. Where do you fall in that debate, and what kinds of lessons do you think Iraq and Syria can teach the U.S. about how it deals with the Middle East?
I worked closely with Emma on many issues in Iraq and have huge respect for her views. Absolutely mistakes we made in Iraq aggravated the situation. For example, by excluding Saddam military and intelligence officers entirely, and leaving them destitute without even small pensions, we were bound to push some of them into the insurgency. We stood by as then Prime Minister Maliki stood up military chains of command that excluded national structures and other community representatives that alienated both Kurds and Sunnis and even many Shia. Most importantly, we often pushed the Iraqis to unsustainable political agreements, or to skip needed political agreements, in the interest of American time schedules. Look at how many issues related to the 2005 Iraqi constitution are unresolved, ranging from oil to human rights to decentralization. That is above all because of our interest in keeping to an American timetable. So, I conclude that there are three key lessons we must learn going forward.
First, Americans are not now and won't be the key actors in these countries. Indigenous leaders, indigenous forces, indigenous factors will always be determinant. We can influence but we cannot control and sometimes when we think we have a deal we discover it's not sustainable because we didn't consider or understand the local factors of the situation.
Second, for whatever engagement we have in the region, because we must work with local partners who themselves need to generate broad support, we have to be patient. Syrians won't fix their country's problems in a year. Iraqis won't. Egyptians won't. Moreover, being patient is not the same as giving blank checks.
Third, although it should be obvious, I want to highlight that we MUST be aware of unintended consequences of our military action. We didn't plan to melt down the Iraqi state, but we did. We didn't intend to set in train the establishment of a Kurdish separatist region in northern Syria, but we are doing just that in our drive with the PYD/YPG against the Islamic State.
Lastly, I have a perhaps naive hope that we as Americans will stand up for the dignity and rights of the peoples and communities in the region. It is the moral thing to do and over the long term it is the best thing to do in terms of our own national security.