The ex-ambassador to Syria shared his regrets, and said a TV show prepared him for the job
WATCH | Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, opened up about his biggest regret, why he has no plans to return to foreign service and how a cable TV show helped train him for one of his most challenging roles.
Robert Ford had a distinguished career in foreign service in the Middle East. But when he was named U.S. ambassador to Syria, he turned to one of America's most notorious TV families for help in understanding the country's complex dynamics.
"I asked my boss if there were any particular books on Syria I should read before I go. He gave me some books for background and said, ‘Oh, there’s one other thing that will help you understand. Watch a few episodes of the mafia show, The Sopranos. And it’s true. There’s a comparison to be made,” Ford said.
But no network could imagine the drama Ford would encounter in Syria:
A civil war that would kill hundreds of thousands of people and rage on for years
Opposition groups, including ISIS, fighting for control of the country
A president, Bashar al-Assad, who used chemical weapons on his own people
Three years into the job, Ford walked away, saying he could no longer defend U.S. policy. He said he doesn't regret the decision. So what still weighs heavy on his mind?
"I have one big regret, which is that Syrians in the opposition always thought that we would send in our military to save them from Bashar al-Assad. And as much as I told them it wasn’t going to happen, they didn’t believe me. They just told me, 'America, Statue of Liberty, land of freedom, they’ll come,'" Ford explained.
The U.S. didn’t come. There were no airstrikes, not even after then-President Obama said Assad’s chemical weapons attack crossed a so-called "red line". Ford strongly believes U.S. military action could have changed things.
"Had we done a short but stern strike, we might have given impetus to the Syrian government to go to the Geneva talks and actually engage seriously with the opposition to find a political settlement,” Ford said.
Fast forward four years, and there's still no settlement. And the crisis in Syria has snowballed, spreading well beyond its borders. It can be easy to feel removed from the chaos happening thousands of miles away. But the haunting images of the casualties of violence and the refugee crisis that persists are reason enough to care.
Ford said Americans have an even more personal stake, with 400 Special Ops forces in combat operations in or near Syria, helping in the battle against ISIS.
I don't think many Americans understand that. There's a risk to our own young people in uniform who are over there every day.
The threat from extremists, according to Ford, should also compel Americans to take interest in the crisis in Syria -- especially considering the recent terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany.
"Happily, they have not struck yet in the United States, but there's always a risk," Ford said. "And so how to get rid of these extremist elements in Syria is a concern to all Americans. We don’t want what happened in Paris to happen in an American city.“
But with America largely staying out of things in Syria, Russia has stepped in to fill the void. It has sent thousands of troops, launched airstrikes and helped Assad regain control of Aleppo. The Obama administration reacted with outrage.
But the Trump administration may see a reason to team up with the Russians. Can they be an ally in the fight against ISIS?
"The primary purpose of the Russian intervention had nothing to do with fighting the Islamic State," Ford said. "So now, going forward, does Vladimir Putin want to turn 90 to 100 degrees and instead want to focus on the Islamic State? That’s up to Vladimir Putin. I think were he to make that decision then there might be room for the United States to cooperate with the Russians.”
Regardless of policy shifts in Syria, Ford is crystal clear about his plans moving forward. And he said they don’t involve another stint overseas on behalf of the Trump administration.
"I have not been asked, and I am very happy teaching at Yale and working at the Middle East Institute," he said. "I had a great time in government. It’s fascinating work. You work with wonderful dedicated people. But I think it's now time for a younger generation to step forward."