WASHINGTON – The former American envoy to Syria says the civil war is grinding toward a protracted conflict because of the opposition’s failure to unify around a single leadership against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Robert S. Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said “a huge amount of personal ambition and competition” and lack of trust among the rebel groups has hurt their chances of overthrowing Assad.
“The opposition needs to reassemble around a Syrian agenda first and foremost,” Ford said last week at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
But he was not sure if common concerns would be enough for them to work together. While the Syrian opposition agrees that Assad must go, Ford said, “they always get snagged up…over who should lead the process.”
During his time in Syria, Ford also served as the senior diplomat working with the Syrian opposition until his retirement last month.
Ford said Assad is likely to remain in power in the “medium term” because his regime controls the major cities and coast, while the various opposition forces fight to gain control of the remaining parts of the country.
“It is hard to imagine that Assad is going in the short term, and even in the medium term, to lose control of the area between Aleppo south to Damascus and then over to the coast,” Ford said. “He will control a fourth of the country and the rest of the country will be controlled by other armed factions.”
He cited three reasons for Assad’s ability to maintain power. First, the opposition has been unsuccessful at explaining an agenda that would not threaten the communities that are “the pillars of support for the regime.”
While many of the Alawites – Assad’s Shiite minority sect – do not like him, they find the opposition much more threatening, especially elements affiliated with al-Qaeda.
“A substantial portion of the Alawites community is not enthusiastic about Assad. They are taking terrible casualties and they see no end in sight to that,” Ford said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that over 50,000 pro-Assad forces have lost their lives in the conflict.
“You may assume that over half of those 50,000 are Alawites,” he said. “That’s a heavy loss for a population that’s about 2.5 million.”
Another factor that has helped Assad hang on to power is the financial assistance and arms coming from both Russia and Iran. Iran’s decision to encourage Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite fighters to join the battle has also provided the Syrian government with much-needed manpower.
The third factor is that the Assad regime has had a “certain unity and coherence” that the opposition is lacking.
“You have not seen efforts to remove Assad from within his inner circle,” he said. “They have been pretty united.”
The harsh repression of the population for the past 40 years by the current president and his father, Hafez al-Assad, and Syria’s political culture have both contributed to the disunity among rebel groups, Ford said.
He said Syrian opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime can be broken down into two groups: “external opposition” operating outside of Syria, and “internal opposition” operating within Syria.
Ford seemed to have little confidence diplomacy could resolve the crisis in the near term. He said the Syrian government was not interested in negotiating the establishment of a transitional administration that could govern the country if Assad yielded power.
“I don’t see anything quick on the horizon,” he said. “I see no sign that the regional backers of the regime or the regional backers of the opposition are prepared to stand down.”
Ford expressed doubt on whether Russia and Iran, the two major supporters of the Syrian regime, could be persuaded to stop backing Assad because they “don’t see an alternative to Bashar in terms of controlling the Islamist extremist element.”
“I cannot imagine that the Iranians are anxious to see al-Qaeda sink deeper roots into the eastern three-quarters of Syria. But is that enough to build agreement on an outcome?” Ford said.
Ford said the U.S. has not held any formal discussions with the Iranians about Syria to identify their core interests.
He also criticized countries like Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia for supporting various rebel groups, including extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda.
Ford said he thinks it is unlikely that the Obama administration will provide anti-aircraft weapons to the opposition because of concerns that they might fall in the hands of terrorists or become a threat to civilian aviation.
“Ultimately the solution is not going to be airstrikes against an Assad airfield or drone strikes against regime convoys trundling up to Aleppo,” he said. “It is going to be a political settlement between elements of the regime and the opposition.”
Assad’s forces seized the town of Yabroud, the last rebel stronghold on the border with Lebanon, on March 16 – the latest in a series of steady advances by the regime.
Ford said the recent inroads made by the Syrian government will likely lead the U.S. to revaluate its policy towards Syria.
“It’s easy for me to imagine that in the policy deliberations going forward they’re going to focus on how to change the balance on the ground,” he said.
Asked what he thought Syria might look like in a year, he predicted it might be more “cantonized” and a “patchwork” of territories controlled by various factions.
Other current and former officials have echoed Ford’s remarks acknowledging Assad’s improved military position.
Last month, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told Congress that Assad’s hold on power was strengthened after reaching a deal to get rid of his chemical weapons arsenal.