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We Didn’t Understand Syria

We Didn’t Understand Syria

Tuesday, 16 March, 2021 - 16:15
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

When I was the American ambassador in Syria ten years ago, I often walked after work to a local shop selling laham bi-ajeen to take to my residence for dinner. I would pass coffee shops and commercial stores where people were watching on television the events in Egypt and later the events in Libya and Yemen. We learned the evening of February 17 about the peaceful demonstration that day at the Hareeqah district in downtown Damascus three kilometers from our embassy; a Syrian told us where to find information about it on social media. Similarly, we learned about the events in Daraa from Syrian friends who told us how to find the information on Facebook, and we watched the news networks in those first days like Syrians. As I look back it is obvious that we were always running to catch up to events in Syria.


Most importantly, we didn’t understand that by 2012 it was a real war. Syrians on the ground under barrel bombs and chemical weapons attacks understood this, but American officials far away in Washington insisted “There is no military solution.” We said it so many times between 2011 and today that it is almost like a religious article of faith. But in war, the military balance is the most important consideration. When his advisors warned Joseph Stalin in 1944 that the Pope in the Vatican would be angry at Soviet actions Poland, a Catholic country, Stalin answered, “how many divisions does the Pope have?” The Soviet army stayed in Poland 49 years. The Americans didn’t respond after the Russian Air Force intervened directly in the Syrian war in September 2015. President Obama expected the Russians would fall into a quagmire like the Americans faced in Vietnam. But in Vietnam the Soviet Union and China sent more supplies and weapons to North Vietnam after each American escalation. Washington didn’t understand that without escalation on the side of the Syrian opposition there would be no quagmire for Russia. I still hear some in Washington express hope that Russia is in a Syrian quagmire but the military balance favors Moscow and Damascus. Moscow can afford the cost easily. Similarly, the Americans had too much hope in the power of economic sanctions to extract concessions from Assad who clearly will stay on his throne despite sanctions.


In addition, the Americans made the mistake of thinking that agreement among the foreign ministers in meetings of the friends of Syria is the same thing as agreement on military strategy and tactics in the war. We could not fix the problem of different national interests and agendas and the contradictory actions of the intelligence services of the friends of Syria hurt the Free Syrian Army and helped Assad militarily.


The biggest mistake the Americans made was their not understanding the thinking of Syrians. I visited Hama in July 2011 to send a message to the Assad government that if it undertook a massacre we would be watching carefully, unlike 1982. I said this in my meeting with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on the Monday after my visit. Unfortunately, my visit gave many Syrian protesters the impression that Washington supported regime change and President Obama’s statement in August 2011 that Assad had to step aside affirmed that mistaken thinking. But after Baghdad in 2003, Washington wanted a national unity government for a transition period that would spring from negotiations between Syrians. American actions and statements between 2011 and 2019 moved the focus away from Syrian negotiations to foreign countries’ interventions.


Now the Americans hope that the example of the autonomous administration can compel concessions from Assad. However, with government (hukm) in the hands of a separate ethnic group, an independent militia and an independent administration, many Syrians don’t understand the meaning of decentralization or federalism but they fear that these things will divide their country. Most of the American friends of the autonomous administration don’t understand how Assad exploits that fear. Perhaps the local Syrians who control Idlib and Afrin and Hasakah and Deir Zour want a unified Syria but they are not explaining how to achieve it with Damascus. Of course, developing that Syrian vision and plan will take time and require big compromises that will not be secret.


The compromises will have to be painful, especially in view of the military balance. Probably the discussions have to start in small groups and expand gradually and the ideas and organizing must come from Syrians, not Americans. Germany regained its unity in 1990 after negotiations between East and West Germans in one track while the four occupying states discussed European regional security on a separate track. There would never have been a deal if the Germans had not reached an agreement among themselves first.


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