In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week, President Obama singled out Syria for some of his harshest criticism to date. “As we meet here today, men, women, and children are being tortured, detained, and murdered by the Syrian regime. Thousands have been killed…. Thousands more have poured across Syria’s borders,” said Obama. “The question for us is clear: Will we stand with the Syrian people, or with their oppressors?”
One man who has stood conspicuously with Syrian protesters is U.S. ambassador Robert Ford. He has made news for recently attending a memorial service for a human rights activist who died in Syrian custody, and for showing up at various Syrian cities to show solidarity with protesters. Recently, Amb. Ford spoke by phone from Damascus with National Journal senior correspondent James Kitfield. Edited excerpts from their interview follow:
NJ: You and a number of other Western ambassadors recently attended a condolence ceremony for the prominent Syrian activist Ghiyath Matar, who reportedly was tortured to death by the Assad regime. What message were you trying to send?
Ford: President Obama and [Secretary of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton have both already called on President Bashar Assad to step aside because he has lost the legitimacy to govern. That a pretty powerful statement, and the Syrian government understands our position well. The fact that eight ambassadors traveled to the condolence ceremony for Matar, however, made it an international event. If we hadn’t attended, the ceremony might not even have been covered by the local news outlets. As it turned out, it was covered by all the major Arab satellite networks as well as the BBC. The fact that you had all these ambassadors in attendance, including the personal representative of the United States, made a difference in how it was covered.
NJ: So you continue to reject the argument that the administration should pull you out of Damascus to show U.S. displeasure with the Assad regime?
Ford: As I said, our displeasure is well understood by the regime, and pulling me out wouldn’t significantly add to that message. By having a U.S. ambassador on the ground, we can draw more attention to what is going on in this country. I find myself on the embassy Facebook page frequently, for instance, because we discovered that a lot of Syrians read it. When they see a posting by me, it carries more weight than if it was just a press release or spokesman responding. So I continue to believe that not having an ambassador in Syria at this critical time would just amount to unilaterally disarming ourselves when we need to show support for a democratic transition here.
NJ: Over the summer you earned the ire of the regime by ignoring its travel restrictions and showing up at a demonstration in the city of Hama, which is infamous as the place where the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, launched a scorched-earth crackdown against demonstrators that left as many as 10,000 Syrians dead. Why risk it?
Ford: Well, the government was claiming that Hama had been occupied by “armed gangs and terrorists,” so I wanted to witness the demonstrations myself. I didn’t announce that trip in advance, and when I just dropped in, the demonstrators didn’t actually believe that the American ambassador was in their midst. When they did realize who I was, they were delighted that someone from the international community was there to witness what was happening. There were no armed gangs. The only weapons I saw in Hama were sticks and a few slingshots.
The larger of point of my traveling to Hama and other cities where demonstrations are taking place is to reinforce the message that the international community cares about freedom of expression and assembly. Syria is a signatory to the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, and the government pledged to uphold those rights. I also go to drive home the message to protesters that we want their movements to stay peaceful. What has so impressed the world about the Syrian protests, in fact, is the courage of protesters who have remained peaceful even as they face down this really brutal regime. It reminds me of scenes out of the movie Gandhi, only instead of being beaten by policemen wielding sticks, these protesters are being shot.
NJ: Has there been no let-up in the government crackdown?
Ford: If anything, I would say government repression has stepped up. There are more reports of extrajudicial killings, more reports of people being brutally tortured in Syrian detention facilities, and more incidents of people dying from that torture. That was very clear from the body of Ghiyath Matar, who had clearly been very cruelly treated in detention.
NJ: Has the tenor of the demonstrations remained unchanged over the past six months?
Ford: I would say the dynamic has changed somewhat, because after six months of this, the demonstrators and the government have both adapted their tactics. A pattern has developed where the regime sends a heavy military presence into a place like Homs, which is Syria’s third largest city, and things quiet down until the military withdraws. Then the protesters come right back out. We’re also seeing a weekly cycle to the protests and violence. The biggest protest marches usually occur on Fridays after prayers, and frequently the regime ends up shooting at the crowds. On Saturday, there are then large marches surrounding the funerals, and then more shooting. So it ebbs and flows until Friday comes around again.
Because it’s been so hot here through the summer, we’ve also noted that there are a lot more demonstrations and marches in the evenings. Probably half the demonstrations now occur during the night, which has the added advantage that it’s harder for undercover police to identify protesters at night. So the cover of darkness makes it feel safer for the demonstrators. And as I mentioned, the major trend is that more people are getting killed, arrested, and are dying in detention.
NJ: Aren’t some Syrian opposition figures calling publicly for international protection from the regime for the first time?
Ford: Yes, as the months of demonstrations have dragged on, and protesters have watched the international community intervene militarily in Libya to protect demonstrators there, they have begun to wonder whether similar help might not be forthcoming for them. Some protesters carry signs calling for an internationally imposed “no fly” zone, and others have called for international observers. At an opposition meeting held earlier this week, on the other hand, there was agreement that they didn’t want any foreign interference. So I will tell you that there is no real consensus among the opposition movement on exactly what the international role should be.
NJ: What do you tell those figures who want the United States or the international community to come to their rescue?
Ford: I tell them that in contrast to Libya, there is no real internal consensus behind an international intervention even among opposition figures, no regional consensus calling for such an intervention, and no broad support for it at the United Nations. Syria is just not the same as Libya. So when asked, I tell them that a military intervention is not on our agenda.
NJ: How much high-level contact do you have with the Syrian regime?
Ford: I had a meeting this week at the Syrian Foreign Ministry to talk about security issues, because after there was a pretty bad attack on the U.S. embassy last July I regularly convey our security concerns. And they have been more forthcoming about addressing our concerns. In terms of meeting with senior Syrian officials, that hasn’t happened in recent weeks. Our public stance is that Assad is either unwilling or unable to implement serious reforms, so he should step aside and let other Syrians move the country towards democracy. So our message is clear, and so is the regime’s rejection of it. That doesn’t leave us a lot to talk about.
NJ: How do you assess the Assad regime’s chances of survival?
Ford: When I first arrived in January, Syrians from virtually every walk of life told me that Assad was someone who had implemented a lot of economic reforms, and who at heart was a man with a vision of a more open, liberal society. That was a pretty uniformly held view. Today, I don’t hear that opinion expressed by anyone. Even the people who still support Assad -- and there are many who still do in Damascus in particular -- don’t have confidence that he will ever change or become a reformer. After his regime has killed an estimated 2,700 people, with thousands more wounded, arrested, and abused in detention, I just don’t think Assad will ever regain his reputation as a reformer, or his legitimacy.