Elise Amendola/AP

Former envoy to Syria: New challenges for ‘expanding’ refugee crisis

America’s former ambassador to Syria talks with Sheila MacVicar about the refugee issues

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Amid the ongoing refugee crisis in Syria, the international community has looked to the United States to admit more refugees. But U.S. policy makes it very difficult for Syrians to find refuge in America.

To date, the U.S. has taken in about 600 Syrians refugees. Much of this has to do with the U.S. requiring all Syrian refugees to register in Turkey or Jordan, making an already difficult process that much more complicated.

As the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, Robert Ford is all too familiar with these challenges. Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, who was sympathetic and supportive to the moderate opposition of President Bashar al-Assad, has grown increasingly critical of moderate rebels for working with jihadists.

In an interview with Compass, Ford discussed whether U.S. policy toward Syria has worsened the refugee disaster. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Looking at the crisis in the Middle East and looking at the outflowing of migrants, is there something that the Obama administration should have or could have done that would have prevented this?

Syria is a huge human tragedy and is probably the biggest human tragedy of the 21st century so far. There are lots of things we could have done perhaps to minimize the conflict or to find a way to resolve it politically some years ago. That’s a whole separate discussion.

With respect to this humanitarian crisis, I have to give the administration good points on trying to find resources to help people outside of Syria who are outside of camps in places like Turkey, Jordan Lebanon and Iraq.

In many cases, doing the best we can is very difficult. The U.S. is the largest single donor country among any in the world for Syrian refugees. But now, the problem, as you just noted, is expanding. We now have Syrians trying to get out of the Middle East and trying to get to Europe, so there is a whole new set of challenges. One of the things that the Obama administration will have to think about is the number of Syrians who could come here under refugee status in coordination with the United Nations procedures.

But the U.S. has taken so few – 600 over the course of four years of war. Why is that?

Robert Ford, then the U.S. Ambassador to Syria, testifying at a House Foreign Affairs committee hearing on the crisis in Syria in March 2013.
Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call via AP

Well, I think there’s both a sort of dry, boring bureaucratic angle to it in terms of the process and paperwork that has to be done. It’s not a good excuse, but it is the reality. There’s a second part in that Americans, as we look at the problem of extremism in the Middle East and the problem of the Islamic State, see concern that people who come into the U.S., even under refugee status, could be coming here as a security risk. There’s a whole other level of name-checking and vetting and security background checks to make sure those who come here, in fact, mean us no harm.

When you were ambassador, did you encourage the State Department to increase the flow of refugees to the U.S.?

When I was working on Syria at the State Department, we absolutely did want to increase the number of Syrian refugees allowed into the U.S.

What were the obstacles?

Like I said, there are a number of U.S. agencies involved in this. The State Department is not the only player. The Department of Homeland Security and various agencies set the number of refugees allowed in. I’m hoping that the U.S., as a people and a government, looks at the tragedy in Syria and sees it as a higher priority in regard to our refugee admittance policy.

What we’re seeing now in the Mediterranean – and on land in Europe – is not new. This is at least the second summer of this kind of exodus. Yet, in the course of 12 months, collectively, we have not seemed to develop a policy. Why do you think there’s no understanding that this is a phenomenon that’s happening?

I think I would disagree. There is a policy, just not a policy that’s expanding fast enough. The process, as I said, is moving very slowly. They will have to assign more people to process the paperwork to do the background checks. It is a resource-driven issue.

There’s also the larger question about what to do with the war in Syria. Presumably, if you can stop the conflict, you can stop the flow of refugees. Is there a policy in place that will stop that conflict?

There’s a hope but there really isn’t a strategy to achieve the goal, and not a lot of tactics to achieve the goal. The administration still says it wants to see a political solution to have a political negotiation between the government and the opposition.

Syria is a huge human tragedy and is probably the biggest human tragedy of the 21st century so far.

Robert Ford

What do you think about that?

I think we’re not helping to get to the negotiating table. I have to be very honest about that. That’s why I left the State Department. I liked the goal in terms of getting to a political negotiation; that’s absolutely necessary. But in order to achieve the goal, you have to have a strategy; you have to have tactics to make the strategy work. That’s something the administration has had difficulty with. Why? Because one side in this conflict – the government side – refuses to negotiate power sharing.

Convincing the government to negotiate would be done by putting more pressure on the government in regard to arming a military force to fight against the government?

I could think of a variety of ways. The most important, because there is a war and there’s real fighting going on every day, is military pressure. That’s not the only pressure, but that’s certainly part of it. There are other things the administration could do as well, whether it be finding ways to get the Syrian political opposition to reach out to the elements of support for Bashar al-Assad and undermine his support politically, which has to go with the arming strategy.

There’s more discussion these days about a no-fly zone. A no-fly zone does not solve the Syrian conflict, but would it be a tactic to help achieve a strategy of negotiating? It might be. But the U.S. might want to think about how to use a no-fly zone creatively with the regional countries – Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia – so everyone works in tandem toward getting to that negotiating table.

Robert Ford told Compass host Sheila MacVicar that the Obama administration has had difficulty implementing a strategy to address the concerns surrounding the crisis in Syria.
Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call via AP

Even those who are theoretically allied on the battlefield are not working in tandem.

That’s right. The reason Americans see the different fighting groups on TV is because the countries in the region have different client groups. Their little client groups go help fight the Assad regime instead of having a single, unified command structure.

The U.S. does not seem to be doing a lot to bring those patron states together to find a common goal.

It’s not. In fact, I’d even go a step further. Our training program for some Syrians has begun in Jordan and will soon start in Turkey. That will add yet another group on top of everything else that’s out there already, so we’re actually contributing to the divisions that already exist in the Syrian armed opposition. Rather than try to bring everybody under one umbrella, we’re actually expanding the problem of divisions.

And more than that, it’s creating a force that’s small in number against battlefield enemies that have the capacity to put many more people and assets on the battlefield.

The number of fighters for the Islamic State in Syria is estimated to be somewhere in the neighborhood between 20,000 to 35,000 or 40,000. The numbers fluctuate. We’re going to train maybe 3,000, 4,000, or 5,000 this year. That force against 20,000 or 30,000 is probably not going to be particularly successful in doing what’s necessarily in terms of seizing terrain, clearing it and holding it.

So why do it?

In my mind, the program at the scale it’s at and the limitations set on it is probably not going to be particularly successful. By contrast, if you use that force to merge it into other groupings so that it’s part of a larger force under a unified command structure … with a mission that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other states in the region agree on, then I think you have a much better chance for support. But right now, for example, Turkey and the Saudis are saying that the force we’re training will be used both against the Islamic State and the Assad regime. And the Americans are saying, “Oh, no, no, they would only be against the Assad regime.” 

I liked the goal in terms of getting to a political negotiation; that’s absolutely necessary. But in order to achieve the goal, you have to have a strategy; you have to have tactics to make the strategy work. That’s something the administration has had difficulty with.

Robert Ford

So, you have added to the confusion and an increasingly patchwork map?

Exactly. I think we need to be really careful as we train this force about whether we are all in sync with regional allies. Do we have a program of sufficient scale to do the mission against the Islamic State? If we don’t address the Assad issue like the Turks and Saudis and others want us to do, is the mission going to be successful or do we need to rethink the mission?

While all of this is going on and there is this hope of getting to some sort of political resolution, the people are stuck in the middle, in suburbs in Damascus and other parts of Syria, going, “What’s my future? Where do I go?”

The U.N. put out an estimate saying that there are more than 200,000 people who are in besieged communities surrounded by the Syrian army with no food, no medicine. They aren’t allowed to leave. It’s medieval. It’s like trying to starve people to death so they surrender. Some Syrian human rights organizations estimate that the number is more like 400,000. The degree of human suffering in the suburbs of Damascus and the areas where fighting is happening like in Aleppo are unimaginable.

Why would people not take the risk of dying trying to flee?

What you saw on your trip is that many people are willing to take the chance of dying. They figure they’ll starve to death at home or drown on a boat trying to go to Europe.

In a way, the latter is almost the easier choice.

The tragedy of Syria is that the international community has been unwilling to actually intervene in a forceful way and bring this conflict to a conclusion. They’ve been unwilling to put pressure on parties in dispute to get to a negotiating table. That’s the real tragedy of Syria.

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