“I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy,” he said. “We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat.”
Ford left Syria in February 2012 amid the escalating civil war. He remained ambassador until earlier this year; the embassy has been extremely active on social media.
Syria is holding presidential elections on Tuesday, but ballots are only being cast in areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad, and his only two opponents were government-approved.
“There really is nothing we can point to that’s been very successful in our policy except the removal of about ninety-three percent of some of Assad’s chemical materials. But now he’s using chlorine gas against his opponents.”
At the beginning of Syria’s conflict, the U.S. State Department – including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – pushed hard for America to provide robust support for the moderate opposition; that recommendation was not followed.
Ford said it is “now widely known that the State Department thought we needed to give much more help to the armed opposition in Syria.”
American policy, he said, has “evolved” a bit more in that direction, but it needs to go further.
“The United States and our friends, we have tools that could put greater pressure on Bashar al-Assad,” Ford said. “Especially as the extremist threat to the United States and to our friends emanating out of Syria grows, I think we really must consider carefully whether or not we are doing all we can to help our friends in Syria.”
Assad would not be in the powerful position he now is, Ford told Amanpour, were it not for the support from outside powers like Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia.
“We're always a little bit behind the curve. And we need to get ahead of the curve. That is important.”
The common refrain among people skeptical of deeper involvement in Syria is that with the influx of terrorist groups, America and its allies no longer know who the opposition really is.
Ford refuted that notion head on.
“We've identified them quite well now. Some people say, well, we don't know them well enough; we can't depend on them. We know them quite well. We've worked with them for years.”
“They need to get the tools they must have to change the balance on the ground, at least in some localities.”
“And by the way, they're actually winning in the north of Syria. Assad has done well in the capital, down south. But in the north, the moderate opposition is actually gaining ground.”
“We will need friends on the ground – not American soldiers, but friends, Syrians – who are fighting those groups and we need to help those people in their fight against al Qaeda. And we need to do it urgently.”
Ford said that the current state of affairs, in which the moderate opposition has now been forced to fight both the Assad regime and Islamist terrorist groups, is no surprise.
Assad “physically does not control two-thirds of Syria,” Ford said. “And we warned even as long as two years ago that terrorist groups would go into that vacuum, as we had seen in places like Afghanistan and Somalia and Yemen and Mali.”
“This is not rocket science. In a place where there is no government control, terrorist groups can infiltrate in and set up places where they can operate freely.”
“And we warned this would happen in Syria, and it has.”
As someone with deep ties to the country, Ford said the situation in Syria is profoundly depressing and distressing.
“I think all of us, people who hold to basic values of human decency and dignity, need to help Syrians.”
“It is not a conflict that we should ignore, either on moral grounds or on national security grounds, given the extremist threat to us and our friends.”