WASHINGTON — Once a strong supporter of arming so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria, a former U.S. ambassador later criticized the Obama administration for supporting groups allied with major terrorist organizations.
Now, backed with U.S. weaponry, these same groups are a significant barrier to upcoming peace talks in Geneva.
Robert Ford served as the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014. While he once championed the cause of arming Syrian rebels as a way to topple the presidency of Bashar Assad, he began speaking out against this policy last year. An active Twitter user, Ford admitted last year that the groups being armed by the rebels are actually tied to Al-Qaida and Daesh (an Arabic acronym for the group commonly known in the West as ISIS or ISIL):
@GungHo2 @edwardedark absolutely do not deny – criticized them in 2013 and 2014 and publicly a month ago. major problem for oppo.
— Robert Ford (@fordrs58) February 23, 2015
McClatchy News DC reported last year on a seminar on Middle Eastern politics in January 2015:
“[Ford] launched into an indictment of the moderate rebels, pulling no punches as he told them they could forget about outside help as long as they kept collaborating with Nusra. He suggested that supportive U.S. officials had grown tired of covering for them before an administration and an American public that are skeptical of deeper U.S. involvement in Syria.
‘For a long time, we have looked the other way while the Nusra Front and armed groups on the ground, some of whom are getting help from us, have coordinated in military operations against the regime,’ Ford said. ‘I think the days of us looking the other way are finished.’”
Nusra Front is well-known to be a proxy group representing al-Qaida in Syria. The group was publicly blacklisted by the U.S. government in 2012, despite continuing to secretly receive aid from the U.S., as Ford maintained in his statements. U.S. weapons have also repeatedly ended up in the hands of Daesh, amid rumors that the U.S. deliberately supported them to help put pressure on Assad.
In other statements, Ford insisted the issue may have been one of timing. In a June 2014 interview with PBS NewsHour, he claimed that he had encouraged the Obama administration to arm rebel groups he believed to be unaffiliated with Daesh or al-Qaida, and left because he perceived they weren’t acting quickly enough to prevent those terrorist groups from recruiting among the rebels:
“Events on the ground were moving, and our policy wasn’t evolving very quickly. We were constantly behind the curve. And that’s why now we have extremist threats to our own country.”
The involvement of these same groups with ties to al-Qaida is threatening to sink the upcoming Syrian peace talks in Geneva. McClatchy quoted Ford saying, “It becomes impossible to field an effective opposition when no one even agrees who or what is the enemy,” which seems even more appropriate amid the shifting landscape of the proposed talks, which are reportedly going to continue even if none of the major opposition groups show up.
Watch “Former U.S. ambassador says he could ‘no longer defend’ Obama administration’s Syria policy” from PBS NewsHour: