Interview with Robert Ford, Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria

Robert Ford

Interviewed by: Dylan Etzel '17

We recently sat down with Robert Ford, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and expert on Middle Eastern affairs, to ask him some questions about the Islamic State. 

FAS: Let’s start with the basics: what is the goal of the Islamic State (IS)?

RF: The Islamic State is trying to create a new Islamic Empire, a Caliphate, around Syria and Iraq, and will eventually, because of its ideology and tawheed, extend to all parts of the Muslim world.

FAS: IS conquered a lot of territory in a small amount of time. Where does their funding come from, and is the United States doing anything to cut off that funding?

RF: They don’t have that many fighters. They probably only have about 30,000, and they are fighting a two-front war. There are in combat in Syria; they are in combat in Iraq, so they have conquered a lot of ground without many fighters. And one of the ways they have been able to do that, in Iraq especially, is with the help, direct help, of Iraqi citizens who are disenchanted with the government in Baghdad. In Syria they have made progress because of the community and the actions of fighting against the Syrian government, the Free Syrian Army, and in a three-way civil war the Islamic state at one time had a ceasefire with the Assad regime, in concentrated efforts [against] the Free Syrian Army, they seem to have run their battle’s course in Syria, in the short term we haven’t seen any gains in the last six weeks. And in respect to what we’re going to do, for a long time, the Obama administration didn’t really address them, either in Iraq or in Syria, but the fall of the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, seems to have spurred them to action in Iraq, and at the request of Iraqi authorities, they began undertaking airstrikes and providing urgent military help to fighters on the ground. The Iraqi Kurdish militia called the Peshmerga has drummed up some of the remaining Iraqi air units that have not filtered apart. The Obama Administration is going to be targeting Iraq because there’s a legitimate government of Iraq that has a military in contact with international law. I entirely feel that they were slow to act in Syria. They don’t need an international legal justification in Iraq, but it’s become quite obvious that without the Islamic State push in Syria that they could have this in Iraq. But if there were airstrikes in Ar-Raqqah... We are beginning a program to strengthen moderate Syrian rebels who are fighting the Islamic State on the ground. That hasn’t actually gotten off the ground yet.

FAS: The government just approved a proposal to arm Syrian rebels, but there’s been a lot of talk about how it is too late for that. In your opinion, is it? If not, what’s the rationale behind it?

RF: Well I don’t think it is too late; there are still tens of thousands of Syrian opposition fighters that are not in the Islamic State that are not in the Al Qaeda cell. There are thousands of these fighters and they are fighting on the ground there’s a big fight underway right now in Northern Syria. There has been fight after fight in the southeastern suburbs of Damascus. There has been fighting underway just to the east of Damascus. So I definitely think those who say “too late” have a very limited understanding of what’s going on, without actually looking at the fighting going on, on the ground. Two, the Syrian Civil War is so complex that it defies these generalizations. And then I lastly would say that I have heard very few people say that the Islamic State does not represent, is a short term, immediate threat. [It] is a longer term threat to the United States. And for those who would say there is a threat, and [who said] it’s too late to do anything in Syria would have ended up proposing alternative policies to address the problem. For this policy, helping moderate rebels, few proposed an alternative. You can’t beat something with nothing.

FAS: To the best of your knowledge, why exactly is ISIS targeting foreign journalists, and do they really think the beheadings will lead to decreased US action?

RF: Well they don’t only target Westerners or journalists, they target foreigners. But they have targeted Iraqis and thousands of Syrians. For example they’ve murdered over 700 of a Syrian Sunni tribe, in Eastern Syria; they rose up against them. They murdered them several months ago though. But they’re murdering these poor Westerners, for example, and these hostages, and they really mean to intimidate the Americans and British from undertaking further airstrikes. In effect they’re saying that if we don’t stop, they’ll keep killing hostages. And they’re vicious enough to keep doing it. It’s very unfortunate, but it serves as a reminder that this is a group that isn’t going to hesitate to use terrorist methods to move toward the goal of creating their greater Islamic caliphate.