Interview with Ambassador Robert Ford and Mona Yacoubian

Ambassador Robert Ford and Mona Yacoubian speak at the Firing Line Debate on "Trump's Syria Withdrawal and America's National Interest" on January 17, 2020.

On January 27, 2020, the Buckley Program hosted a Firing Line Debate with Ambassador Robert Ford and Mona Yacoubian on “Trump’s Syria Withdrawal and America’s National Interest.” Ambassador Ford is a former American ambassador to Syria. Ms. Yacoubian is the Senior Advisor to the Vice President of Middle East & Africa at the Institute for Peace. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Grant Gabriel: Thank you again for the interview. I would like to start off with a grounding question: You were in favor of President Trump’s plan to withdraw from Syria. Have we withdrawn from Syria meaningfully? Is that plan even still on the table?

Ambassador Robert Ford: No. A couple of things, Grant.

Number one, the rollout and the way they did it was abysmal. You shouldn’t surprise people. You shouldn’t surprise your Secretary of State; you sure shouldn’t surprise your Secretary of Defense; you shouldn’t surprise the troops on the ground. That is just abysmal. So, the rollout was “D-.” But, the thrust of what he was saying: that we don’t need to stay in Syria indefinitely, and we need to let others there figure this out, is right.

So fast forward now to January. And we have reduced our military presence there and we have moved some of the troops away from the Turkish border and down towards the Iraq border where they are protecting a series of mediocre, small oil fields.

I have to say, it is even harder to understand what they are doing now than it was before. And, I am not even going to try defending what they are doing.

GG: I wanted to ask: do you think it is purely pretextual as a means of saving face?

RF: No, this is my interpretation, but I could be wrong—I am in New Haven, not Washington—but it appears to me that the US military and perhaps also the US Department of State, the career people, do not want to abandon the Syrian Democratic Forces, and by holding the oil fields, basically letting the Syrian Democratic Forces manage them, they get revenues by which they pay their fighters, and the Americans are unwilling in the end to abandon those fighters. The Americans think that those fighters are key to defeating ISIS permanently.

GG: General McKenzie this past weekend…

RF: Yeah in the Washington Post…

GG: Yes, he was discussing that we have increased our exercises with our Kurdish allies against ISIS as it begins to reform. You had mentioned in your Washington Post article in support of President Trump’s initial withdrawal that we cannot defeat ISIS, ultimately, on our own and rather that this was a project for the Syrians. Is this current effort doomed to eventual failure?

RF: Yes, I think it is. In the end, ISIS comes out of a series of political, economic, social grievances directed largely, not entirely, at Damascus, and to a lesser extent at the Kurdish leadership in Qamishli. US special operations soldiers, as good as they are and they are very good, cannot really fix a problem like unemployment. An F-16 is really kind of useless, even an F-35 is kind of useless, against corruption. And the idea that somehow our military is going to be able to permanently destroy ISIS completely misunderstands where ISIS comes from, but it is part of a trend in US foreign policy for the last couple of decades of throwing missions on top of the military—first big army, then after Iraq and Afghanistan throwing it more on special ops—to fix problems for which it’s really not equipped to manage.

GG: So, conceding that, and then asking the question: what now? Will a destabilized Assad regime be able to provide the necessary solutions to defeat ISIS?

RF: If I thought anyone was thinking that far in advance, the question would be great, Grant. But, I don’t think they are thinking that far. Basically, they still seem to think that the Syrian Democratic Forces can be built up so big that it can permanently wage war against ISIS and contain it militarily. And, I guess there is kind of a dim hope out there that somewhere resources will come to rebuild the economy. How you then deal with the political, social grievances, I still don’t understand. But anyway, to the extent that there is a plan—as opposed to a hope—I think that’s it.

My own sense is that as long as the Americans build up the SDF, they will build up conflict with Russia and Damascus and Tehran and Turkey. It will be a zone of constant conflict, and ISIS likes nothing better than to slide around zones of conflict. It makes it easier for them to operate, which is why I have said that sooner or later the Syrian government is going to have to resume control of that area, and I have to say it would make more sense to me for the Russians to be protecting those oil fields and reintegrating the Syrian military into that part of the country and let them deal with ISIS. It is not as though Putin likes ISIS.

Since he has won the Syrian Civil War, here is one of the bonus prizes he gets.

GG: In the present Middle East dynamics, where we have increasing conflict with Iran, and we have Russia continuing to expand its sphere of influence in the region, would a backdown in Syria send more concerning messages to our allies more broadly and to our enemies.

RF: Yes, I have heard this argument, but I am old enough to remember where for decades Syria was part of the Russian sphere of influence in the Middle East. It was never a part of the American sphere of influence. Nor was any part of Syria part of an American sphere of influence. Iran and Damascus, the Syrian government, have close relations that go back to the 1970s. When I was ambassador in Damascus, the Iranians were present, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was present. We had diplomats who lived in the same building that some of their officers lived in—which I always thought was a kind of strange arrangement. So, to say that we are going to, like, turn it over to them—they have already been there for a long time. And they already owned it for a long time. If anybody is an interloper, it’s not them, it’s us. And, given the totality of challenges were have, domestic and foreign—and especially as we think about re-shifting back towards Asia, the “Asia pivot”—the insistence of some people to maintain a $1 billion a year operation in Eastern Syria in a mission that has no benchmarks, no endpoint, that will go on endlessly, I just don’t understand. You know, if you really want to cut back on commitments overseas, and refocus, then you really do have to cut back on some commitments.

GG: So then, what would our continued presence in the Middle East look like? Or, what should it look like?

RF: We just had the Iraq ambassador speaking at Yale today, over at the Jackson Institute. The Iraqi government, so far, wants to maintain some kind of residual US military presence to train Iraqi forces. Probably not combat troops that are able to strike Iranian targets on Iraqi soil and violate Iraqi sovereignty. But a training mission? They like that. I could imagine we could continue that. We have an American military assistance mission to Egypt, for example. We don’t have combat forces in Libya despite the problems there. I am not urging that we go into Libya, far from it. What I am saying is that there may be a few places where we are doing small scale military training missions with governments that enjoy sovereignty and stability—relative in Iraq, I grant you—where we may be able to do something useful. I am sure that the Qataris want us to maintain a base in Qatar at Al Udeid. The Kuwaitis at our airbase in Kuwait. The Bahrainis for sure at our Navy headquarters in Bahrain. Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi. We’ll still have a military presence. We just won’t have a military presence in Eastern Syria, which was always a part of the Russian sphere of influence anyway.

GG: Lastly, maybe if I can pivot to something entirely self-interested, I am of Lebanese descent but have never been to Lebanon.

I want to know, as Hezbollah is making a massive comeback, as the Lebanese government crumbles—we can debate whether this is the result of an influx of Syrian refugees straining the economy or other systemic problems—is there hope? Can democracy flourish in the region?

RF: Sure, I will tell you what I think is the most hopeful thing: it’s a lot like how I feel about the United States, it’s the young people. And when I look at these young Iraqis that are protesting peacefully in Baghdad, in Nasiriya, in Najaf, in Karbala, they’ve learned that nonviolence is a better way forward—and they are getting shot at and they are getting killed by the hundreds. And they are really brave young people.

But look at Algeria. Look at Lebanon. Where there are big protests but with a handful of exceptions, Grant, it has been very peaceful—the protest movement in Lebanon. In Algeria, extremely peaceful. Huge protests in Algeria. The young people have learned—my wife and I were in Algeria in the 1990s during a horrible civil war there, where young people were dragged into violence and in many cases inciting violence—a real reversal there. And in Iraq, too, think of fifteen years ago when we were in Iraq and there was violence. So absolutely there is hope.

The trick in the Middle East is an old order is dying with the whole setup, the social contract, that “we repress you, but we give you bread. And you shut up and take the bread.” And now, people are looking for more freedoms, for dignity—I am not saying democracy—but more dignity, more accountability from government and more freedoms. That is a very positive change, I think. Is the new order going to be birthed spontaneously any day now? Is it going to be perfect? Absolutely not. But I think—I am a lot older than you, Grant—my grandmother could tell me about the first time she was allowed to vote, and that is my grandmother. For a while she couldn’t vote. So, it is not like it was perfect in the United States in 1789 or 1866. So, let’s give them a little time, too.

But the young people, I think they are inspiring.

GG: I hope you are right. There is a part of me that wonders—and perhaps this is more editorializing than is allowed in an interview…

RF: Perfectly allowed!

Grant…but that wonders whether we are trending towards a more progressive regime in each of the countries.

RF: Well, Egypt is going backwards, but it is not like all the Egyptians are enthusiastic about that, and so when we have this young guy from Spain talking about corruption in the Egyptian military, we have very quickly big demonstrations in Cairo—which the regime clamped down hard on. It tells me that even in a place as repressed as Egypt there is still a spark there, there is still a flame. So, let’s just give them time. It may be that Egypt is going to be one of the last ones to reform. It could be that we are going to see better changes in Jordan looking at the experience of Syria or Lebanon. Or, in Algeria looking at the experience of Tunisia. Or in Morocco, looking at it. It’s going to be gradual. It is not going to be overnight.

GG: I think that is a perfect message to end on, actually. Just a little bit of hope. And I don’t want to be accused of getting you back late.

Thank you, again, so much for the opportunity and for the interview.

Mona Yacoubian at the Firing Line Debate on “Trump’s Syria Withdrawal and America’s National Interest” on January 17, 2020

Daniel Blatt: Can you tell us a bit about how you ended up in your current career path in Middle East foreign policy?

Mona Yacoubian: I’ve had a long interest in the Middle East, my family comes from Lebanon. When I went to college I decided I wanted to study Arabic, and I ended up doing study abroad in Cairo, that was really my first real introduction to the Middle East. After college I took courses on the Middle East – history, public policy, peacemaking – and I ended up with a Fulbright in Syria, and that really sealed the deal for me, igniting my interest in region, my passion for studying and engaging there, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

DB: Can you tell us what it was like to study in Syria?

MY: It was fascinating. This was in mid-1980s, relations between the US and Syria were not great, it was a novelty to be American there, but the hospitality was so incredible, everywhere people opened doors, welcomed me into their home, it was a fantastic opportunity to study Arabic because so few spoke English. I audited courses in the university of Damascus, lived in dorms, met lots of Syrian friends, and had the opportunity to travel all across country. It really was a fascinating experience, one that deepened my interest in Syria, its diversity, and the complexity of country’s politics and so forth.

DB: So, you’d recommend to Yale students to study abroad?

MY: Oh absolutely, it is critical for understanding the world that we’re in, living and studying outside the US gives you a much better understand of cultures, how people think, history, of another culture and a way of life

DB: Based on your experience in Syria, can you discuss some misperceptions that Westerners hold about Syria?

MY: When I studied there relations between the US and Syria were at a low point, it was the mid-80s. Relations to be fair have never been great, there was a sense by Americans that Syria would be unfriendly, dangerous. And while today it certainly is dangerous, back in mid-80s Syria was a very safe place. I went in not knowing what to expect, and there was no notion of Syrians being hostile to Americans, they made a real distinction between US foreign policy, which they often didn’t agree with, and the American people. I was very warmly received. This went against grain of stereotypes at the time of Syria being hostile.

DB: Can you talk about your job at US Institute of Peace, what you do there, and share your views on the Trump Administration’s recent withdrawal from Syria?

MY: Im a senior advisor at US Institute for Peace. I do a lot of deeper strategic thinking in terms of where conflicts are headed, my focus is largely on Syria, to a lesser extent Iraq and Lebanon. I do quite a bit of conflict analysis, understanding dynamics and trajectory of conflict, and what the implications are for trying to resolve the conflict, peace-building, is there a potential opportunity for peace building at local level. USIP had small pilot peacebuilding program in northeast Syria but following Turkish incursion in northeast Syria in October it has been put on hold. So, I largely focus on strategic advising and conflict analysis with respect to Syria

In terms of Trump and his posture on Syria, my own sense is that it is a real mistake to withdraw our forces. It’s a very novel and interesting approach, very different from Afghanistan, Iraq. And I’d argue that that approach was actually working, it was interesting experiment which didn’t require huge expenditure of US resources but achieved gains on the ground. My own sense is that it’s a mistake to be in the throes of withdrawal from Syria.

DB: Very interesting, I hope this comes up in the debate later!

MY: Yes, I do not think Ambassador Ford will agree with me.

DB: What would you say to current undergraduates considering career in foreign policy?

MY: I would say it’s incredibly important. Were at a moment now where there’s this sense of retrenchment, pulling America back from the world, questioning whether we have vital strategic interests in different parts of world, I would argue it’s more important now than ever for your generation to be engaged in foreign policy. The world is more connected than it’s ever been, more difficult to insulate US from things happening across world, we need bright passionate people to engage, commit to learning another language, different culture, drilling down on challenges that we continue to face across the globe.

DB: It’s tough, many people of our generation become dissuaded when Trump can just erase decades of foreign policy and diplomacy with a 140-character tweet.

MY: It makes me sad to hear that, I think the State Department now more than ever needs more people to reinvigorate it, it’s taken a hit over last few years. Let me also make a plug for US Agency for International Development where I worked before USIP. USAID is a really interesting facet of the US national security apparatus that people don’t focus on since they don’t know what AID does, and they think that development work not as important as hard security challenges. I’d argue the opposite, USAID is a really dynamic and increasingly relevant government agency. I hope you and your colleagues look at careers in international development, specifically USAID

DB: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

MY: The best piece I’ve ever been given was don’t be afraid to take risks. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t decide against doing something because worried because you may not be successful at it. Sometimes the best opportunities come from extending ourselves and taking risks. Even if we’re not successful, we often learn from those kinds of experiences, we take them with us for the rest of our lives.

DB: The Buckley Program’s mission is to spread intellectual diversity on campus by hosting speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds. Do you ever see ideological uniformity or mob-mentality in your work? Does this tendency have negative consequences?

MY: Unfortunately I think the Middle East is prone to polarization, people getting at loggerheads, and sometimes in that kind of environment it’s very difficult to express unpopular, unconventional points of view. Whether dealing with something as contentious as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that was lightning rod issue in college, it was sometimes hard to feel comfortable expressing a different perspective. I would argue on Syria that’s been a real issue. For a little bit the debate become somewhat of an echo chamber in Washington where it was difficult for you to express a different perspective without that perspective being misinterpreted, which led to less rigorous debate about something as complex as the Syrian conflict.

DB: What do you mean by only expressing one perspective on Syria?

MY: There was a period from 2012-2014/5 when there was a really strong advocacy to arm the rebels. I personally was opposed to that, but that was very much minority perspective. So, I think there were lots of voices reinforcing one another, maybe I think it was also exacerbated by the advent of social media which seems to supercharge debates sometimes and so I think it became a very polarized debate, and very difficult to have a more nuanced discussion of the pros and cons of something like arming the rebels. Of course the Assad regime was committing heinous acts and there was a real strong sense to need to help people defend themselves, but arming ended up prolonging and deepening the conflict and I’m not so sure that Syrian civilians were better off. I think if anything it further entrenched regional proxies and made the conflict more difficult.

DB: What are you hoping undergraduates to come away with in the debate?

MY: I hope they gain deeper understanding of Syrian conflict, of its complexity, not feel like in midst of echo chamber, and come away with a much more nuanced appreciation of how difficult and complex these questions are. I wouldn’t pretend to have all solutions, neither would Ambassador Ford, but I hope students come away with more questions than answers since that means we have done a good job of surfacing all the different complex angles to this conflict and how hard it is to actually figure out a smart way forward for American foreign policy.

DB: One more question would be, you’ve talking about how complex conflict is, how do you recommend undergrads go about learning more?

MY: I would say read deeply, there’s actually quite a lot on social media. I know I just said social media can be a negative, but it can actually be a positive. If you push yourself to follow a diverse set of perspectives on Twitter, for example, on the Syrian conflict, there are all kinds of people out there tweeting. People said the Syrian conflict was the first conflict literally tweeted live from the battlefield, so you can see and learn a lot. It is important I would argue for you to force yourself to expose yourself to a diverse set of opinions on the conflict. You may have a particular perspective on the conflict, and sometimes I think it’s tempting for each of us to read and follow and immerse ourselves in that one particular side and not force ourselves to read and try to understand other sides and facets of the debate and conflict on Syria.

DB: Yup, we all suffer from that same tendency.

MY: Yeah everybody does, social media can be powerful tool if you expose yourself to all sorts of perspectives, but you have to have the will to do that.