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Former Ambassador to Syria Faults U.S. Stance Toward Rebels

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Robert S. Ford, who was United States ambassador to Syria when the country’s uprising began in 2011 and went on to carry out American policy from abroad on the ensuing civil war, has revealed that he gave up his post in February because he could “no longer defend the policy in public.”

Mr. Ford made the remarks on Tuesday night on PBS NewsHour.

A proficient Arabic speaker and respected diplomat with long service in the Arab world, Mr. Ford gained controversial prominence in Syria by addressing protesters in the streets of Hama early in the uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian government expelled him, and he became the point person trying to coordinate American dealings with both the armed and unarmed opposition.

We’ve consistently been behind the curve,” Mr. Ford said on Tuesday. “Events on the ground are moving more rapidly than our policy has been adapting.”

American officials began calling for Mr. Assad’s ouster and predicting his quick exit two years ago, raising the opposition’s hopes for substantive American aid that has yet to materialize. Instead, Mr. Assad has kept his footing both militarily and politically, and the country staged a presidential election on Tuesday to give Mr. Assad another term in office.

Mr. Ford said that “Russia and Iran have been driving this” by “massively” increasing their support for the Syrian government, while the United States did too little to aid non-extremist elements in the opposition. That left the way open for extremist jihadists who could potentially threaten Americans, and who have even drawn some American recruits, he said, citing a Florida man who recently blew himself up in Syria.

“We need — and we have long needed — to help moderates in the Syrian opposition with both weapons and other nonlethal assistance,” Mr. Ford said. “Had we done that a couple of years ago, had we ramped it up, frankly, the Al Qaeda groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates who, frankly, we have much in common with. But the moderates have been fighting constantly with arms tied behind their backs, because they don’t have the same resources that either Assad does or the Al Qaeda groups in Syria do.”

Privately, Mr. Ford and figures in the Syrian opposition have long expressed frustration with one another. The Syrians complained that Mr. Ford was too bossy and demanding and that he undermined their case in Washington by harping on their disunity. Mr. Ford sometimes became exasperated with the moderate opposition’s infighting and its inability to establish its bona fides on the ground.

In his remarks on Tuesday, though, Mr. Ford suggested that he had fought behind the scenes for policy changes in Washington that he could not win. “Our policy was not evolving, and finally I got to a point where I could no longer defend it publicly,” he said. “And as a professional career member of the U.S. diplomatic service, when I could no longer defend the policy in public, it is time for me to go.” He retired from the State Department at the end of February.

Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, has said that Mr. Ford is entitled to his views as a public citizen, and acknowledged that no one in the administration was satisfied with the situation in Syria. Officials say that significant new aid is planned for non-extremist insurgents in Syria, as President Obama outlined in his May 28 speech at West Point, but analysts say that the aid is unlikely to change the situation in Syria very much.

“It’s not clear to me yet if they are prepared to ramp up in a such a way that would be meaningful on the ground, and that’s what matters,” Mr. Ford said on Tuesday. “This is a civil war, and we can’t get to a political negotiation until the balance on the ground compels — and I use that word precisely, compels — Assad not to run a sham election, but rather to negotiate a political deal.”

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(via NY Times)