Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, spoke about the complexities of the ongoing civil war in Syria during a talk organized by the World Affairs Council of Orange County at Hotel Irvine on May 3. Several university students, including UCI students, attended the program.
Ford spoke about challenges and criticisms the United States is facing for its involvement in the war primarily to combat ISIS. He mentioned that while the United States was making progress against ISIS, there have been incidents of U.S. airstrikes targeting civilians in mosques and schools.
“If you are going to increase bombing you will necessarily, regretfully, kill more civilians,” said Ford.
Ford also expressed concern about U.S. support for the joint Syrian-Kurd militia in the fight against ISIS. He showed a picture of an American major standing next to the senior commander from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is considered a terrorist organization according to the U.S. government, the Turkish government and the European Union.
“We are helping one terrorist organization fight another terrorist organization,” said Ford.
According to Ford, the American-backed forces also plan to place a Kurdish woman named Layla Mohammed as the co-chair of the new civilian council in Raqqa, Syria after ISIS is removed. Ford believes this action will backfire as it is unlikely the traditional Arab city will accept a Kurdish female leader, and thus the United States risks repeating the mistakes it made in Iraq.
Ford also spoke about underlying causes of the Arab Spring, such as Arabs seeking economic opportunities and trying to fight corruption. Ford believes the United States is not properly addressing these challenges.
“How well do F-16s restore economic opportunity?” he asked the crowd.
Ford ended his presentation with a story about the impact of education at the University of Tlemcen in Algeria where an American diplomat established an online education program in engineering and nursing in conjunction with the University of Missouri at Rosa and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While Tlemcen was formerly a city of violence and extremism, Ford received a warm welcome and the students happily reported that they all received jobs. According to Ford, education is a better way of addressing the underlying causes of the uprising and conflict.
During a question and answer session, many Syrian-Americans who attended wondered why the United States could not remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “the way it removed Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.”
Ford argued that it wasn’t the Americans who removed the leaders, but rather it was each country’s people themselves.
“Please understand the limits of American power,” said Ford. “We can’t control everything. We can influence something, but if we think we can always control we make the same mistakes that George W. Bush made in Iraq.”
Based on the questions of college students looking to work at the State Department, Ford responded that there will be likely be a hiring freeze. However, to prepare for careers in diplomacy and development, Ford encourages students to become fluent in one foreign language and to find opportunities to work overseas.