Ex envoy Ford says could not defend US Syria policy

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Recently retired US Syria envoy Robert Ford told CNN Tuesday that he resigned because he could not defend US policy on Syria.

“I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend American policy,” former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Tuesday.

“We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting…and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat,” said Ford, who resigned in March from the State Department after a three decade diplomatic career.

There is “nothing we can point to that has been very successful to in our policy except the removal of about 93% of some of Assad’s chemicals, but now he is using chlorine gas against his opponents,” Ford said. “The regime simply has no credibility, and our policy is not addressing the Syrian crisis as it needs to.”

Of the growing extremism threat from Syria, Ford said that he and unspecified colleagues had warned more than two years ago that Syria would prove fertile ground for terrorists.

“We warned even as long as two years ago that terrorist groups would go into that vacuum, as we had seen in places like Afghanistan and Somalia and Yemen and Mali,” Ford said. “This is not rocket science.”

Ford said Tuesday that increased US support earlier on in the conflict to moderate Syrian opposition forces could have helped prevent extremists from getting such a big foothold in Syria. And he cast doubt on whether the increased efforts President Obama seemed to be considering ahead of his foreign policy speech at West Point last week would be enough.

“It’s not clear to me yet if they are prepared to ramp up (assistance) in a such a way that would be meaningful on the ground and that’s what matters,” Ford told PBS’s Margaret Warner in a separate interview Tuesday.

Ford, until his retirement one of the State Department’s top Arabists who previously served as US Ambassador to Algeria and deputy US Ambassador to Iraq, is slated to join the Middle East Institute as a senior fellow. He could not immediately be reached Tuesday.

Ford is hardly the first Syria mediator to quit in frustration. UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi resigned last month, as did his predecessor Kofi Annan before him. Former US envoy on Syria transition issues Frederic Hof, who quit in 2012, has also become an outspoken critic of US Syria policy.

As to why Ford had not previously voiced such criticisms in the three months since he resigned, Hof noted in March that Ford was still on the government payroll and required to adhere to official policy and talking points. Ford “will likely speak out when he is free to do so,” Hof, now at the Atlantic Council, wrote.

“For quite some time, the only things keeping Robert in harness were Secretary Kerry’s pleas and Robert’s hope that Kerry could change the policy,” a former diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Tuesday. “In the end he concluded he could no longer serve as apologist-in-chief for a rhetoric-based policy fundamentally unaligned with ground truth in Syria.”

Meantime, in Syria Tuesday, Bashar al-Assad was expected to be declared the winner in presidential polls being run in government-held parts of the country, in elections that the US and western nations have condemned as farcical and illegitimate. Iran, Russia and North Korea have reportedly sent observers to the polls to try to bolster the appearance of legitimacy.

Arab League to meet with Kerry to revive Arab-Israel peace initiative


Members of the Arab League are expected to revive an Arab-Israeli peace initiative at a previously unreported meeting slated to take place later this month between the Arab League and Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, diplomatic sources tell Al-Monitor.

The meeting will take place in Washington on April 29 between Kerry and foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, as well as a representative of the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League Secretary General, a member state diplomat told Al-Monitor.

The State Department, in response to a query, told Al-Monitor it had “nothing to announce” on the meeting, which diplomatic sources say was agreed to during President Obama’s recent trip to the region.

The Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed by Saudi  then Crown Prince, now King Abdullah in 2002 in Beirut, offered full normalization of relations between Israel and all 22 members of the Arab League after Israel and Palestine reach a just agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state.

President Barack Obama “raised the possibility of using” the Arab Peace Initiative “as a framework for a regional peace accord at meetings in Israel, the PA and Jordan last month, McClatchy News reported  April 5th.

Kerry “has on his desk a proposal to replace the bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with a multilateral platform,” Akiva Eldar reported for Al-Monitor March 29. “Acceptance of the Arab initiative as the basis of a permanent arrangement between Israel and its neighbors will enable the renewal of the multilateral channels established following the 1991 Madrid peace conference on the issues of regional security, refugees, water and economic and environmental development.”

The Bush administration’s lack of recognition at the time of what the Saudi-backed Initiative signified “will go down in the annals of history as one of the biggest lost opportunities,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-florida), now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told an April 10th panel hosted by the Middle East Institute.

Attention to the initiative got overtaken at the time in Israel and Washington, however, by a devastating March 2002 Hamas terrorist attack in Israel known as the Passover Massacre.

But it “was no doubt an enormously important decision by Arab leaders [and it] went largely unnoticed and largely not acted upon by the United States, which allowed it to whither on the vine for ten years,” Wexler said.

“We have a peace plan … approved by all Arab countries,” Arab League Ambassador to the United States Dr. Mohammed Alhussaini Alsharif told Al-Monitor in an interview April 18. “The US realizes it missed an opportunity.” Continue reading

Crocker defends Petraeus, urges US approach Syria opposition with caution

My colleague Barbara Slavin reports:

One of America’s most distinguished diplomats warned Tuesday against giving military support to Syrian rebels and said the US should have better knowledge of who the fighters are before providing more than humanitarian aid.

Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to six nations – Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan – told NPR’s Steve Inskeep at the annual dinner of the Middle East Institute in Washington, “Be careful what you get into… Who are these guys? What do they stand for? Who’s against them?”

Crocker, whose residence was besieged by a mob when he was ambassador to Syria in the late 1990s, suggested that the US lacks sufficient information about the opposition even after a conference in Qatar brought together various factions to form a new group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

“You have to be on the ground as we were in Libya, influencing and analyzing” the rebel forces, he said. “I’m not sure we have a clear address to pursue a policy of coordinated … assistance.”

“I would like to find more ways to get [US] diplomats into Syria,” Crocker said. Continue reading

Reading between lines of Ashton’s Iran statement

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told her Iranian counterpart Thursday that Iran needs to agree soon on a plan to stop its 20% enrichment, or there wasn’t much prospect of the current diplomatic track continuing as such indefinitely.

That, anyway, seemed to be the message between the lines of a stark four-line statement she made after a phone call Thursday with Dr. Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. Her statement, (and my annotations) below: Continue reading