Robert Stephen Ford is a former US ambassador to Algeria (2006-2008) and Syria (2011-2014). He is the recipient of the Pro le in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library for his work advocating for the human rights of Syrians under the Assad regime. He has also received several Depart- ment of State awards, including the James Clement Dunn Award, three Superior Honor Awards, and two Meritorious Honor Awards. Ford worked in diplomacy for 29 years in the American Foreign Service before his retirement in 2014, and has held posts in İzmir, Turkey; Cairo, Egypt; Algiers, Algeria; and Yaounde, Cameroon. He is currently a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
What are the central objectives of US foreign policy in the Middle East regarding human rights?
During the Obama administration, the primary objective of the United States in the Middle East had nothing to do with human rights. It had to do with counterterrorism, and prevent- ing attacks on US targets by extremist groups. That was the top priority. The second priority was the free flow of oil from the Gulf and associated regional stability. So human rights would have been number three, number four, or number five down after a series of other priorities, including nonproliferation, for example, with the deal with Iran. That was a much bigger priority than anything concerning human rights for this past administration. We’ll see what Donald Trump does, but I’ll be surprised if he makes human rights a higher priority than the Obama administration did.
How is negotiating for the protection of human rights different from negotiating for other US interests? How would your approach be different?
With human rights, the most important thing that helps the negotiation is the fact that the United Nations has a universal declaration, a charter of human rights. That’s the reference point. Many of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa ratified that convention, in some instances decades ago, and thereby committed themselves [to it]. When you’re negoti- ating, it’s not really like you’re negotiating “give us three of this, we’ll give you four of that.” It’s not that kind of a negotiation. It’s rather to remind countries of their obligations under the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and to remind them of what those international standards are. That’s by far the most effective approach, rather than saying “oh, in the United States we do this” or “Canada does that”—that’s not the way to do it.
For example, in Syria, where human rights were just in ter- rible shape, the Assad government was remarkably brutal, and as we’ve seen during the civil war, even more brutal than Sadd- am Hussein. [But in Syria,] we just had the standard types of violations of the Universal Declaration, which is why I high- lighted that protesters have the right to express their opinions peacefully, which is in the UN UDHR. The Syrian government not only blatantly violated that, but once the fighting started and got very serious, they were using chemical weapons, which is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. They also began to block humanitarian assistance, which is also a violation of in- ternational humanitarian law. In all these things, what we used to do is remind the Syrian government of what these legal conventions are. The Syrian government used to just blatantly deny [dropping bombs on civilians]. Well, there are eyewitness reports of [Syrian] planes bombing hospitals. They’d just say, “No we didn’t.” It’s kind of a dialogue of the desk—it’s very sterile. The Syrian government admits to absolutely nothing.
What part do you think diplomacy can still play in solv- ing this conflict, perhaps in mitigating the behavior of the government?
I don’t think it can play much of any role, frankly. John Kerry has made superhuman efforts, but it’s a war, and the Syrian government is looking for unconditional surrender from the armed opposition and the political elements associated with it. I don’t think there is a diplomatic role at this point. I think [the United States has] tried diplomacy for a long time, and it went absolutely nowhere.
Doesn’t it seem that Russia, Iran, and Turkey are mak- ing some headway in negotiations? They have met with the Assad regime to discuss ending the conflict.
First of all, we don’t know yet where it’s going to go. All that they have talked about is that they agree there needs to be a political solution, and that there needs to be discussion between the government and the opposition. That takes us back to the Geneva 1 Communiqué of June 2012, back when Hillary Clin- ton was still secretary of state. Whether or not what Russia, Iran, and Turkey come up with is going to be a solution, we’re five or six giant steps from there, and even so, basically what it will mean then is that Turkey surrenders. They’ll let the oppo- sition be destroyed.
What kind of impact do you think Rex Tillerson, as sec- retary of state, would have on any kind of policy on hu- man rights in the Middle East?
We can only speculate, because we don’t know how much the President is going to make human rights an issue, and then we don’t know how much Tillerson is going to make it an issue and instruct his teams to do so as well. What we do know is that both Tillerson and Trump come from a business background, and based on what Trump said during the campaign, that he’s less interested in human rights than in counterterrorism, and he’s not particularly interested in nation-building. Trump wants to get the United States out of what he called ‘nation-building’ as well as telling other countries what to do internally. He has made remarks, for example, about Egyptian President el-Sisi being the kind of leader the Middle East needs. Yet Sisi is com- mitting widespread abuses of human rights in Egypt, in some cases worse than those committed by Mubarak. So, it doesn’t look to me as if the next administration is going to put much of an emphasis on human rights. I’m just going off of Trump, since we don’t know what Tillerson’s going to do and he has no track record on human rights. But it seems to me, based on listening to Trump and Michael Flynn, that they believe the way to get stability in the Middle East is to rely on repressive autocrats to stomp down and repress any opposition. This also seems to fly in the face of what we saw during the Arab Spring, as that will just create new Libyas, new Egypts, new Yemens, new Syrias, and new Bahrains. I mean, it doesn’t look like a great bet.
What do you think is the central threat to human rights in the Middle East?
There is not a culture, in many of the societies in Arab coun- tries and in Iran, that respects tolerance, that accepts pluralism in general, and that respects basic things like freedom of speech, religion, or the associated liberties that go with them, as in the US Bill of Rights. It’s not that only the government lacks that culture, but also that the society itself doesn’t have it. And so we see intolerance in some of the Islamist movements, as well as in governments, and in some of the Islamist opposition. There are elements of the Syrian opposition that are extremely intolerant; look at the way they manage issues like religious freedom in a place like Idlib, in opposition-controlled western Syria, where there have been forced conversions of people from the Druze religious minority. Even when the extremists who were doing so literally at gunpoint were stopped from doing [forced con- versions], no one actually denounced [the extremists] for doing that. Because in a sense, it was believed that maybe it wasn’t wise for them to try to convert the Druze at gunpoint, but [it was thought that the Druze] sort of deserved it, because they’re not Muslims. That’s a real problem.
Until the Middle East has a better respect for the basic ele- ments of the rights outlined in the UN UDHR, I don’t think we can expect much in terms of democracy, and I don’t think we can even expect much in terms of sustained useful politi- cal discourse. People will not tolerate other people’s different points of view. I know I sound very pessimistic, but I am. One of the problems in the modern Middle Eastern world is that there is very little secular opposition. The secular opposition in places like Egypt, Jordan, or Iraq, the secular oppositions in all of those countries are very weak, and there’s practically none to speak of in the Gulf. The secular parties are very weak, and do not have deep roots into their societies. And so leftist parties are not very strong, and centrist parties are not very strong. In places like Syria, where the uprising was very weak, or in Iraq, where I worked for five years after the invasion, [the secular oppositions are] extremely weak. I was ambassador to Algeria, [and] there’s practically no secular opposition there.
What do you think the role of the United States should be in Syria going forward, in terms of preventing these kinds of abuses?
The first thing to recognize is that the US government can- not prevent the Syrian government from committing major atrocities. We’ve seen that in Aleppo. Unless the US govern- ment is willing to militarily intervene very sharply, very strongly. And it is not. So there is no way to prevent the Syrian govern- ment from committing all kinds of human rights violations and humanitarian law violations. There’s no way to prevent it on the cheap. And [it is] certainly not something that you can just talk to them, and they sort of have a lightbulb moment and say “Hey! We didn’t understand.” It doesn’t work that way. They’re much too brutal and ruthless. I think the most important thing going forward, in terms of human rights and violations of the UN Charter, humanitarian law, and Geneva Conventions, is to build cases of accountability and to press forward with some kind of an international legal process to hold some people ac- countable. As to how that’s going to be done, I think differ- ent lawyers are looking at different options. But it’s very clear the Syrian government will seek to normalize its international standing, and in five years [it will] pretend that the civil war and these gross violations never happened. I think building these cases of accountability, so that people don’t forget, and making violators pay some kind of a penalty are important.
In December 2016, the UN General Assembly voted to set up a legal process to hold people accountable for war crimes and other atrocities in Syria. What do you make of this?
I think that’s a positive step, because it’s really important for the Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran, to understand that there isn’t going to be a normalization of a government in Damascus that has committed this many crimes. And the Russians and the Iranians cannot commit these kinds of crimes either without some kind of accountability being demanded. The Russians have bombed all kinds of civilian tar- gets too and hit targets in Syria in a very indiscriminate fashion. I think all of them want the world to forget [the indiscriminate bombings] and pretend it didn’t happen. I think the vote in the UN General Assembly is a reminder to Damascus, to Moscow, and to Tehran that [their human rights violations] will not be [forgotten]. That’s important to deter further violations. HIR