MICHELLE ENGLISH: Greetings, and thank you for coming to today's MIT Starr Forum, Syria, Which Way Forward. I'm Michelle English from-- can everyone hear me? From the MIT Center for International Studies. CIS sponsors these amazing Starr Forums and also is home to many global research programs. You can learn more about the work being done at CIS, as well as upcoming Starr Forums, by signing up to receive email notices at our info table. Our next Starr Forum will be on Wednesday, November 1, featuring Richard Clarke on his latest book Warnings, Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes. Richard Clarke is the former National Coordinator for Security Infrastructure Protection and Counterterrorism for the United States. His book is about the future of national security, threatening technologies, the US economy, and possibly, the fate of civilization. Joining the book talk as a discussant will be Joel Brenner, who is the former Head of Counterintelligence under the Director of National Intelligence for the United States, and is currently a senior research fellow at CIS and at CSAIL.
For today's talk, we'll hear first from our guest speakers, and then end with a question and answer session with the audience. For the Q&A, a reminder that we have time for one question only, and to please line up behind the mics. Moderating today's talk is Steve Van Evera, Ford International Professor in the MIT Political Science department, member of the MIT Security Studies program, and Associate Director of the MIT Center for International Studies. Professor Van Evera will introduce our guest speakers at this time. Please join me in welcoming Professor Van Evera.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Thanks, Michelle. I'm thrilled to see so many people here for our presentation on Syria, Which Way Forward. We have two fabulous speakers today. Robert Ford is going to speak first, he's a career US Foreign Service officer. Joined the Foreign Service in 1985 and retired just a couple of years ago, I think. And during his career, he served as ambassador to both Syria and Algeria, and he was ambassador to Syria during some of the most fraught years involving the current Syrian Civil War crisis. He was ambassador from 2010 to 2014, which was when the war broke out. War broke out in 2011. And he also served-- had important duties during the Iraq war, during the occupation shortly after the war, where he served as a political counselor to the US Embassy in Baghdad, during 2004 to 2006, giving him lots of experience with another civil war. We can ask him what lessons he learned from it.
Steve Simon is the John J McCloy visiting professor today. Now he is at the Department of History at Amherst. But he's earlier served many years in the US government in high positions, including during the Obama administration as Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council. Earlier, in the Clinton administration, he was one of the top officials in the counter-terror office run by Robert Clark, and he was one of our top experts on al-Qaeda. He was, in fact, one of the very few people who warned that al-Qaeda would strike the US before 9/11.
He's also the author of two terrific books coauthored with Dan Benjamin, one of which, Age of Sacred Terror, is now about 15 years old. But I still think it is the best study of al-Qaeda's thinking. Where do al-Qaeda's ideas come from, how are they grounded in, or not grounded in, interpretations of Islam and which interpretations, which entrepreneurs brought these ideas forward. It's a terrific study which I inflict on my students with regularity. I pep your book sales up there, Steve. It's important. So Robert Ford will speak first, Steve Simon second, then we'll have a little discussion among ourselves, then we'll have Q&A. And I would just say about the Q&A that we welcome statements as well as questions, if some of you have something you want to say. As long as you keep it short and polite, you needn't just ask questions. We can share our views back and forth. Also, I'd like you to say your name when you ask questions or make statements, just so we can get to know each other. Thanks.
ROBERT FORD: Good afternoon. And Stephen, let me thank you and thank Michelle for inviting me here today to talk about Syria. Syria is just a real tragedy, and it's the saddest thing I've seen during my time working on foreign policy issues. Michelle and Stephen asked me to speak for a short time, maybe 10, 12, 14 minutes, and then my former colleague Steve Simon was going to speak. And I thought, well, gosh, what am I going to say in 12 minutes, 13 minutes? And I was reminded of a story of a British archeologist at the end of the 19th century in London who was asked at the end of his career-- he was getting ready to retire after decades researching temples and lost civilizations in South Asia, and the British Museum asked him to come and give a talk, but they told him no more than half an hour. And he pushed for more and they said no, no, professor. Half an hour, that's all you get. And he spluttered to his friend at the time, Oscar Wilde, "How can I explain everything I know in 30 minutes?" And Oscar Wilde thought for a second and said, "Well, why don't you speak slowly?"
So I wouldn't pretend to be a Syria expert. It's a very complicated country, it has a very long and rich and difficult history. And I think one of the things that we should learn out of this conflict is how hard it is to understand civil wars in places like Syria, or Iraq, where I spent five years. But I was asked to give a few ideas on what we should be doing next. And so let me give you just a couple of thoughts. I actually just had something published in Foreign Affairs Magazine, and I'm going to just sort of summarize the thoughts that I put in Foreign Affairs. I don't think there are any good options left in Syria. There were never really any great options, but after six years, the menu available to the United States government has been substantially reduced. So to me, it's a matter of sort of picking the least bad option.
First thing to understand is that this civil war has evolved, and that the Bashar Al-Assad side-- with heavy backing from Iran and also from Russia-- Bashar Al-Assad has been on a winning streak for about a year and a half. You will remember that he took the city of Aleppo last December, but he has been making gains elsewhere in the country, including in the south around Suwayda, up around Homs and the areas here along the border. They've made progress here in Hama. And more recently, he has actually pushed, for the first time since 2012, all the way into this area in the far eastern part of Syria. That's all new, and that's all in the last year and a half. The military balance on the ground is such that I think it is now impossible to extract Bashar Al-Assad from the presidency in Damascus. The idea that there would now be some kind of a negotiated transition, I think, it's past. The military balance on the ground does not allow-- that also means, by the way, I think it will be very hard to hold Assad or his top commanders accountable for the war crimes that they have committed, which is a very depressing thought.
What is happening is that the Russians have sponsored a peace process. The next meeting is actually in about 12 days. The meetings are held in Kazakhstan, of all places. And that brings together Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Syrian government, and some elements of the Syrian armed opposition. Not the jihadis, but other elements, the so-called moderate armed opposition. This is a picture from one of their recent meetings. Out of this process have come four what the Russians call de-escalation zones. They're marked here in red. One's the province of Idlib. This is the area north of Homs, that's another one. Damascus, and down here in the south, near the Golan Heights and the Jordanian border, Deraa.
These de-escalation zones are sometimes respected and sometimes not. There's been a lot of bombing and fighting in and around Damascus, for example. The Syrian government routinely ignores the so-called cease fire and bombs. There's been a lot of fighting up here in the last 10 days. And there's a lot of bombing here by the Russians and the Syrian government, despite the de-escalation so-called agreement, earlier this month as well. So it's very selective. But it works out wonderfully for Bashar Al-Assad, because he can move forces around. He doesn't have that many left, and if there is a so-called cease fire down here, he can take these guys and run up here and attack. And then maybe send them up here, because there's a cease fire down here. And then he'll go back down here and violate that cease fire. And he takes a village here and he takes a village there. And that's how they've been doing for the last months.
The Americans aren't involved in that. That's really-- that's a Russian, Iranian, Turkish, Syrian government, Syrian opposition deal. The Americans have been working on the Islamic State out in eastern Syria. This is what the Islamic State controlled about a little over two years ago, the gray area. This is what they controlled just a couple of months ago, and it's even less than this now. So you can see that the American-led offensive has had a lot of progress against the Islamic State, and that's a good thing. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. They certainly have lost revenue generation capacity. They can't recruit as easily, they can't pay their fighters as easily. Since they don't control cities, they don't have that kind of infrastructure, that kind of support base. I think, little by little, they are losing control of what few towns they have left and they're going to move into an insurgency mode. Which will still be threatening, but certainly less threatening to us than they were, say, when they had big cities and big oil revenues.
As Americans, we need to understand that our troops-- we have about roughly 1,000 operators on the ground in Syria-- they're mostly in this area to the northeast of the Euphrates River, in this area here. They first went into Syria in September of 2014, was when President Obama said that the United States Air Force would begin bombing. And later he inserted special operations forces. Now there's special operations forces, there's also a Marine artillery unit. But they're located up here. As I mentioned, the Syrian government is now inserting troops into eastern Syria as well, and the Euphrates River is the dividing line. Just as the Elbe River was supposed to be the dividing line in 1945, so the Euphrates is supposed to be now.
This is going to be tricky. As Americans, we need to be paying attention to this, because the oil wells that Bashar Al-Assad needs to rebuild are on the east side of the river. Supposedly the part where the Americans are supposed to be, and our allies. And already, the Syrian government is starting to cross the river in spite of agreements that we had had with the Russians. But the Russians never really rein in Bashar very much, that's what we've seen, historically. So we've had several instances just in the last two months, where Syrian government forces are fighting Syrian opposition forces that the Americans have armed and trained down in this area here, also some skirmishing over here. We actually shot a Syrian airplane down last summer, right in this area.
So there is a change also for us in the Syrian Civil War, in that more and more, we are coming face to face with the Syrian government forces that we didn't come face to face with in 2014, 2015, and 2016. This leaves, then, a question. What are we going to do with the Syrian Kurdish fighters that we backed and, frankly, who fought very courageously, fought very well against the Islamic State? This progress that I mentioned, most of this progress here are these Syrian Kurdish fighters coming down. There are some Arabs fighting with them, but the command structure, the organizational structure is heavily Syrian Kurdish. And what are we going to do about them?
The real question is, how long before Bashar Al-Assad attacks them. The whole point of the Civil War was that Bashar Al-Assad rejected reforms, rejected any kind of accountability. The Syrian Kurds want, as Iraqi Kurds have, an autonomous region in Northeastern Syria. Assad has consistently-- I want to underline that word, consistently-- rejected that, both before the Civil War and after it. So are we going to protect these fighters who helped us against the Islamic State? I would contend we have no particular interest in that. We do not have a dog in that fight. But I will tell you that in Washington right now, this is a policy issue that people are debating.
The other question we have is, what do we do about reconstruction? This is an issue that the World Bank is putting forward now, the World Bank actually has a team assembled that is studying this. They are estimating that Syria will need not less than $200, and perhaps as much as $300 billion to rebuild its infrastructure. It's been heavily destroyed and, of course, cities like Aleppo up here and outside of Damascus, the Damascus suburbs, which was home to millions of people up until 2012, Homs here, which was home to about 2 million people, are devastated and have not been rebuilt at all. So are we going to participate in that? And there is some idea that if we would insist that Bashar Al-Assad either accept human rights, democracy, and agree to stand down or we don't pay for it, that is one idea that is circulating among some Western governments. But if we fund that reconstruction under Assad, we'll have to work with Assad's corrupt system. This is his cousin, Rami Makhlouf. I had the pleasure of having dinner with him back in 2011, he has a beautiful home and beautiful tableware. Very good cook. But he controls about 20% of the Syrian economy, and he's known as Mr. 20%. Not 10, 20.
If we don't work with the areas that the government controls, another idea is-- and this is actually being implemented now-- that we should rebuild the areas that we helped retake with that Syrian Kurdish force I mentioned. This is the city of Raqqa. This is the city that was just-- the fighting there has pretty much ended. It was the former capital of the Islamic State. There's going to be a lot of reconstruction to do there. My sense is that in a place like this, perhaps where we don't have to work directly with the people like Rami Makhlouf and his corrupt colleagues, maybe there it's worth doing some work to help the inhabitants rebuild. This city was largely destroyed by American bombs anyway. But if it's going to be attacked again by Bashar Al-Assad when he tries to retake it, what's the point of the United States spending money to rebuild it, if it's just going to get bombed again? And we're not going to stop him, I don't think. So this is another policy issue. If we decide we're going to rebuild this, then we're also basically saying we're going to defend it. Are we prepared for a long term-- and I mean this-- a long term military commitment out in Central and Eastern Syria? Personally, I don't think so.
The other thing which I think we could usefully do, we could usefully do, is generate more resources, financial resources in particular, for the roughly 4 and 1/2 million Syrian refugees. Some refugees are starting to trickle home, especially farmers going back to farming communities. But urbanites are going back much less frequently. Their homes are destroyed, they have no jobs, and there's no income. And they're still in camps, places like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. The ones that are in Lebanon in particular are vulnerable. Ones in Jordan are a little better off, although the Jordanians have started expelling people. And in Turkey, they're better off. Still, although, by no means comfortable.
There is donor fatigue setting in. Whereas the United Nations used to be able to generate somewhere on the average of $7 billion a year to help pay for these refugees, more recent years have seen donations dropping down into the $5 to $6 range. They've actually had to start cutting food rations, the United Nations administrators, cutting food rations to refugees in Lebanon. I think a renewed American effort to provide financial resources and to get other countries to provide resources, probably about the best thing we can do to help, at least this particular segment of Syrian society right now. This is not a happy picture for a revolution that started 6 and 1/2 years ago seeking, basically, accountability and decent treatment from the security system. But it is what it is. So Stephen, thank you again. I look forward to a good discussion.
STEVE SIMON: Sure.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Have at it, man.
STEVE SIMON: First, thank you very much for having me here at MIT. It's a real pleasure. Steve, thank you for the introduction. Steve was a professor of mine at Princeton quite a few years ago, I guess, and he taught me to think about war aims. I mean, among other things, but he taught me to think about war aims more deeply than, I think, I would have otherwise. And his instruction is one of the things that shaped my approach to the policy process while in government. So there is, despite all evidence to the contrary, you know, a strong connection between academe and the real world, the so-called real world. So anyway, I thank you for that, Steve. Steve and Michelle asked me to pack my two minutes of knowledge into a 20 minute bag, along the lines of Oscar Wilde's famous remark. But to focus on the past as well as on the future. So that's what I'll do.
I don't actually have, you know, a fully formed narrative about the war, even though I followed it on and off since its inception. I just don't have a wrap, I don't have a framework that I can impose on what were somewhat chaotic events. There's also another issue, which is one that both Robert and I face, namely that in terms of the US role, much of it was classified and remains classified. So there's a limit to the degree we can talk about it. Much of it has actually been reported, and I suppose we're in a position to refer to that reporting, but without confirming whether or not we think it's correct. Now, looking back at the past, I think one approach I could take is the one taken by the US Holocaust Museum study of the Syrian War. In one of the not great profiles in courage, the US Holocaust Museum has actually withdrawn this study because it was criticized on political grounds, namely as a whitewash of Obama's irresponsible policy towards the Syrian conflict. Because the Holocaust Museum study concluded that there wasn't much the United States could have done, even in a number of counterfactual scenarios, to have driven the levels of violence down very much.
But it's a useful study because one of the things it does is identify pivotal junctures in the war. And the pivotal juncture junctures were those moments when the study postulated different courses of action the United States might have taken. They were windows of opportunity, as it were. The first one of those was Obama's statement that Al-Assad should step aside. Because that's commonly construed to be a major error, since the United States ultimately did nothing, in the view of observers, to cause Assad to step aside. And that's sort of interesting to me, because I looked at the actual language that Obama used in his statement, and in it, he endorses Assad's stepping aside to make way for a democratic transition, and then he says, "The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement. What the United States will support is an effort to bring about a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive for all Syrians. We will pressure Assad to get out of the way of this transition and stand up for the universal rights of the Syrian people."
So he was actually quite specific that if you were expecting American military intervention to topple Assad, as had been done with Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein, well, don't hold your breath, because that won't happen. You know, my own recollection is that the statement was really overdetermined because the Allies were pressuring the United States to take a stand, and the United States had, in quite recent memory, said Mubarak must go. And Mubarak was not doing things as bad as Assad was doing. And that Gaddafi must go, even though at the point that that statement was made, Gaddafi had threatened violence against the opposition in Benghazi, but actually hadn't done anything. So I think from the administration's perspective, it would have been a little odd if, in the Syrian instance, the United States didn't put forward a view that Assad was bad, he was bad for Syria, and he was standing in the way of a transition and he ought to go. So that's just sort of a preambular remark on the first pivotal juncture.
The other thing I want to add from this early phase, I mean, which struck me as interesting, actually, you know, at the time, was the emphasis the United States put on the proliferation dimension of this conflict at the very beginning. Now, you know US foreign policy in the security domain generally privileges proliferation concerns over others, as anybody who worked with Pakistan in the 1990s would be happy to tell you. That was certainly the case with Syria, and the immediate concern was that what was the massive stocks of chemical weapons held by the Syrian regime would be privatized in the course of a free wheeling conflict where some of those stockpiles, some of those storage depots, were raided. And the CW removed by opposition groups who might use it themselves or a fear that the regime itself might transfer those weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which would have caused a different sort of problem.
So at the very outset, there was a great deal of attention-- which is to say, time spent and energy spent-- trying to figure out where the stockpiles were, who controlled them, how they were controlled, down to their names and telephone numbers. And in working with the Israelis to synchronize our respective reconnaissance and surveillance of Syria to get the most granular knowledge possible of where these weapons were, and then work with the Pentagon to develop the capabilities to destroy those weapons, if it came to that, in a way that wouldn't precipitate a public health crisis of unprecedented proportions. And that concern with proliferation continued through the conflict, and it was really reflected in another critical juncture, which was the one that the Holocaust Museum points to in the summer of 2013, when the United States refrained from attacking Syria in the wake of its use of chemical weapons against opposition communities in the suburbs east of Damascus, which killed hundreds of people. It was a bad one. A really, really bad one.
Well, you know, what happened there is sort interesting. Again, in retrospect, the administration was actually preparing to attack Syria. And that Tuesday, which would have been the 27th of August, the president had a very long phone conversation with David Cameron, the prime minister of Britain, in which they talked about the upcoming strike in a great deal of detail, who was going to hit what, how many airplanes, how long would the strikes last, would it be one wave or two waves? You know, it was really pretty detailed.
And then two days later, there was a vote in Commons in Britain, in the parliament, that essentially hamstrung the British government and removed it from the strike planning. And at that point, the United States, which had a bit of a prejudice, I'd say, at that point, about acting multilaterally in terms of attacking Iran, suddenly had no partner. And at that moment, the Russians, bless their hard little hearts, threw the administration a lifeline in the form of this idea of disarming the Assad regime, of removing its chemical weapons, which then happened, you know, of course. And that was very important. And one of the things I noticed that I haven't seen anyone comment on was that the Israelis immediately afterward-- the Israelis were strong critics of the American flip-flop on this, but they quietly dropped their gas mask distribution program for their citizens. That program ended, and it was a countrywide program that existed for a number of years and for only one reason, because of the strategic threat posed by Syrian chemical weapons.
And now, you know, there is the question of what the United States was doing throughout this period. What did the administration think they were going to do when they said Assad has to go, what did they think they will going to do. And the answer was sanctions. Sanctions, we, as in the United States, we love sanctions. We love it. You know, we control the Reserve Bank, and we control the SWIFT system, and we have a lot of influence on allies. So when it comes to pressuring other states economically, it's a pretty appealing policy. Doesn't cost us much, really. I mean, we're a gargantuan economy. So the opportunity cost to us in economic terms, generally negligible, and certainly in the Syrian case. When you're national security leadership, or lawyers, this is even more appealing. Because in the case of Syria, they could sort of envisage a kind of board meeting in which the Sunni business elite gets together and they say, I'm sorry, Bashar, but you know, you're bad for business. And I'm afraid you've got to go. So I think they were really tempted to see things that way. I think they saw things that way.
But they tried other things as well during this period, some of which you'll read about them eventually I assume. But sanctions weren't going to work. And the way the US government works is that at the bottom level of the intelligence agencies, you have people who have been following Syria for 100 years. And you know, I met with them at the beginning of the conflict, and they were all nothing less than adamantine that Assad was not going to give up. And he would probably win. That was at the beginning of the conflict. And you know, all kinds of alternative hypotheses were simply rejected by them as completely implausible. But you know, as the intelligence assessments get into the situation room at the White House, the intelligence community feels it incumbent upon itself to provide analysis that supports the administration's policy instincts. Because if you don't do that, why would they invite you into the room? You really wouldn't be welcome. So you know, a fairly evolved, very detailed analytical framework was advanced which supported the notion that sanctions could ultimately work. And I think that sort of shaped the administration's views at a higher level.
OK, there was a lot of diplomacy going on. Robert alluded to some of that. There was a strong belief that the Russians could be worked with, this was a risible notion to some of us. But you know, there was a strong conviction, and it was motivated, among other things, by the fact that the administration, like democratic administrations recently, does like to think in terms of using force in a multilateralized context. And therefore, the UN Security Council becomes indispensable. And you know, the Russians are indispensable to getting anything done in the Security Council. But the Russians were soured by the experience of Libya, because the Russians felt that they were hornswoggled into voting in the Security Council in favor of the resolution that authorized military action against Libya. So anyway, that didn't happen.
The next juncture-- I'm going to rush through this. Too many junctures. The next juncture was the question of assistance to the opposition, military assistance to the opposition. And that's an interesting one because it got to the fundamental question of interests. This was a moment when the interests of the United States in the conflict had to be defined, because once we were going to get involved on the ground militarily, you know, the situation was pregnant with the possibility of a long lasting commitment. So interests had to be defined, and they were defined, at least as I saw it, certainly in 2012 as not justifying armed intervention. There were a number of soundings taken of government agencies, the national security agencies, at that point, and the view was unanimous in each of those soundings. That no, we're not going to go in. Now partly, you know, 2012, especially the summer of 2012, is a low point for the Syrian regime. So I think there was a bit of the feeling that we ought not to pay for something we're going to get anyway, which is, I suppose, rational under the circumstances. And we can talk about what those interests were in the Q&A.
Now just during that period, I'll just add, there was, I think, constructive thinking about what happens if Assad falls and how Syria can be reconstructed and so forth, and there was some interesting and, I think, innovative thinking. But it was obviated by the 2015 intervention of the Russians. And I'm going to make my penultimate point on that. The Russians intervened-- anyway, in my view-- because the US arm and train effort that did, according to press reporting, begin in 2013, was extremely successful. According to David Ignatius, 100,000 Syrian soldiers were killed by US-backed militias in Syria during the conflict. I don't know if that figure is right or wrong, but somebody in the intelligence community fed him that number. At that point, there was no question that the Russians were going to come in, and the Russians gave the administration, I think, a fairly robust warning. And shortly before that point, I was in Moscow and I saw the Russian decision makers. And they made it pretty clear to me that, as they put it, it would be unacceptable for the capital of Syria to move from Damascus to Raqqa. And they were going to prevent that from happening.
So here we're just in the department of law of unintended consequences. Because ultimately, our push to wound the Assad regime was successful enough to precipitate Russian intervention which, of course, won the war for the Syrians. Looking at the future, I think, you know, Robert covered the issues really well. I just underscore one thing, which is that the current administration is talking in terms of rollback. That is to say, rollback of Iranian power to Iran's territorial borders. And where they're talking about doing this is in Syria because they're very concerned about land corridors that they say Iran is trying to create in Syria in order to establish a presence in the Levant. I'm sure Robert would agree, this is kind of a silly worry because Iran had already done this in the absence of corridors that only became possible because the United States toppled Saddam Hussein a number of years ago. But this is the space to watch. This is the space to watch. And as Robert said, if the administration sticks to this, then we are going to have a long-term presence in a particularly hostile area in Syria. And you know, that might not work out much better than our previous interventions have. Thank you very much.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Terrific. First I'll ask a question or two, and then we'll have Q&A and statements from all of you. I want to ask both of you to talk about, sort of, your priors. The big picture. You mentioned that you think the US couldn't have done much to prevent this war, or abate it, or end it. I'd still like to know what you think would have been the most effective thing the US could have done. Maybe the answer is anything would have been worse than inaction. But if we couldn't have done anything, why not? And I'd love to ask you the same question. What could the US have done to prevent, abate, or terminate this war, all the way from 2011 up till now. This is one of the hugest conflicts on the planet. I believe, what, we've got 400,000 people killed, roughly, at this point? And you said 4 to 5 million refugees at this point? Almost half the people--
ROBERT FORD: It's five, but I think it's gone down a little.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Up to five. It's a tremendous humanitarian calamity. Nearly half the people in Syria are refugees. And I think if you add internal-- IDPs, internal displaced, it's--
ROBERT FORD: It's half the population.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Half the people of Syria have been forced from their homes. It's an immense calamity. What could have been done about it, if anything? And there's a meta question which is, should the US be in the business of either assuaging parties in conflict like these toward peace to prevent war or abate it? Do we know how to do it? What did we learn from Iraq about it, if you want to speak about that. Clearly, this is a failure of some kind. But was there a way to do anything better? What do you think?
STEVE SIMON: Well, you know, 400,000 dead Syrians doesn't signify a US foreign policy success, obviously. But, you know, this is a question for political economists, really. Because you have a country where the youth risk factor, which is to say, the percentage of the workforce within a certain age band is unemployed, was devastatingly high. It was on the order of six or seven deviations from the mean, of the regional mean. So you know, the country was gutted in those terms. And then you had the collapse of the agricultural sector, urbanization of agricultural workers, the effects of climate change. I mean, there were periodic droughts in Syria, as we know, but they've been increasing in frequency and severity, and that contributed to problems in the agricultural sector. So you know, it was pretty bad. And then you've got comprehensive thorough-going mismanagement of government, of the economy, of-- it just was astoundingly dysfunctional. You know, Robert probably has a more granular feel for this than I do, since I mostly just look at data. But you know, the United States was not in a position to ameliorate or reverse those deep, systemic problems. Just not in a position to do so.
Now, it may be that the one thing the United States could have done was for the president to start his speech by saying we're not getting involved. And thereby, I don't know, remove from the imaginations of the opposition the notion that the United States would get involved. But I don't really know how important that perception was to the rapid proliferation of militias and distribution of geographical-- within Syria, distribution of fighting during the early years. The one thing that the Holocaust Museum study does say the United States could have done was enforce a no fly zone. But the administration did consider that several times, it kept revisiting it. And I know that Secretary Clinton wanted to advance that position in her campaign for the presidency this time around. But--
STEVE VAN EVERA: Spell out, just briefly, what that would have been.
STEVE SIMON: Yeah. Well, a no fly zone is that you say that the regime's aircraft cannot overfly a particular segment of Syrian territory. And so Syrians could go there and feel confident, assuming that the no fly zone was enforced, that they wouldn't be attacked from the air by regime forces. And no fly zones had been used to serious effect in Iraq in the 1990s, both in the northern areas and in the southern areas. One was called Provide Comfort and the other one was jokingly called Southern Comfort. But you know, there the United States was prepared to enforce them because the US perceived a strategic stake in this.
Otherwise, in the Syrian case, it struck administration officials as a kind of tethered goat strategy and, in one advance, to draw the United States into combat. Because the way the events were postulated was as follows. You'd have a protected population which would consist, also, of opposition militias in this protected area. The opposition militias would almost necessarily use those areas as safe havens, as protected bases for attack against regime targets. The regime would then say, well, this is not cricket, and they would attack their tormentors within the safe haven. And then the United States would be in a position of having to go in and attack Syrian forces and enter the civil war as a combatant on one side. Which, again, the US interest in Syria was perceived to be incommensurate with the demands that would follow US intervention along these lines.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Great. I wonder, Robert, what you would say to this. Let me just sharpen the focus slightly, which is, there were a number of proposals early in the war for how to abate or stop it. As Steve says, there was the proposal that the US create a safe zone using a no fly principle to ameliorate the war. No one argued this would end the war, but it would abate the humanitarian calamity by giving refugees somewhere to flee to. And then there were several ideas about ending the war. One was regime change. If we can oust Assad's regime, we can bring this country to a more stable basis. And the assumption here is that the regime is really the source of the problem and a new regime will bring a more peaceful country. We can oust them either by supporting the rebels, or even by direct use of US military force, or, as you said, by economic sanctions. Some people apparently had that dream. I guess I really wasn't aware of that, but anyway.
Another proposal would be to broker a partition of the country, and let's accept, somehow, these folks can't get along and a divorce is necessary. This is basically an ethnic war or a religious war between Alawites, Christians, Sunnis, Kurds. And maybe the right solution is to realize that this country needs to be either informally separated into zones of control, decentralized zones of control, or even formally partitioned, which is an idea that also was raised over Iraq. Third idea is simply allow Assad to win, which is essentially what the West did, on the assumption that wars are ended when someone wins them, and the best thing to do with this war is to get it over. So I think you guys had different views about this. I'd love to also figure out if you did have views during the war that were different. I'm not sure you did. But what did you differ over, if you could figure that out? But what do you think about the past?
ROBERT FORD: A couple of things. The goal of the United States in Syria, the national interest that was identified back in 2011 and 2012, was we wanted Syria to not be a source for additional regional instability. This was before the Islamic State, this was before the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of a sustained assault from the Islamic State in 2014. But they border Israel on the Golan, they border Jordan, they border Turkey. We didn't want the instability in Syria-- and Steve went into some of the reasons for it. I would just say, it wasn't just about drought in eastern Syria. It was about police brutality. That's really what-- I mean, lots of countries have dry tinder for years and years, politically, and they don't erupt in flames. There's usually a spark.
And the spark was police brutality in the context of the Arab Spring, where Egyptians said, we're not going to take it anymore. Tunisians said, we're not going to take it anymore. Yeminis said, we're not going to take it anymore. And the Assyrians were all looking, just like, why do we have to take it? We're not going to take it anymore. So that was the spark. The American response was, whoa, instability? Let's try to contain it inside Syria. There was a real debate in the administration about do we need to do things inside Syria, or can we contain it simply by reinforcing the countries on the perimeter, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. And the administration was very slow to sort of answer that question.
To be fair, and I was a critic of the administration-- both in a lot of the meetings, and then I resigned, finally, in 2014, because I didn't agree with the tactics they were using-- but it was very slow to make decisions. Steve, I think, I agree with. There was no big push at the time to do no fly zones. I had been in Iraq, I had seen how no fly zones just go on for years and years and don't bring a government to a table to negotiate. So the State Department didn't push for a no fly zone and the Pentagon gave us enormous numbers of planes and sorties that would be involved in a no fly zone. And lo and behold, we've been doing a no fly zone in Syria since 2014, but in eastern Syria. Did you know we have a no fly zone in Syria? We do. And we've had it for three years now. And when the Syrians send airplanes over there, we shoot them down. Remember I mentioned about the airplane? So we've had a no fly zone, and it didn't require the gigantic effort that the Pentagon at the time told us. So there's another lesson learned. Beware of what the plans say is required. McNamara said that in his book about Vietnam, as I recall.
Other things that were debated. Steve mentioned the assistance to the armed opposition is very controversial, it still is. The Holocaust Museum report said it would have been ineffective. There was a program, and what there was was ineffective. We'll debate this until the cows come home. One thing that's important to understand is that the Americans were not the only ones sending arms into Syria. Turkey was, Saudi Arabia was, Qatar was, a couple of other countries. And the real question was, how do you get them to all coordinate, because they weren't coordinated. And I think there's ample press reporting on that. But what we can say is that the United States did not succeed in getting a unified position on how to provide assistance to the armed opposition. I could tell some stories.
Last point I want to make on this. I think, in foreign policy, it's really important if you determine a national interest, like we did, we don't want Syria to be a source of instability regionally. And the strategy we're going to adopt is, we need a new kind of government. Not through regime change, the United States never pushed regime change. Media, which can't understand nuance at all, forgets that we had signed-- Hillary Clinton had signed the Geneva I Communique with Sergey Lavrov, Kofi Annan, the UN Special Envoy, June 30, 2011. And that said, specifically, there will be a negotiation to set up a transitional governing body. And that was our position. Not that the opposition should march down Baghdad Street or Pakistan Street in Damascus and overthrow Bashar. That was never the American goal.
And in meetings, those of us who served in Iraq said, let's not repeat the Iraq experience again. Let's get negotiations up front. As we have just seen over the last few, days Iraqis don't always get along. They argue pretty vociferously. And yet, through what I have to say was exceptionally painful political and military efforts, we managed to get a series of Iraqi negotiation coalition governments put together so that people like me, dressed like this, could walk down the streets of downtown Ramadi, without bodyguards, in 2010 and 2011. So to say that you can't fix these things, I think some problems don't have solutions. Sometimes there are solutions, and you don't know until you try.
So the American position was, we need to get the Syrians to negotiate. That means the Assad government on one side and the Syrian opposition on the other. And that was what we were trying to do, get to a negotiation. The problem was, while the Syrian opposition was willing to negotiate-- they actually put, in writing, in writing, a proposal to the UN Special Envoy in 2014, Lakhtar Brahimi, a written proposal that said, we're willing to negotiate, position by position, a coalition government. And we will even negotiate Bashar Al-Assad's tenure and how long he stays. We will negotiate that, no precondition. In writing. The UN Envoy was shocked. But when he handed that piece of paper-- I was out of the room, but it was told to me by the UN Envoy later-- when he handed that writing, that proposal in writing, to Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian government's lead negotiator in Geneva, Jaafari wouldn't even pick it up off the table. Would not even touch it. And said, we are not going to discuss any kind of political issue.
And so the Americans were left hoping for sanctions or something, a miracle, to bring the Assad government to negotiate. And we went absolutely nowhere. And we sort of spun around in that mode for a long time. To this day, I don't think it would have been smart to send the American army into Damascus. That would have been nuts. We did that in Baghdad. I spent five years of my life trying to get the Americans out-- the American soldiers out of Iraq. But were there other things we could have done, I think that we have to think about. I am very struck by how we all argued against a no fly zone in 2012, and then in 2014, we put one in, and it's actually been almost as smooth as can be. We've suffered no casualties. We haven't lost an airplane. Jordanians lost one airplane, lost a pilot. We're not sure.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Thanks. Questions, comments, speeches, there's two mics. Someone better get up and ask a question, because if you don't, these guys will start talking. And you just got to do something. Yes, over here. You going to hand them around-- good idea. Bring the mic around.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for the speakers. I learned a lot. And my name is Kajal. I'm an anthropologist that studies Mesopotamia. My question is, today Raqqa was freed, and this lady named Rojda Felat was commander of the troops there, and a woman. So based on what you said, there is no interest for the United States to stay there or help there. My question is, how do you answer people-- especially Americans who have been there to fight alongside those Kurds-- how do you answer them to get out? And especially at the time that, you know-- Iraqi Kurds, they failed because nobody protected them. Nobody supported their referendum.
So my question is, you said there is no interest for the United States. I agree with that. I'm a US citizen. But what was the purpose to go there to begin with? If you are leaving them there, then why do you go there? Second, even for the reconstruction, the part that is Kurdish area, you said, still you hesitated to say we do help for reconstruction. My point is, as long as you go there and you stay there and make people hopeful-- I'm sure there's going to be lots of suicide among Kurds after you leave-- so the question is-- I'm talking about a friend of mine, he called me today. He said when you go there, please ask, are you using Kurds as pinata? No. They use them as long as they can benefit.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Did you want to comment?
AUDIENCE: So what do I tell them?
AUDIENCE: I was going to ask the same exact question.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Either of you want to comment?
ROBERT FORD: Yeah, I'll say something.
STEVE VAN EVERA: US and the Kurds, yeah.
ROBERT FORD: So I believe strongly that my country, my country, does not have a major national interest in eastern Syria. And to ask young people from my country to go risk their lives, to ask people from my country to spend resources to protect people in eastern Syria, I have to say, is it our job to protect vulnerable people all around the world or do we need to prioritize? We do not have unlimited resources. And so Syrian Kurdish fighters from the YPG militia, while they committed many human rights abuses, they also fought very hard against the Islamic State and they were very successful. They had an interest in fighting the Islamic State. They didn't just do it because they love us. They also did it because they were under attack from the Islamic State. We helped them. And we had an interest in helping them fight the Islamic State. We had a convergence of interests.
But over the longer term, whether or not it is an American interest and an American responsibility to defend them against attacks from Bashar Al-Assad's forces backed, almost certainly, by Iranian militias-- not so different from what we've seen in Iraq-- I think that's a very different question. Nobody in this room dislikes Bashar Al-Assad more than I do. I met him. But that said, I don't know that it's my country's task, my country's responsibility, to define the relationship between Bashar Al-Assad's government in Damascus and the Syrian Kurdish population in Northeastern Syria. I would much prefer, much prefer, that that be a negotiation between Syrians, between Bashar and the PYD, the YPG militia, and without the Americans trying to be mediators. Frankly, we can't be mediators because Bashar Al-Assad would never accept our mediation. He might accept Russian mediation, but he certainly won't accept ours.
So you could say that we used the Syrian Kurds, and I've seen people say that. But I would also say, they wanted to be used. They asked for our help. They wanted the help. So with respect to reconstruction, as I said, I think where American bombs destroyed places, we ought to at least look as to whether or not we should help rebuild. I accept that. In too many places where we were fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria in order to save the village, we destroyed it. I'm old enough, even without Ken Burns, to remember Vietnam. But, that said, if we're simply going to rebuild pumping stations, and rebuild schools, and get electricity running, and then Bashar Al-Assad is going to come in again and bomb and destroy, as he did in Aleppo, and as he did in Homs, and as he did in suburban Damascus and other places, that then seems like that's a waste of American money. It's not prudent.
If the Russians, with this de-escalation plan they have, can restrain Assad so that they really will respect a cease fire and they really will stop bombing in those places where the Americans had been involved, then I think we could look at reconstruction. Kobani, for example. But I'm not at all sure that the Russians are going to restrain Al-Assad. They haven't yet. And I think the message from us to the Russians has to be, you want our help rebuilding Syria, and they do. Lavrov asked for a Marshall Plan for Syria. So the answer to him has to be, you restrain the Syrians so that they stop bombing, and then we'll look at it in the places where we were involved. But I think otherwise, we're just going to rebuild things and then they're going to be blown up again in a year or two.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Great. More questions?
AUDIENCE: There is an interest [INAUDIBLE] interest. The US government wants to stop Iranian government to take over [INAUDIBLE]. How about just a tiny [INAUDIBLE] Kurds. They are famous for resisting against the [INAUDIBLE]. So how about just have a tiny plan of joint interest there? They can stop it, at least [INAUDIBLE]
STEVE VAN EVERA: You may want to speak to that. Earlier, I was wondering if you could expand your comment about US Iranian conflict and how it plays out in Syria. You were alluding to that at the end of your talk.
STEVE SIMON: Yeah. I'm just trying to think about how to approach the question. Sorry for my stumble here. Look, the administration, the US administration, is struggling to develop a policy toward Iran. And they've just come out with a policy statement that was, in some respects, difficult to interpret, because it had no specifics in it. But it was very blustery. Against that background, there's a lot of specific discussion within the administration and among outside commentators, including one prominent Israeli who wrote on this in the pages of Foreign Affairs Magazine about the land corridors that Iran was seeking to carve out between it and the Levant, the Mediterranean seaboard, as a way, among other things, of putting itself on Israel's border. Now Iran, in effect, is on Israel's northern border, but they wanted to do this in the Golan. The Israelis have already sent messages that this is unwelcome, in part-- I guess in 2015 they killed Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of the former external operations chief of Hezbollah, who was giving a tour to an IRGC general near Quneitra in the Golan.
So they are sending these signals that Iran ought not to think in these terms, but anyway, there's a belief that this is the Iranian game plan, and it's seen as very sinister. And the focus on corridors is intended to evoke the language, the geopolitical language, of the inter-war period, where the corridor issue was a casus belli for Germany, in that case. And the idea is to evoke a feeling of urgency and great danger and threat to the West. It's a very cleverly formulated argument. In any case, it's fundamentally silly because the Iranians don't need any land corridors and all that. But right now, you know, the issue devolves to under whose auspices, under whose patronage the Baghdad Damascus highway reopens. And that's sort of by the Iraqi Jordanian-- you know this, you know, Abu Kamal and Tanaf. So the administration is very concerned about that. And the other focus for them, as I think Robert alluded to in the beginning of his presentation, is Deir ez-Zor all the way in the east, where the US administration has issued dire warnings against Iranians and other nefarious parties coming too close to that beleaguered city.
Anyway, just to close the parentheses, I mean, the administration has established a concern, has established a kind of strategic interest, at least rhetorically, in maintaining a long term presence in eastern Syria. I mean, my own discussions with US military officials suggests that they're not all that excited about that prospect. You know, they have other fish to fry. And the administration itself, it doesn't really have a well-developed policy coordination mechanism. So who knows how this is going to work out.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Interesting, thanks. Why don't we take the questions in pairs, so we get four questions here. How about both of you say what you got, and you guys respond, and then we'll take two more.
AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is Houssam, Houssam Alnahas. I'm from Damascus. I served as a doctor in Aleppo City between 2011, 2014, and now I'm the local coordinator for the CBRN task force in Syria. So my question is, yes, Mr. Ford. You said that there was no good choice for Syria, and that's completely right. And now yes, I can add that there is no good ending for what's happening in Syria. But regarding saying that the US was not involved in this. Well, as a civilian, I can say no, you were involved at the early beginning of the crisis. When you visited Hama, you supported just what we considered. You supported our voice and our need for liberty, for democracy, and all these things.
And then when Mrs. Hillary Clinton said that Assad lost legitimacy, it also supported. And then Mr. Obama has said that using chemical weapons is a red line, and Mr. Trump and White House say that using chemical weapons will have a heavy price. All these things supported people. I'm not talking about the military side, I'm talking about people. How the people were feeling at that time. And when we start feeling that we are treated with ignorance and very long, routine diplomatic process-- we went through this while people are dying every day-- people found themselves forced to start defending themselves. And continuing with the continuity of ignorance lead to create what we called ISIS now.
So my question is that, do you think that the international community and the whole world should learn from this lesson, that ignorance for what people need may create extremity in these countries. So that's my main question.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Great. How about you?
AUDIENCE: Hello. My name is Camilla Taufik. I'm a new student down at HKS, the Kennedy School down the street, but I spent the last four years working with the Free Syrian Army police and local opposition councils. And my question to you would be agreeing and noting that the Assad regime likely will maintain power, or most definitely, at this point, will maintain power while there is a $200 to $300 billion cost of rebuilding Syria's infrastructure. My bigger concern is the actual reconciliation process, and how the Syrian people who have fled, the refugees, as well as those who are still living displaced in the country can feel safe in their communities. And with that, what can the US and the opposition do at the negotiating table now to get some sort of leverage to create either constitutional or otherwise reform to make sure that that reconciliation is at least tangible.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Great. You guys want to comment, try to keep it short so we can get all the questions out.
STEVE SIMON: Just to that question, my sense is that the regime is not interested. Is that-- is that brief enough?
STEVE VAN EVERA: How do you know that?
STEVE SIMON: I reached out and I touch people.
STEVE VAN EVERA: OK, all right. OK. You're responding to her, did you want to respond to the whole ignorance point, either of you?
ROBERT FORD: I would just say this. It's abundantly clear to me, even before the Syrian experience, that when you have popular protest, if you react with constant and even escalating repression and violence, you will create extremism. I saw that in the Algerian Civil War when I worked in Algeria in the 1990s. That's pre-al-Qaeda. Saw it again in Iraq, many instances, and saw it in Syria. And we saw it coming in Damascus. I can't tell you how many times I told people in the Syrian government, please stop the violence. Please open channels for dialogue. This does not need to become a violent civil war. The protest movement in March, April, May, wasn't even asking for Assad to go. They were just asking for a couple of particularly notorious police chiefs to be fired. One was a cousin of Bashar Al-Assad down in Daraa.
Regime wasn't interested. They would say to my face, oh, yes. If you could only help us with the [INAUDIBLE] please help us. But then, you know, by night, the secret police would go in and shoot and kill and arrest. So I mean, they were very double faced. And that business about them being double faced, I would simply say to the young lady who had been over there working with the local councils and the Free Syrian Army, the last thing I would even begin to suggest to you is that the West, the United States, or any other country the United Nations, or the Russians, could offer any guarantees that the Syrian government would respect any reconciliation agreement. It is a ruthless, violent, vile, police state, way beyond anything that George Orwell imagined. And therefore-- and it is unrestrained, and it is unrepentant, and we cannot offer any guarantees because we're not sending in the American military to take him out.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Over here, let's take two questions.
AUDIENCE: I'm Ali [INAUDIBLE], academic staff at MIT. Thank you so much for sharing your insights. I'll start with a comment that you made regarding that the US does not have any interest in this conflict. It was mentioned that there are five million refugees, there is the rise of ISIS in the region, the foothold that the Iranian regime is getting in the region, and all of those things are not only against the interests of the United States, but also the West. You know, from economical point of view and so on. But I'm going to come back and ask my question in a frame that you know better than everybody. In 2011 to 2012, about 50,000 people were killed in Syria. In 2013, just in that year, 75,000. 2014, 75,000. At the end right now, we are in, you know, 400,000. You were ambassador in Syria, and you were from 2010, 2014, and you heard Obama, his red line, in 2012. You witnessed the chemical attack in 2013. I'm just curious, you, and also the other people who are in security apparatus of the US, you didn't take any position. Namely, you could easily resign as a protest because you have been witnessing those things. And I'm wondering why you didn't do it at that time. That could have some effect. Thank you.
ROBERT FORD: Fair question.
STEVE SIMON: Why we didn't what?
ROBERT FORD: So shall I answer real quick? Or are we going to take another question?
STEVE VAN EVERA: We're asking why the US didn't do what? Restate that.
ROBERT FORD: Didn't enforce the red line.
AUDIENCE: Just not the US, the speakers, Ambassador Ford and also Professor Simon. That you are in positions that you had a voice in the government. You had the official position in the government. You have seen some promises that the government had made and they backtracked from it. And the result of it was chaos and more killing and giving an open hand to the Assad regime to continue at higher levels that they were doing.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Hello. Thank you for coming today and sharing your insights. My name is Sheila, Sheila Beber. I am an undergraduate here at MIT. And I wanted to ask you, Ambassador Ford, you said that the US does not have any interests in certain parts of Syria and that it would be a waste of US money to invest in reconstruction in that area because it will be bombed later. And I wanted to ask you, how much does preventing human casualties factor in to US national interests in that region? And what are some of the humanitarian efforts that the US took to prevent human casualties during this time?
ROBERT FORD: The US took almost nothing with respect to Aleppo. Nothing. John Kerry, bless him, tried very hard verbally to get the Russians and the Syrians to stop bombing Aleppo. The United States did nothing else. That's just a matter of historical record, and I don't blame John Kerry for that. But the record is, whether it be in Homs, in Daraa, in suburban Damascus, in Aleppo, Deir ez-Ezor, I could go on and on. The United States has not done anything physically-- not talking about verbally, physically, to prevent civilian casualties beyond dispatching humanitarian relief supplies over the border to help people after they've already been bombed. And even that took almost a year of arguing inside the administration to get finally approval to send stuff over the border without the permission of Bashar Al-Assad's government. Even that was an excruciating process, took over a year. So no, I'm not going to defend the government on that. I will not.
I want to answer the other gentleman's question. My position, and frankly, that of John Kerry's, was that we should take limited strikes against the Syrian government after the chemical weapons attack. Kerry argued that, I argued that in National Security Council meetings. We lost. We went up to the Hill, we tried to make a case, the Senate voted in favor. But the president also wanted a vote of support from the House of Representatives, and I'm going to speak very frankly. House of Representatives has a lot of big talkers, but when they had to vote, they wouldn't do it. So we had a chance to win in the Senate. We got a vote out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in August-- sorry, early September 2013. But it was stuck in the House, and that's why the president then decided-- Steve mentioned about the British, which I think contributed to the president's decision-- to take the Russian initiative. Which I have to say, in retrospect, was a fig leaf, because Al-Assad has continued to use chemical weapons as has been reported by the United Nations and the OPCW, the chemical weapons watchdog based in the Hague. So even that agreement, I think, the Russians have not been honorable, and certainly the Syrian government hasn't been honorable.
Should I have resigned in September or October of 2013? It's not a secret that actually, I did resign then, and I was asked to stay on. So I stayed until February, I stayed four months. They asked me to stay until the Geneva talks broke down. I said, well, that won't be long, and so I left in February.
STEVE VAN EVERA: I think Sheila also wanted to ask, though, just what is the right and proper role of humanitarian concerns in US foreign policy?
ROBERT FORD: More broadly?
STEVE VAN EVERA: Yeah. Should the US, you know, have little concern, no concern, some concern, large concern to protect the lives of other people in tragic situations? As the US did in some-- I mean, just to name cases where the US did spend blood and treasure, the US basically intervened in Somalia in '92, essentially to terminate the famine and save lives. And did save around 20,000 lives. So I don't know if you want to comment on what place at the table should that-- isn't that-- were you asking that? Yeah.
ROBERT FORD: This is my personal opinion. I think when you have egregious, egregious atrocities being committed, it behooves the United States to work with other countries to address that. I do believe that there is a responsibility to protect. We raised that, also, in the administration back in 2013, and the legal staff said no, we have to get a Security Council resolution to do responsibility to protect. It's interesting, Harold Koh, the Dean of Yale Law School, has said no, that's not clear that you actually have to have Security Council resolution. He was the senior lawyer at the State Department during the first Obama administration.
So in any case, I think there is, at times, a need to rely on responsibility to protect, that states do not have unlimited sovereignty to massacre inside their own borders. So that's my personal opinion. There are a lot of people who wouldn't agree with that.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Thanks. We're almost at the witching hour. But I did want to at least hear your two questions or statements, maybe we should have like 10 second reactions. But I'd like to hear what you wanted to talk about.
AUDIENCE: Thank you, sir. My name is Itash, I'm from Turkey. I'm a visiting scholar here at Harvard. I would like to ask about the Syrian crisis effect on Turkish-American relations in general, and particularly with regard to American support to Kurdish groups, which are seen as terrorist groups by Turkey in northern Syria. [INAUDIBLE] the effects and the potential effects to Turkish-American relations. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: My name is [INAUDIBLE]. I'm from Kuwait, and I'm a graduate student here at MIT. I just want to ask you if you think that ISIL, or Daesh, was established to actually shift the conversation about war from obsessive regime to focus more on making it war on terror or not, and that was it.
STEVE VAN EVERA: You want to make, like, a 30 second comment? Because we're over time. But great questions.
STEVE SIMON: I didn't actually hear the second one. I hear it was about Daesh and--
STEVE VAN EVERA: I think he's talking about the origins of Daesh.
ROBERT FORD: Oh, the origins of Daesh.
STEVE VAN EVERA: But your theory-- you're asking specifically, did someone cook up Daesh for some purpose, and who do you think?
ROBERT FORD: He's implying the government.
STEVE VAN EVERA: The which?
ROBERT FORD: You're implying the Syrian government?
AUDIENCE: Both Syrian and Iran.
STEVE VAN EVERA: Ah ha, OK.
ROBERT FORD: Let me-- I'll address that. Maybe, Steve, if you want to talk about Turkey and the war. I love a good conspiracy theory as much as anyone. But as diabolic as the Syrian government is, I don't think they're that smart.
ROBERT FORD: I think-- well, let me finish. I think it is important, it is important for the Syrian people, it is important for the world to understand that the repression I was talking about created extremism. And I don't think Assad was calculating, in 2013 and 2014, that if the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria got big enough, attention would shift to it away from him. For one thing, he darn near had a revolt in his own Alawite community because of the casualties they took at places like [INAUDIBLE] And he may have helped create the monster, but it got a lot bigger, I think, than he ever would have intended it to do, to become. So I also worry a great deal that the Syrian opposition, the young lady had worked with them, is going to come away with the understanding that there was no responsibility on their parts for addressing the extremists in their own midst. And I think that, too, is an important lesson that we need to take away from this.
There was an extremist element in the Syrian opposition. It was not the majority in 2012, it was not the majority in the first half of 2013. But the Syrian opposition itself was always reluctant to address it, and it grew and grew, in part because of their failure to address it.
ROBERT FORD: He released--
STEVE VAN EVERA: What's your question? Somebody repeat it.
AUDIENCE: Sorry. I asked him, why did Bashar Al-Assad release jihadi prisoners during the [INAUDIBLE]
ROBERT FORD: Absolutely. He was trying to cause confusion and disagreement within Syrian government ranks.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] chaos.
ROBERT FORD: But did the Syrian opposition address it? No. I mean, I'm sorry. Senior leaders in the Syrian opposition would say to me, stop criticizing al-Qaeda. We'll deal with them later. And I'd say, oh, you don't know what you're dealing with. We saw them in Iraq. We know what-- they'll kill people like you. So absolutely. Did Assad have a part in it? Absolutely. But is he solely responsible? Absolutely not.
STEVE VAN EVERA: We are past the witching hour. Join me in thanking our guests.