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U.S. And Turkey To Train Syrian Rebel Forces


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The United States and Turkey, after long delays, have been training and arming Syrian rebels. The U.S. wants them to fight Islamic State forces in Syria. Turkey wants them to battle the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, too. The training effort begins just as there are new reports that Assad is losing ground. Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Damascus, resigned over the Obama administration's Syria policy. We spoke with him earlier this week and asked, is this training too little too late?

ROBERT FORD: Well, I hope it won't be. It is a step. It's a useful step. I just don't know if it'll be a big enough step. There are literally tens-of-thousands of fighters on the ground in the different factions including the Syrian regime itself. And so a force that's only two or 3,000 won't make a big difference on the ground. It would have to be a program much bigger.

SIMON: When you say a much bigger program, anything the U.S. would have the stomach for, or European states?

FORD: I think in many quarters on Capitol Hill, especially among members of the Republican Party but also the Democratic Party, there's a real desire to do more in the Syrian conflict. The Islamic State's ability to develop deep roots and operating space in Syria has led many people in Washington to demand that the United States have a more robust policy in Syria. And certainly the Turks and the Saudis in other countries in the Middle East itself would like to see the Americans join them in a more robust policy.

SIMON: Join them in a more robust policy means?

FORD: For example, with respect to this particular operation - training fighters - something that would be much bigger. I think the Turks and the Saudis would like to see a program four or five or six times bigger than what the Americans are envisioning. They would also like to see - and let's be frank, some people in the Pentagon also would like to see - the Americans and the regional states together provide air assistance, whether that be protecting them from Syrian government Assad airplanes bombing them or providing close air support for them the way that we provide close air support for Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.

SIMON: The U.S. launched that air campaign against ISIS last summer. Does that wind up mostly assisting the Assad regime?

FORD: It's hurt the Islamic State but it has had the indirect impact of helping the Assad regime hold on to certain places where they were fighting. And the Americans came in, thwacked the Islamic State, and the Assad forces on the ground benefited from that.

SIMON: Mr. Ambassador, let me ask you a question I think a lot of Americans might wonder about. What if Assad falls? I think a lot of Americans feel, oh, we've seen that movie in Libya and Egypt and Yemen. The strong man falls and bloodshed takes over.

FORD: Well, it's a little different from Libya in that sense, Scott, because there's already plenty of bloodshed in Syria. Over 200,000 people have been killed. Were Assad to fall, frankly the regime is well enough entrenched that they would find another leader to take over. It might be someone from Assad's family; his brother, for example, is in the Syrian military. And in fact, were Assad to go, the fighting would go on. It would continue in Damascus and in other parts of the country. Syria itself is headed towards partition - a hard partition where different factions will control different parts of the country. In some places the Islamic State is going to control those parts of the country, and that's bad for the United States, which is why we would like to see a political negotiation that avoids that kind of hard partition.

SIMON: Mr. Ambassador, toward the end of this week there are fresh reports that the Assad regime, the Syrian government, has been using chemical weapons even after the agreement obviously to get rid of their chemical weapons. The reports are that they've contrived some other cheaper kind of weapons. That raises the question, is this a regime to negotiate with? Can they be trusted?

FORD: Groups like Amnesty International, Scott, have said that the Syrian regime is committing various kinds of war crimes including the use of chemical weapons, and there's plenty of evidence that the Syrian regime is using chlorine gas. That was not part of the agreement that the United States and Russia worked out. And the Syrian regime seems to be using it fairly regularly. I see reports every week or two. In the end however, as repugnant as the Syrian regime is, in order to get to a political deal, a national political deal in Syria, we will have to negotiate with the Syrian regime. It's an unpleasant fact of diplomacy that you often have to negotiate with some pretty ugly characters.

SIMON: Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Damascus. He's now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

Thanks for being with us, sir.

FORD: It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.