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Syria Unpacked: Interview with Ambassador Robert Ford

By Mira Haqqani ‘17

Ambassador Robert Ford is a former career diplomat who served as the United States ambassador to Algeria from 2006 to 2008 and to Syria from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and writes about developments in the Middle East. He received the annual Profile in Courage award in 2012 from the John F. Kennedy Library for his humanitarian efforts and a Presidential Honor award in 2012 for his representation of the United States during the Syrian conflict. Ambassador Ford is a Johns Hopkins alum and has returned to campus to teach courses on issues facing the Middle East and Muslim world. He is fluent in Arabic and French.

(This interview was conducted on November 4, 2016)

Can you tell me what the situation on the ground in Syria is in less than sixty seconds?

The fighting is so severe that refugees can’t go back and there may even be additional outflows of refugees such as the Idlib province in the North West and from Aleppo. There is no prospect of negotiations to reach a political settlement anytime soon. Instead, the operative dynamic now is a Russian-Iranian-Syrian government decision to press forward with a strategy to squeeze in and destroy the opposition.

How do you think the new President will shape US foreign policy in Iraq and Syria?

The President sits on the very top of the entire national security machine which includes the military, diplomatic, financial, intelligence, and commercial arms. The President has to install a team that will implement the President’s vision. The President can make particular decisions about how defence and diplomatic policy should proceed and can make changes e.g. if there is a country in a particular part of the region which is challenging American influence, the President can decide to deploy more military assets, increase diplomatic presence, or try to win support for our point of view through financial incentives such as development aid or withhold it, or even use sanctions in order to convince other countries to move in a direction we like. It is not to say that we have unlimited power to influence; I think events in Syria and Iraq show the limitations of American power especially as the world becomes more multipolar and less unipolar over time.

Do you think one candidate was more qualified than the other in terms of working toward a political settlement in the region?

Oh sure, by a wide margin. To be fair to your readers, I did a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton whom I know personally and think very highly of. She’s quite smart and very capable.

What is your advice to the new President?

The most important task for the new president is to make the best personnel decisions and spend the time to get the very best team possible. In the end, the President needs to delegate a huge number of important responsibilities to the presidential team because one person cannot run the show. The strongest team needs to be a top priority.  

As demands for an independent Kurdish state become more forceful, will this conflict result in the redrawing of the map of the Middle East? Will we see an independent Kurdish state in five to ten years?

The Kurdish issue is increasingly coming to the front. It started with Operation Comfort. The Kurds began to create a proto-state in that era. That’s gone a long way and now we’re starting to see the same thing take shape in Syria. We could have decentralized states in places like Libya, Iraq and Syria, or Yemen - there are lots of possibilities. However, I imagine the most prominent change in the Middle East will be related to the Kurdish issue.

What would you say to JHU students who aspire to have a career like yours?

Turn back. Run away. (Ambassador Ford said jokingly)  I’ve been in many war situations, kidnapped by a Shia militia at gunpoint, shelled numerous times and been on helicopters that are under fire. I can’t say it was all glamor.

However, there are three essential things aspiring diplomats must do. Firstly, develop language skills. If you want to be in the international sphere, you cannot speak just English.

Second, you must learn to write tightly and concisely. I remember taking a German history class during my time here at Johns Hopkins. My professor wanted a twenty page paper. Mine came in at twenty-six so I didn’t number the pages. He gave me an A- but told me that excluding the page numbers on my paper didn’t make it any shorter. There is no such thing as a twenty page paper in government. Never. The President reads one page papers.

Lastly, develop emotional intelligence. This is an essential tool when it comes to negotiation and speaking with others. You can understand their motivations and interests, addressing them in your actions and words to them. That makes the engagement more productive. We never had any classes on emotional intelligence during my time here in the late 70s. There were no conversations about emotional intelligence - I don’t think the words were ever put together but today in American organizations they are. At least be aware and think about it.

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