There are growing indications that the Syrian uprising is turning violent, according to U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who today called on the Syrian’s opposition to enunciate a clearer vision for the future of Syria.
Ford, appearing via videoconference to an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, stressed that the vast majority of the Syrian protest movement remains peaceful, but said that frequent denials by Syrians that the country could descend into civil war "reminds me of what I heard in Iraq in 2004" — right before sectarian bloodletting seized the country. Ford served as political counselor to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006.
Syrians — including defectors from the army — are increasingly taking up arms against their own government, Ford said, referring to ambushes of buses containing Syrian soldiers and the Oct. 2 murder of the mufti of Aleppo’s son as evidence. Ford noted that no one knows the true extent of the armed presence.
At the event, which also featured Washington Institute fellow Andrew Tabler, Ford said that the real change in the protest movement — which has now gripped Syria for seven months — is that more demonstrators are openly questioning whether to use violence to achieve their aims.
Ford was adamant that the United States government opposes a militarization of the Syrian protest movement, saying that it was not only the morally wrong decision but a tactical mistake as well.
"The Syrian security forces "are still very strong, and there is not an armed opposition that is capable of overthrowing the Syrian government," Ford said.
In response to the deteriorating situation in Syria, Ford said that the United States was pushing Syria to allow a U.N. fact-finding mission into the country, to grant more visas for international media, and to invite international monitors into Syria to ensure that human rights are being respected.
Ford also said that he has met recently with Ali Farzat and Riad Seif, two prominent members of the opposition who were recently assaulted by security forces loyal to the regime, to "send a message that the international community is watching."
Ford has repeatedly reached out to opposition activists, a practice that has led to several scrapes with violence with Syrians loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. He was attacked on Sept. 29 while meeting with veteran politician Hassan Abdul Azim, and attended a funeral of a slain activist shortly before it was broken up by security forces.
Asked whether the merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo was wavering in its support of the regime, Ford noted that sanctions implemented by the United States and the European Union — which recently sanctioned the Syrian Central Bank — have had a dramatic effect on the Syrian economy, resulting in rising frustration among Syrian businessmen.
"Business is just terrible," he said. Ford then recounted a story of recently walking into a grocery store to buy eggs, and finding that the store was no longer carrying them. When he inquired why, the grocer responded, "People don’t buy them, they’re too expensive."
So far, the opposition has failed to capitalize on this opportunity because it has not won over the business community because it has not outlined its plan for a political and economic transition in the country. "The Syrian opposition needs to convince those fence-sitters that peaceful change is possible, and that peaceful change is better for them," he said.
Ford praised the formation of the Syrian National Council as "encouraging," but said that the council had still not gone far enough in developing the opposition’s agenda. "They have a lot of work to do, however, in terms of organizing themselves and reaching out to people in Syria and bringing them on board," he said, adding that it "needs to focus heavily on developing greater support inside Syria."