Report

Turns Out Putin May Not Help Push Assad Out of Power After All

The former U.S. ambassador to Syria believes Moscow’s military intervention on Assad’s behalf will slow, not accelerate, movement toward a potential peace deal.

Robert Ford, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, speaks during a hearing convened by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, DC on June 17, 2015, to examine the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad regime. AFP PHOTO/ ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS        (Photo credit should read Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
Robert Ford, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, speaks during a hearing convened by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, DC on June 17, 2015, to examine the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad regime. AFP PHOTO/ ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama’s former ambassador to Syria told House lawmakers Tuesday that Russia’s military intervention in the country has set back, not advanced, efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the five-year-old conflict.

The gloomy comments from Robert Ford, who served as ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, stand in direct opposition to the State Department’s growing optimism that a Syrian peace deal may be in sight. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken and other top officials have argued that Vladimir Putin’s military intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could give Moscow the leverage needed to prod Assad to step aside and make way for a successor. Ford had a very different take.

“I think the Russian intervention has made it infinitely harder to get the concessions needed … which will impede getting to a new national unity government,” he said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

Ford said he had also initially hoped that Russia’s intervention would leave Assad so much in Putin’s debt that Moscow would be able to help force a political transition. But Russia’s actions in recent days have dispelled the notion that it might assist in Assad’s ouster, he said.

“The fact that they are using cluster bombs, the fact that they are targeting civilian areas regularly. The fact that they are, targeting aid convoys, humanitarian aid convoys regularly, this does not look like a Russian policy designed to extract concessions out of Bashar al-Assad to advance a peace process,” he said.

The remarks contrast with the views expressed last month by Blinken, who said Moscow’s support to Assad, in the form of airstrikes, arms transfers and financial assistance, has “increased Russia’s leverage” over Assad, and brought diplomats closer to brokering a deal.

“We now have, without exaggerating its potential, a greater possibility at achieving a political transition in Syria than we did just a few months ago and arguably at any time during this crisis,” Blinken said at FP’s Global Thinkers event in December.

In November, Secretary of State Kerry went a step further, saying, “We’re weeks away conceivably from the possibility of a big transition for Syria, and I don’t think enough people necessarily notice that. But that’s the reality.”

Those remarks have prompted guffaws from critics who say a transition remains far away in the distance given the continued violence plaguing the country, and the significant logistical and political challenges of holding elections and securing a ceasefire between the Assad regime and the fractious opposition.

Analysts have been especially disheartened by a string of reports of Russian air raids hitting civilian targets, such as the bombing of the Idlib province offices of a Syrian-American advocacy group on Saturday and the bombing of at least 12 Syrian school children in Aleppo province on Monday.

The bombings threaten to derail the United Nations-brokered peace talks scheduled for Jan. 25. On Monday, Syrian opposition coordinator Riad Hijab threatened to pull out of the talks given Russia’s alleged actions.

“We want to negotiate, but to do that the conditions have to be there,” Hijab said. “We cannot negotiate with the regime when there are foreign forces bombing the Syrian people.”

Photo credit: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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