Thinking Aloud: Robert Ford on Syrian Refugee Crisis

July 6, 2015 by Darius 

I recently attended the Middle East Institute’s conference “Cut Off from Care: The Health Crisis of Populations Displaced by Conflict.”  Ambassador Robert Ford, the last US ambassador to Syria, delivered the lunchtime keynote.

Ford said the Middle East is undergoing the largest amount of political change since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.  Today, there are 15.5 million displaced people across the region.  By contrast, in 1948, there were 700,000 Palestinian refugees.  We have seen how the consequences of the status of those refugees have echoed through the decades.

Ford explained a vicious cycle at work.  As states across the Middle East fail, there is an accompanying breakdown of security provided by these states.  In order to find someone able to protect them, people are falling back on old ethnic and tribal loyalties.  The growing power of these nonstate actors further fuels the collapse of state security.

According to Ford, the civil war in Syria is worse than ever and is escalating.  There is more fighting in more places now than there was two years ago.  More importantly, Syria is starting to fragment along the lines of Lebanon or Somalia during their civil wars as warlords start to take effective control of territory.

Ford praised the fact that the US has spent $4 billion in humanitarian aid to Syria alone.  However, he chided the US for not having its priorities straight: the US has spent $5 billion in military operations against ISIS.  He reiterated his belief that humanitarian conditions in Syria are feeding ISIS’s recruitment, effectively nullifying military operations.  He also expressed fear that the US-led bombing campaign against ISIS is open-ended and lacks clear goals.

According to Ford, in Syria both the government and armed groups are blocking, taxing, and using aid as a weapon.  In this context, he said data is needed for diplomacy to work: which groups are blocking which aid specifically?  With hard facts, it is possible to go to whichever group or regime is blocking the aid and cut a deal to get the aid flowing again.

Ford also discussed the US’s international diplomacy to improve conditions in Syria.  He said a surprising number of countries around the world were willing to support the Syrian regime’s blockage of humanitarian aid, in violation of international law, in the name of sovereignty.  The US led a successful legal effort to convince these countries that the principle of sovereignty does not override humanitarian law.

Ford reiterated something that had been said throughout the conference: “Syria is the worst-case scenario.”  Today, the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is Jordan’s fourth-largest city.


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