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Parsing The Keys To A Diplomatic Solution In Syria

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Staying with the Middle East story for just a few more minutes, Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to head back to Vienna this week for the next round of peace talks on Syria. So we decided to check in with Robert Ford. He is the former U.S. ambassador to Syria and a longtime critic of the U.S. response there. And he says that the 50 troops the administration has pledged to send are not enough.

ROBERT FORD: The sending of some Special Operations Forces would be to fight the Islamic State, which may have some utility in terms of national security, but it doesn't address the broader issue of the Syrian civil war and getting to a national-level settlement of that conflict. The war has gone on four years now - almost four and a half. Refugees flood into Europe. The Islamic State is able to mount operations in foreign countries, like Turkey. The Islamic State and the al-Qaida affiliate that operate in Syria pose real risks, not only to the United States but also to our friends. And therefore, sooner or later, the extremist problem in Syria must be addressed. But it must be addressed, Michel, by Syrians. And the Bashar al-Assad government has not been able to address it. In fact, they aggravate the problem. So we need a new national unity government in Damascus, and I think that's what Secretary Kerry is trying to do in Vienna. But I'm not sure that they've put enough pressure on the Russians and Iranians yet to help us get there.

MARTIN: What does need to happen in your view to get a diplomatic solution to halt this war?

FORD: So far, Iran and Russia have not been willing to put pressure on the Assad regime to make serious compromises to stand up a new national unity government in Syria that would be able to mobilize many, many more Syrians to fight the extremists. Russia and Iran have not been willing to put any pressure on. And the Bashar al-Assad government itself is unwilling to negotiate that. In fact, the Syrian deputy foreign minister, who was just visiting Moscow, said to the press four days ago that the Syrian government would not negotiate. In the absence of any kind of negotiation to get us to a new government, there is no real force so far that has been able to fight the Islamic State very well. And of course, Syria's moving towards partition, which will entrench the Islamic State.

MARTIN: I'm sure you're aware that British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon is renewing a call for British airstrikes against ISIS in Syria if it's proven that terror groups brought down the passenger jet in Egypt. What's your take on that?

FORD: Well, let's see what the investigations come up with. Again, some military action against the Islamic State may be useful in a very short-term kind of way. But Syrians, Iraqis need to be the ones who have ground forces that can capture and hold and take away from the terrorists control of cities, control of neighborhoods, control of towns. That has to be - first and foremost - the job of Syrian ground forces and Iraqi ground forces.

MARTIN: But is there any capacity left to do that?

FORD: I think that's exactly what we're talking about with Vienna, for example. Bashar al-Assad's government clearly has no capacity to do that. That's why in Iraq - on the Iraq side - and I just came back from Iraq three weeks ago - Prime Minister Abadi is trying to reform the government there and to generate more support among Iraqis to go fight the Islamic State. And we have to help him.

MARTIN: So before we let you go - and thank you, sobering message, as usual - but you've been involved in diplomacy for a very long time. Is there any way in which your views have evolved as the situation has continued to go on?

FORD: In 2011 and 2012, it was hard to see how horrible the civil war in Syria would become - entire cities flattened, not so different from European cities in - after World War II. I had hoped for a much quicker solution. Now, fast-forward to 2015, it seems like a solution is going to be much harder to find. There's an extremist element - a very powerful extremist element - in the Syrian opposition that wasn't there before that now must be dealt with. The number of casualties and the bitterness on both sides - on both sides of the Syrian conflict is much greater. It doesn't mean that we can't find a solution. But it does mean that the solution will be harder to find, and it certainly is going to take longer to implement.

MARTIN: That's Robert Ford, former United States ambassador to Syria. He's currently serving as a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. Ambassador, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FORD: Thank you, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.