The Obama administration’s ambassador to Syria, a leading voice in favor of aggressively confronting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the time, is now backing an effort by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., to force U.S. withdrawal from the country within 180 days.
Robert Ford argues in a letter to Congress in support of Gaetz’s legislation that the U.S. mission has no clear objective. “After more than eight years of military operations in Syria there is no definition of what the ‘enduring’ defeat of ISIS would look like,” Ford writes in the letter, which was obtained by The Intercept and confirmed as authentic by Ford. “We owe our soldiers serving there in harm’s way a serious debate about whether their mission is, in fact, achievable.”
The resolution also has the support of former Obama ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, at the time an advocate of expansive support for the Syrian opposition. He now says it's time to go. From a letter her wrote: pic.twitter.com/UW2G7YMsZw— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) March 7, 2023
On Tuesday evening, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, or CPC, circulated a message to its membership urging a yes vote, producing a serious bipartisan coalition. “This measure to remove unauthorized deployment of U.S. Armed Forces in Syria unless a specific statutory authorization is enacted within six months is largely consistent with previous bipartisan efforts led by CPC Members to terminate such unauthorized military presence within one year, for which 130 House Democrats voted yes last year,” read the message to members.
The resolution is scheduled for a vote Wednesday afternoon.
An original version of Gaetz’s measure offered just 15 days for troops to leave Syria, but he amended it to six months in the hope of drawing real support. The new measure, a war powers resolution that is privileged on the House floor, would allow troops to stay longer if Congress debated on and authorized the intervention.
Gaetz’s introduction of the resolution, particularly with such a short timetable that would doom it to lopsided defeat, kicked off a flurry of lobbying to try to turn it into a bipartisan coalition, involving progressive groups like Just Foreign Policy and Demand Progress and conservative ones such as FreedomWorks, Concerned Veterans for America, and Citizens for Renewing America. The speed with which it is coming to the floor leaves little time for grassroots mobilization. “The CPC has been leading on this front and nothing has changed. I wish Gaetz worked more closely with the coalition of groups that have been working on this and the CPC,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., deputy chair of the CPC, who worked with Gaetz to get the legislation to a place where Democrats could back it. “Nonetheless, I am a yes on the resolution.” Gaetz did not respond to a request for comment.
Ford had previously supported a 2021 legislative push by New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman, whose amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act would have given the U.S. one year to exit Syria. Bowman’s measure won the support of 21 Republicans and roughly half of the Democratic caucus. Despite the rise of an anti-interventionist wing of the GOP, the votes to oppose American adventures overseas continue to come largely from Democrats. In July 2022, Bowman pushed for another floor vote, this time picking up 25 Republicans and winning the Democratic caucus 130-88.
In 2019, Gaetz and a handful of other Republicans backed President Donald Trump’s push for an end to the U.S. presence there and were joined by Omar and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who bucked their party to back Trump’s proposed withdrawal. But like Trump’s Afghanistan withdrawal, he never actually did it, losing the internal power struggle to supporters of a continued occupation.
Opposition to U.S. intervention in Syria has been bipartisan since the earliest days of the crisis. In 2013, Daily Kos and HuffPost ran whip counts ahead of a vote called for by Obama to authorize the use of force, pressuring progressives to vote no. HuffPost tallied 243 members of Congress planning to vote no or leaning no before Obama pulled the legislation from the floor.
In 2014, Ford resigned his position, frustrated that the Obama administration was not providing enough support to the opposition to, at minimum, force al-Assad to the negotiating table. The need to minimize U.S. involvement undermined the purpose of that involvement, he argued. In other words, go big or go home — and Ford is now arguing that U.S. troops ought to go home and that the Gaetz measure is a vehicle to help make that happen. “And remember that ‘go big’ offers no guarantee of success,” he said when I asked if the idiom appropriately summed up his argument. “We went big in Iraq and had mixed results.”
Ford noted in his letter that leftist Kurdish forces in Syria, with U.S. support, had claimed the last piece of ISIS territory in March 2019 and the Pentagon has assessed that ISIS now lacks the capacity to strike the U.S. at home. Militias aligned with Iran have taken the opportunity of U.S. presence in the region to launch attacks on American troops, who number roughly 900, not counting contractors.
The legal rationale for U.S. occupation is dubious at best. With ISIS suppressed, the administration has suggested the purpose of the occupation is to act as a bulwark against Iran. The Washington Post previously reported:
The balance of power in Syria’s multisided conflict depends on the American presence. Where U.S. troops retreat, American officials see an opening for the Syrian military or forces from Russia or Turkey to advance. Some U.S. officials have stressed that the American deployment precludes Iranian forces from establishing a “land bridge” that would allow them to more easily supply weapons to their Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.
“It’s about keeping a balance,” said one senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.
In fact, Iran already has a direct “land bridge” through eastern Syria to Lebanon; the U.S. occupation merely adds some time to the Iranian truckers’ journey. More to the point, said Ford, there is no authorization to deploy troops overseas to counter Iran. “The 2001 authorization of the use of military force was all about Al Qaeda and, to a secondary extent, the Taliban and Afghanistan,” he said. “It wasn’t about Iranian or pro-Iranian militias in eastern Syria.”
Ford argued that U.S. withdrawal would facilitate the kind of negotiations needed to bring a measure of stability to the region. The Kurdish separatists, while enjoying significant amounts of autonomy, would be pushed into direct talks with the Syrian government over a power-sharing agreement. The Turks have resisted talks with the U.S. over security at the Syrian border, angered at the U.S. alliance with the Kurdish separatists.
Trump, while urging a withdrawal, also said he’d leave behind a force to “keep the oil.” He suggested a major American firm like Exxon Mobil would come in to exploit Syria’s oil, but so far, no big American company has been involved, and the Kurds are exporting oil largely in collaboration with al-Assad’s government.
Asked about the ongoing sanctions of the al-Assad regime, Ford said it was time to take a hard look at whether they were working and at what cost. “That’s a very separate issue from our troop presence,” he said. “I would just say two things. First, the sanctions are not delivering political concessions from Bashar al-Assad. And then the second thing I would say is, it’s disingenuous for those who justify the sanctions to say that they don’t harm ordinary Syrians living in government-controlled territories. They obviously do.
“All I can say is we’re inflicting pain without getting much for it.”
This content originally appeared on The Intercept and was authored by Ryan Grim.