Blog: Conference mulls the hard choice between dictators and dissidents

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Meanwhile, Ford noted, “extremist groups” are gaining ground in the opposition. He said there is an Al Qaeda affiliate now operating in Syria and there are groups that are cooperating with them.

Ford said there are also long-term social problems that will have to be dealt with long after the current crisis is over: About 1.5 million Syrians — out of a total population of 23 million — are internally displaced, and more than 475,000 Syrians have fled the country to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.

As for the path forward, Ford said the U.S. still “strongly supports” a political solution, but Assad “and his clique must go… He does not have a role in this political transition.” Their “days are numbered” and “the regime needs to step down now.”

A question from the audience: When the ambassador said Assad’s “days” were numbered, did he mean Assad has only “days” left? Ford quickly replied that he would not be pinned down to a timeline.

Another questioner asked about the Alewites, Assad’s privileged Muslim minority sect. Ford said the Alewites “must understand that they have a place” in Syria… “not with special privileges, but also not with special discrimination.”

He said those who have committed crimes would be held responsible, and Syrian investigators were now being trained to investigate war crimes.

Fear of genocide is “certainly present,” Ford conceded, “but there does not have to be a genocide in Syria… It is incumbent on us to bolster moderates in the opposition, which is what we’re trying to do.”

A more critical view was offered in a subsequent panel — What’s Next for Syria? — by Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian human rights activist and a fellow at FDD. He complained that at a time when Syrians were being “slaughtered on a daily basis,” the “world offered them a six-point plan.”

He blamed the Obama administration for an “absolute lack of vision” and argued that if the U.S. had intervened sooner, the situation wouldn’t be so bad. As a result, he predicted, Syria would be a problem for “many years to come.”

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