- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

With international peace talks on Syria seeming to stall Tuesday, the Obama administration’s former ambassador to Riyadh predicted Syrian President Bashar Assad will remain in power as long as Washington and its allies fail to challenge him militarily.

“Without greater military pressure on the Syrian government, it will not negotiate a compromise political settlement,” said Robert S. Ford, who told a congressional hearing that the Obama administration’s unclear policies toward the war have lost the trust of Syria’s opposition forces.

“The United States lacks leverage with the armed opposition because it — and its regional backers — view us as inconsistent at best,” Mr. Ford told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

The former ambassador also stressed that Russia’s military intervention on behalf of the Assad regime has dimmed the prospects for a settlement to end the Syrian war.

The Obama administration has long pushed for a “political transition” that would remove Mr. Assad from power, arguing there can be no lasting peace if he stays on. But talks have stalled since the breakdown last month of a partial cease-fire that the U.S. and Russia had negotiated.

Mr. Ford’s comments on Tuesday came as foreign ministers from several powers involved in Syria’s war gathered in Vienna to discuss the prospects of restoring the cease-fire and breathing life into the elusive push toward a political transition.

Reuters reported that a pessimistic atmosphere pervaded the meeting between countries backing the Assad regime — namely Russia and Iran — and its enemies, which include the U.S., the European Union and several of the Middle East’s leading Sunni Arab powers.

While the gathering failed to produce an agreement on a new date to restart peace talks, the diplomats issued a joint call for a new cease-fire to allow humanitarian aid to flow into war-ravaged parts of Syria. However, the cease-fire comes with major uncertainties, since the Islamic State, al Qaeda and other jihadi factions active in the war zone, are not party to it.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has said that if Mr. Assad is not on his way out by August, the U.S. will have to dramatically change its approach to Syria’s 5-year-old civil war.

Mr. Ford, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014 but is no longer active in the administration, said he doesn’t know whether White House will alter its policy toward armed opposition groups in Syria before President Obama leaves office early next year.

During his testimony Tuesday, the former ambassador stopped short of advocating for U.S. military action, but did call for Washington to accept a greater number of Syrian refugees and to press Turkey and Jordan to keep their own borders open to refugees as a way to undermine extremist recruiting inside Syria.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, who heads the Brookings Institution’s Center For Middle East Policy in Washington, told the committee that “diplomacy alone is unlikely to end the Syrian war.”

“The Assad government and its patrons in Tehran and Moscow have no interest in a sustained cease-fire, because the battleground dynamics continue to shift in their favor,” Ms. Wittes said.


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