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World

Former Ambassador Robert Ford On The Stalled Syrian Cease-Fire

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The U.S. has suspended talks with Russia over the war in Syria. That move comes after the U.S. accused Russia of joining the Syrian air force in attacks on civilians in the already devastated city of Aleppo. Those attacks resumed after a cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia fell apart. We reached a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, now senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, Robert Ford. Welcome to the program.

ROBERT FORD: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: The Russians are saying that the U.S. is shifting the blame, that the U.S. has failed to separate jihadist groups from moderate opposition. The U.S. is pointing to Russian air power helping Assad bomb a rebel-held part of the city of Aleppo. Is there any merit to that argument?

FORD: The deal, which the Americans were trying to implement with the Russians, required a set of sequenced steps. The first step was that the bombings stop. And then the second step was that groups on the ground would distance themselves from the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria. But the bombing never stopped.

MONTAGNE: But what, in your view, having long experience in that region, what leverage does the U.S. have?

FORD: Well, the U.S. has very little leverage because it is unable to threaten the Assad government, which keeps violating these cease-fire efforts. And so without leverage, not surprisingly, American diplomacy has been ineffective. It's only when the Americans put some kind of pressure on the Syrian government that the Syrian government is going to behave in a sense of respecting the cease-fire agreement. So whether that be direct U.S. military intervention - limited but direct - or it helps the opposition fighters on the ground, some of whom are not Islamist extremists but are moderate, it's got to compel the Syrian regime to respect the cease-fire, and it can't do that without some kind of military pressure.

MONTAGNE: Well, the U.N. is putting the term war crime to the clear targeting of this one hospital in eastern Aleppo. Other hospitals have been attacked. What practical significance does that term war crime have?

FORD: It's not going to have any practical impact on the ground because in order, for example, for someone to be tried in front of an international tribunal, there would have to be a United Nations Security Council agreement, and the Russians, of course, will veto anything. Probably the Chinese would join them. If you set up a tribunal outside the framework of the United Nations and the International Criminal Court at The Hague, there's no assurance whatsoever that you could actually physically move, say, Syrian generals to wherever that tribunal is and try them. I mean, they're not going to leave Syria.

MONTAGNE: Ambassador Ford, thanks very much for joining us.

FORD: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That is former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.