Robert Ford Against PYD
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The decision of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) to announce an interim government in territories it controls in Syria has raised concerns among both Syrian opposition groups and the countries backing them, including the United States. Ambassador Robert Ford, the US Ambassador to Syria and the main point-person for Syrian policy at the US State Department, says it would be better for the Kurds to focus on the success of the revolution in the present time, and to deal with the “questions” relating to the Kurds constitutionally once a transitional governing body is formed in Syria.
While emphasizing that the US has always stated its support “for the unity of Syria,” he also said the concerns of the Kurds were understandable based on their own historical experiences in the country.
Ford was speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat from his office at the State Department in Washington, DC, maintaining the position of supporting a political solution to the crisis in Syria. Ford is considered one of the most distinguished American Ambassadors of his generation. He speaks fluent Arabic and has a knowledge of the Arab world stemming from over three decades of working there. After being appointed US Ambassador to Damascus in January 2011, he found himself in the middle of a revolt that led to him being withdrawn from the country in October of the same year. There had been expectations that he would leave his position over the summer and be nominated as US Ambassador to Egypt, but this has not yet been confirmed. He insists that for now, he is focused on dealing with the Syrian crisis.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The Kurds of Syria, and specifically the PYD, have announced a transitional government, which the Syrian National Coalition are calling a hostile move. What is your assessment of this development?
Robert Ford: We have long stated our support for the unity of Syria. The Kurds suffered a very great deal during the time of the Assad regime, and even before that. They did not have equal rights as citizens of Syria, some didn’t even have the right of citizenship and couldn’t get passports, for example, and there was discrimination against Kurds, for example, in land-holding rights. And so, it is easy to understand why Kurds want change, and I hope that the people in Syria’s Kurdish areas will remember that the original problem came from the Assad regime and the Assad regime never fixed that problem. Then the Kurds have had a second enemy to deal with, and they are the Islamic groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and the Al-Nusra Front. In both cases, those groups have attacked Kurdish civilians in ways that really would not bring the Kurdish population to join the revolution. So I understand politically that what the Kurds did is a reaction to their experience, but I have to say that from our point of view, the Kurdish questions in Syria are constitutional questions. They have to be negotiated and agreed by all Syrians; they cannot be fixed by unilateral measures. So I think that it is more important right now for the Kurds to focus on the success of the revolution, and the success of moderates in the revolution and then to address the constitutional issues during the transitional governing body period laid out in the Geneva communiqué.
Q: Does the timing of the announcement from the Kurds, at a time when the Syrian opposition is working to unify its position, cause a further hindrance?
Like other parts of the Syrian political class, the Kurds are not unified—the Kurds are divided too. You have the PYD on the one hand, which is behind the unilateral measures that you talked about. The Kurdish National Congress—a political competitor of the PYD—joined the Syrian National Coalition last month, and in fact the General Assembly of the Coalition approved bringing in the Kurdish National Congress with new members into the General Assembly, as well as a Kurdish vice president. That was voted on last Saturday, and is a move which shows the unity of Syria and shows that Syrians across the country want a moderate revolution and a moderate new government without Bashar Al-Assad. The PYD, let us be honest, was for a long time an ally of the regime; sometimes it arrested opposition people and then gave them to the Mukhabarat [military intelligence] agencies. We know that the PYD cooperated with the regime, even when the PYD seized the border post at Yaaroubiyeh, Syrian government aircraft were helping them. So I don’t think the PYD is really the opposition.