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Syria and the West's Policy; Blowback: Syria Terror Comes Home; Imagine a World

Aired June 3, 2014 - 14:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

President Obama is in Europe this week to mark Poland's quarter century of freedom and democracy, Europe's 70 years of peace since America's heroic D- Day leadership and he'll face the grim collective Western failure over Syria.

Perhaps nothing more galling than the likely news of Bashar al-Assad's overwhelming reelection as Syrian president after today's vote. Three years, that is, after Mr. Obama said Assad must go.

This election, of course, bore no resemblance to the real thing; it was neither free nor fair. No members of the opposition were allowed to stand. Voting took place only in regime-controlled territory and the war ravages the land.

Syria's moderate opposition says the only way to achieve a political solution is to change military facts on the ground. And the West is now struggling to contain the blowback as their citizens set off for jihad in Syria and return looking for a fight at home.

With the Syrian death toll climbing past 160,000 now and about 9 million refugees, both in an outside the country, Western leaders and their regional allies admit their policy so far has been a colossal failure.

Robert Ford was America's last ambassador to Syria, but he stepped down in May because he tells me in his first TV interview that he could no longer defend the Obama administration's policy.


AMANPOUR: Ambassador Ford, welcome to the program.

ROBERT FORD, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

AMANPOUR: First, I must ask you, as the former ambassador to Syria, your reaction to these elections, which certainly the West has called sham elections, happening right now.

FORD: Well, I don't think the elections have much to do with democracy. They certainly were not -- the campaign in no way resembled a democratic election campaign. But the election is important; it shows that Bashar al- Assad and his circle are entrenching deeply in the capital and that the conflict will go on.

AMANPOUR: Indeed. I wanted to ask you about what even U.S. intelligence officials are now saying about his being entrenched and indeed getting stronger.

Three years after President Obama said Assad must go, this is what the director of National Intelligence said recently.


JAMES CLAPPER, DIR. U.S. NATL. INTELLIGENCE: Well, the prospects are right now that he is actually in a strengthened position than when we discussed this last year, by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons, as slow as that process has been.


AMANPOUR: So there you have the top national intelligence official of the United States saying that Bashar al-Assad is in a strengthened position and we know that they've managed to push back rebels, certainly from around Damascus, and that he's gaining ground.

What went wrong, Ambassador? What went wrong three years after the president said Bashar al-Assad must go?

FORD: Well, there's still a stalemate on the ground. It's not that Bashar al-Assad has won the war; he is more firmly entrenched in the capital, but there are large portions of the country which he does not control and has no hope of ever recapturing.

But the reason he has been able to sustain himself in the capital and in the other cities he does still control, I would say more than anything is the great intervention to help Bashar coming from Iran, coming from Hezbollah and also coming from Russia.

AMANPOUR: What would have happened, do you think, had the supporters, the Friends of Syria -- Turkey, the United States, others -- actually got together and given some military support to the opposition, actually have got together, even to have a no-fly zone?

How would it look different if that had happened even two years ago?

FORD: Had there been more military assistance and logistical assistance -- and even things like cash -- two things would have happened differently.

Number one, the opposition would have probably been able to gain more ground a couple of years ago more quickly and been able to go to a negotiating table in a much stronger position; the regime would have been much weaker.

And the second thing is -- and this is really important, Christiane -- the ability of Al Qaeda and Islamist extremist groups to recruit away from the moderates would have been less. And we would have less of an extremism problem in Syria now.

Had there been more systems provided to the moderate forces even a year or two ago, it would have made a big difference.

AMANPOUR: Well, in other words, you're basically saying, Ambassador, that the West's strategy has failed and we've heard that Secretary Kerry has said that in private; we've certainly heard that -- foreign ministers from Turkey to Britain have said that to me, that everybody has failed.

Let me just play you what foreign minister of Turkey said to me about the allied response to what's happening on the ground in Syria.


AHMET DAVUTOGLU, FOREIGN MINISTER OF TURKEY: If he survives today, it is not because of his success to gain the heart of the people. But it is because of the inability of international community to stop this machinery of killing.


AMANPOUR: So he's talking about Assad's survival and Assad is surviving and he's basically putting this on everybody's back, that we have failed to stop this killing machine.

And I cannot tell you how many world leaders I talk to who express frustration and they're flabbergasted at the lack of American leadership.

Why have you quit as ambassador?

Are you also frustrated with your nation's policy towards Syria?

FORD: Christiane, I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy. We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground and we have a growing extremism threat.

And there really is nothing we can point to that's been very successful in our policy except the removal of about 93 percent of some of Assad's chemical materials.

But now he's using chlorine gas against his opponents in contravention of the Syrian government's agreement in 2013 to abide by the chemical weapons convention. The regime simply has no credibility and our policy is not addressing the Syrian crisis as it needs to, frankly speaking.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, to your point of the -- of the U.S. policy is no longer defensible, other former State Department officials have written the same thing. They have said that those who've verbally committed to the downfall of the Assad regime have not put any resources behind that.

They have also pointed to the constant blaming of Russia and China and vetoes in the United Nations.

To wit, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, tweeted not so long ago an appalling evidence to this, that each time there has been a U.N. veto that the death toll has simply climbed to where it is now, at 160,000.

But people like Frederick Hoff have said to blame the Russians, quote, "to consign it thusly is simultaneously to prevent accountability and to add one's self to the roster of those who should be held accountable."

Those are tough words, Ambassador.

Do you agree with your former colleague?

FORD: The United States and our friends, we have tools that could put greater pressure on Bashar al-Assad.

And I think as we go forward, especially as the extremist threat to the United States and to our friends emanating out of Syria grows, I think we really must consider carefully whether or not we are doing all we can to help our friends in Syria.

AMANPOUR: Well, Ambassador, clearly you've asked rhetorical questions and the answer is a resounding no. We are not doing enough because the evidence is on the ground.

What should the United States do now?

FORD: Several things: as I said, the moderates in the Syrian opposition - - and we've identified them quite well now -- the -- some people say, well, we don't know them well enough; we can't depend on them.

We know them quite well. We've worked with them for years. They need to get the tools they must have to change the balance on the ground, at least in some localities.

And by the way, they're actually winning in the north of Syria. Assad has done well in the capital, down south. But in the north, the moderate opposition is actually gaining ground. So -- but we need to reinforce that and it needs to go faster, because to get to the political deal that we all want, Christiane, we're going to have to put the regime in a corner.

AMANPOUR: In his speech, the president expressed some frustration with those who suggest that America should use more military intervention, particularly in cases like this. He said just because we have the world's best hammer doesn't mean to say that every problem is a nail.

And some also felt that he tarred those who believe in intervention in certain instances as kneejerk warmongers.

You were in the State Department when Hillary Clinton sided with the president's entire national security staff, CIA, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, all the national security staff, who said that it would be a good thing to try ramping up military help to the moderate opposition.

Tell me about how that went.

How close was Hillary Clinton to that discussion?

How hard did she push for it?

Was it a mistake not to have gone for that?

FORD: Well, I certainly sat with Secretary Clinton many times to talk about Syria and what needed to be done.

And I don't want to go into the contents of those individual discussions except to say that it is now widely known that the State Department thought we needed to give much more help to the armed opposition in Syria and that was as long as two years ago.

So I think the policy has evolved in that direction over the last two years, Christiane. But on the other hand, Russia and Iran have increased their help, too. And so we are, in a sense, we're always a little bit behind the curve. And we need to get ahead of the curve. That is important.

AMANPOUR: You talked a lot about the threat of extremism; so did President Obama. In his speech he said that the main challenge to the United States today is combating terrorism, in all its murky and diffuse anomalies right now.

And yet --


AMANPOUR: Well, go ahead --

FORD: This is not a surprise, Christiane. This is not a surprise. We warned, even as long as two years ago, that terrorist groups would go into that vacuum as we had seen in places like Afghanistan and Somalia and Yemen and Mali. This is not rocket science.

We just had the case of an American from Florida who apparently was involved in a suicide bombing. I would be very surprised if that will be the last time, because there are a number of Westerners, including Americans, who've gone to fight on behalf of extremist groups in Syria. And so again, as I said, there are moderates in Syria who are fighting those extremist groups, those Al Qaeda groups. And we will need friends on the ground, not American soldiers, but friends, Syrians, who are fighting those groups and we need to help those people in their fight against Al Qaeda.

And we need to do it urgently.

AMANPOUR: How does it weigh on your conscience?

Or how does it weigh on you as a human being?

FORD: It is profoundly depressing and it is profoundly distressing.

And so I think all of us, people who hold to basic values of human decency and dignity need to help Syrians. It is not a conflict that we should ignore, either on moral grounds or on national security grounds, given the extremist threat to us and our friends.

AMANPOUR: Ambassador Ford, thank you very much indeed for talking to me today.

FORD: No, my pleasure. (END VIDEOTAPE)

AMANPOUR: And after a break, we'll delve more deeply into that extremist threat. CNN's Atika Shubert recently met one worried mother in Belgium whose 16-year-old son has taken up arms in Syria.


ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Is your son now on the front lines?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (from captions): That's what we fear for sure. But we have no proof of the contrary, of the confirmation. That's the most painful, the most painful thing is that we know nothing of what is actually going on the ground. We can only fear and hope.


AMANPOUR: It's a dangerous scenario that's being played out in some 3,000 European Muslim homes. One of the world's leading experts on radicalization joins me next and he says Syria could surpass Afghanistan as a breeding ground for terrorists.




Welcome back to the program.

The Syria blowback is well underway, looming large over the West now. For the first time someone radicalized in Syria has allegedly brought his murderous rage to Europe, accused of killing three people at the Jewish Museum in Belgium last week.

And there was a massive suicide attack in Idlib, the first-ever by an American bomber, the young man here you can see holding a cat in this jihadi video.

And as you just heard, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, said the State Department sounded the alarm two years ago. Now 12,000 foreign fighters have joined the battle in Syria, 3,000 from the West, including about 70 from the United States.

And a report from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization claims the current mobilization of jihadists bound for Syria is more significant than every other instance of foreign fighter mobilization since the Afghanistan war in the 1980s.

My next guest, Peter Neumann, is behind that report. He's a world renowned expert on the phenomenon of homegrown radicalization and on the constantly evolving face of global terror.

Welcome. Thanks for joining me.


AMANPOUR: It is truly terrifying, the idea that this could surpass even what Afghanistan spawned.


NEUMANN: So we know from credible estimates that around 20,000 people went to Afghanistan over the course of the entire 1980s. So if 12,000 people have gone to Syria over the past three years, Syria's well on track unfortunately to surpass that number if the conflict continues.

AMANPOUR: Perhaps in numbers; but what about in intent? The West believes that they have decimated Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and that no more big set piece dramatic acts of terrorism will take place.

What will these people do, do you think?

NEUMANN: I think what's happening in Syria right now is truly profound. It's a transformative movement. It's a transformative moment. The old Al Qaeda, I believe, is no longer that relevant. In five years' time, we may well be talking about a different kind of organization and one that, like Afghanistan 1980s, has been created in Syria.

So many people have gone. The scale is such -- is of such intensity that we may well witness the emergence of a new phenomenon, one that has its roots in Syria.

AMANPOUR: And what will it do to the West or outside Syria?

NEUMANN: Well, that's not clear right. We know -- there's research that shows -- authoritative research that shows that of previous foreign fighter mobilizations, around one in nine of the people who have been foreign fighters subsequently became involved in domestic terrorism. If that is anything to go by, clearly not everyone who has been to Syria will become a terrorist. But a significant minority will pose a problem at some point down the line.

AMANPOUR: You're in touch with some of these people. You obviously studied them. And that means you have to talk to them.

What do they say to you?

NEUMANN: So we've created a database of 350 foreign fighters currently on the ground in Syria, of their social media profiles. We talked to them by about WhatsApp, wire Skype, wire social media. And it's interesting because in the beginning they are quite gung ho about everything, everything is wonderful.

But once you break them down, they're quite skeptical about things. They are telling us that the Syrian people do not like them very much. They're telling us that they hate the idea that all this infighting is going on between different rebel groups.

They came to Syria in order to fight Bashar al-Assad. What they end up doing is killing other Sunni rebels. And so there's a lot of powerful messages; if government paid more attention to this, these would be very powerful messages to deter people from going to Syria in the first place.

AMANPOUR: Are governments on top of this? We read a lot right now of arrests and interceptions and stripping people of their citizenship.

Are governments on top of this?

Have they done all that they can to prevent these people from going?

NEUMANN: To be fair to governments, this situation has come about very, very rapidly and governments in Europe in particular are scrambling to develop strategies. Right now, the only approach is punitive; people are being told we're going to lock you up for a very long time if you come back from Syria.

I think what's -- for some people, that is the right thing to do. There need to be other things. There needs to be messaging; people have to be deterring from going in the first place. And also there need to be more sophisticated interventions.

I said one in nine are going to become terrorists. We need to have more sophisticated tools to identify which ones of the people returning are going to be arrested and which ones are not.

AMANPOUR: And some kind of transition for them when they come back.

NEUMANN: Absolutely. There need to be extensions ,because even those who do not want to become terrorists may have severe traumas and psychological problems; they could pose a danger to society regardless of terrorism.

AMANPOUR: Now we've seen already allegedly one of these people shooting up the Jewish Museum in Belgium; we've seen the American suicide bomber or bomber in Idlib.

You heard Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador, say that we know who the moderates are. We should be supporting them. And they can beat back the extremists there.

What do you make of that?

NEUMANN: Unfortunately, I've just come back six weeks ago from border towns in Turkey. And unfortunately on the ground the distinction is not that clear. You speak to fighters -- and we've spoken to lots of fighters who lost different groups. Others in ISIS, which is the most extreme groups, they all basically see each other as brothers and on the battlefield the distinctions are not made in the same way that we're making these distinctions between extremists and moderates.

They all believe they're fighting for the same cause. It will be difficult to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands, unfortunately.

AMANPOUR: And just give me an idea of how linked up these extremists are. We understand obviously that it's Syria, Iraq, Lebanon -- I mean, it's a network.

NEUMANN: So what is particularly relevant is the connection with Iraq, because ISIS, which is the most important extremist group, is a group that wants to establish a caliphate across the region. They came out of Al Qaeda in Iraq and have gone back into Syria. And they do not make a distinction between different countries. They see it all as part of one big puzzle.

AMANPOUR: Peter Neumann, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

NEUMANN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Keep an eye on that story, obviously.

And remember, when Syria seemed ready to join other Arab Spring nations in toppling its dictator, how long ago that does seem. When President Assad, hoping for another seven years in power now, how do ordinary citizens from Damascus to Bangkok express their opposition?

We'll have a show of hands when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, when autocrats from Syria to Egypt to Russia stifle dissent and silence journalists, resourceful citizens must find other ways to express their outrage and solidarity. Imagine a world where freedom can be counted on the fingers of one hand, three fingers to be exact. That's what protesters in Thailand are using to show their opposition to the military junta that came to power last month in a coup d'etat. This tri-digit show of resistance appears to be inspired by the hit film, the "Hunger Games," where the three-finger salute was an act of defiance against a fictional all-powerful empire.

Thai authorities say if one individual raises three fingers, he or she gets a pass; but if five or more gather to give the salute, they'll be arrested. Meantime this finger food for thought has quite a tradition.

Back in the dark days of World War II, Britain's bulldog prime minister, Winston Churchill, famously flashed two fingers, his trademark V for victory sign. And more recently, in Egypt, supporters of the country's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsy, protested his overthrow and subsequent crackdown by the military with four fingers.

And this just in: the former General al-Sisi has just won the latest election with ,quote, "96.9 percent" of the vote. In Ukraine, it can take all five fingers balled up in a fist to show support for anti-government protesters. And yet sometimes one little finger dipped in a colorful dye can do what fists can't do, cast a vote for change.

And tomorrow we'll look at two very different anniversaries, the brutal crackdown in China's Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. And as President Obama visits Warsaw, we'll recall Poland's first free elections and the emergence from the Soviet bloc, which happened in that same memorable year.

And that's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.