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Islamic State Gives U.S. Reason To Intervene In Syria, Ex-Ambassador Says


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR, and I'm David Greene.


The militant group known as the Islamic State has released a video showing what they say is the beheading of an American journalist. The authenticity of the video has not yet been officially confirmed. If true, it shows James Foley being killed by a masked man speaking English with a British accent. Foley was captured in Syria in 2012.

GREENE: It's worth remembering the Islamic State came into being in Syria. And all this week, we're taken a closer look at that country which rose up three years ago against its president, Bashar al-Assad. It's now locked in a civil war with government forces battling so-called moderate rebels and Islamic State militants.

MCEVERS: Robert Ford was the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014 and is now a resident scholar with the Middle East Institute here in Washington. He says even though the U.S. was quick to launch airstrikes against the Islamic Stake in Iraq, it is still nervous about committing the American military in Syria. Ambassador Ford, welcome to the show.

ROBERT FORD: Nice to be with you this morning.

MCEVERS: We have been talking to Syrians this week and the thing we hear over and over again is, you know, how did the Yazidis get so lucky? People from this religious minority in Iraq are trapped on a mountain and the U.S. calls in airstrike. Yet, the Syrian people have been trapped and besieged by the same Islamist rebels and by the Syrian government for years but no airstrikes in Syria. What would you say to these people?

FORD: First, on the Syrian side, the United States has given humanitarian support and even some help to the armed opposition but not nearly enough and, certainly, not airstrikes. But the legally recognized government in Iraq requested U.S. military support. Bashar al-Assad has not done that in Syria - no surprise. And so the legal status of American actions in Iraq is different.

MCEVERS: Sure - but I think there are some people who would say that, at some point, you know, the humanitarian threat is so great that that sort of transcends a country's sovereignty. I mean, is that a case that could be made in Syria?

FORD: Oh, I think many people are making that case, and other people are making a case that the Islamic state itself, operating in Syria with huge amounts of freedom of maneuver and generating money, constitutes a threat to our friends in the region and ultimately to the United States. And so I think there is absolutely both a humanitarian as well as a national security threat that gives a new context in which to consider American airstrikes in Syria.

MCEVERS: But at this time, it seems like the administration is not considering airstrikes in Syria. And so if not that, what can they do?

FORD: Well, the one group in Syria that is really fighting this awful Islamic state are moderate armed groups who have become sick of the Islamic State's depredation and are fighting them actively - fighting them right now. Some of us were in a phone call with one of their commanders last week, and he said they are in serious need of ammunition as they fight the Islamic State in northern Syria.

MCEVERS: And, you know, the regime of Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in recent days, has been launching its own airstrikes against Islamic State. And so I think they would say why give support to these rebels. We can find them ourselves. Is Assad a reliable partner in fighting these militants?

FORD: Assad is absolutely not a reliable partner in fighting these militants. First, historically - going back 10 years ago - the Assad regime was helping the Islamic state or its predecessor organization inside Iraq to kill American soldiers. Second, the Assad regime, just until the last two months or so, did nothing to fight the Islamic state. And I really mean that, Kelly - nothing - no airstrikes. They would let convoys of the Islamic State's fighters through its line. It did so even as recently as a month ago. So the Assad regime is actually, at best, watching what the Islamic State is doing and, at worst, is, in some ways, coordinating with it tactically on the ground in many instances.

MCEVERS: That's Robert Ford. He's a former diplomat in Syria and Iraq. Ambassador Ford, thank you so much.

FORD: That was my pleasure to be with you.

MCEVERS: And tomorrow, we'll ask President Obama's deputy national security visor about U.S. plans to fight the Islamic State in those two countries. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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