Zheng Zhang

At a William F. Buckley, Jr. Program event, which was advertised as a debate over President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, guests Robert Ford and Mona Yacoubian wound up touching on a variety of regional and global issues.

President of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program Kobe Rizk ’21 introduced the two career diplomats, who are old acquaintances of each other from long careers in Washington, D.C. Ford served as U.S. Ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014 at the outset of the Syrian Civil War. He is now a Kissinger Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Yacoubian is a senior adviser on Syria, the Middle East and North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace, and she previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Yacoubian quipped in her opening statement, “What happens in Syria does not stay in Syria,” and this theme was echoed throughout the debate.

While American troops have now withdrawn — a choice both speakers agreed was irreversible — analysts still debate America’s role and choices in a conflict viewed as an existential threat to world order.

The debate featured two 10-minute opening statements, rebuttals, time for questions and two two-minute closing statements.

Although both agreed that America’s role in Syria has ended for the time being, they failed to agree on its importance in the first place. Ford maintained that “Syria was never in the American sphere of influence,” arguing that the Middle Eastern country was always more an orbital of Iran and Russia than of the United States. He said that in part due to military aid from those countries, Bashar al-Assad, the totalitarian president of Syria, ultimately won the civil war.

Yacoubian, however, argued that America’s role was positive and, had the United States continued to offer support to the opposition Syrian Democratic Forces, the United States might have mediated a peaceful conclusion that established regional government in the north in coexistence with the Assad regime. All parties might have benefitted from a gradual end that would be less “precipitous” than the course taken.

Central to the disagreement was how best to defeat ISIS. Ford emphasized that the U.S. does not have the regional capabilities to beat back a foe born from deep-rooted “political, economic and social grievances.” He stood by his assertion that Assad’s government, in alliance with Russia and Iran, had both the resources and the interest to stop the growth of the Islamic State.

Yacoubian on the other hand believed that the U.S. had the best shot at maintaining stability by working “by, with and through” local populations that feared both ISIS and the Assad government. She promoted this as the next best model to pursue in American foreign policy — a strategy both relatively cost effective and impactful.

Still, the two did not spend the hour-and-a-half session entirely in disagreement. Ford and Yacoubian each echoed the other’s perspective on refugee policy, saying that an easy way to make a difference was through aid — both directed to Syrian refugees and to the countries that host them.

Almost all of the audience questions concerned the future of Syria: how America can resurrect its reputation as a potential ally, what the long- and short-term aims now look like and even what presidential candidate currently has the most comprehensive plan. As the debate ended and applause broke out, Ford and Yacoubian stepped back from their podiums and continued to spar.

The Buckley Program holds regular events such as the debate that are open to the public.

Jack Tripp | jack.tripp@yale.edu 

Correction (1/28): Due to an editing error, the News made one reference to Yacoubian with the incorrect pronoun and has since been changed.