Who is Ambassador Robert Stephen Ford? The Architect of US Sponsored Terrorism in Syria

Author’s Note

In recent developments, the Western media is portraying former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Stephen Ford as a “moderate”, committed to supporting so-called “moderate mainstream opposition rebels”. Ford is now upheld as a outspoken critic of US foreign policy,  tacitly blaming the US State Department for gross mismanagement:

“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.”… (quoted in Slate, June 3, 2014, emphasis added)

Ford calls upon Washington to support the moderates:

We need – and we have long needed – to help moderates in the Syrian opposition with both weapons and other non-lethal assistance. … Had we done that a couple of years ago, had we ramped it up, frankly the al Qaeda groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates who frankly we have much in common with,” (Reuters, June 3, 2014, emphasis added)

Responding to Ford’s comments, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said, “He’s a private citizen. He’s entitled to his views.”(Reuters, June 3, 2014)

Who is Robert Stephen Ford? In a bitter irony, Robert Stephen Ford is no “Moderate” as portrayed by the media.  

Ford played a central role in developing the “extremism threat” scenario including the channeling of military aid to the Al Qaeda affiliated rebels.

Ford was from the outset in the months leading up to the March 2011 insurrection among the key architects involved in the formulation of a  US “Terrorist Option” for Syria including the recruitment and training of death squads in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

The following text is based on a longer article first published by GR in August 2011 under the title The Pentagon’s “Salvador Option”: The Deployment of Death Squads in Iraq and Syria.  as well as Terrorism with a Human Face: The History-of Americas Death Squads

Michel Chossudovsky, June 6, 2014

Since his arrival in Damascus in late January 2011, Ambassador Robert S. Ford played a central role in laying the groundwork as well as establishing contacts with opposition groups.

A functioning US embassy in Damascus was seen as a precondition for carrying out a process of political destabilization leading to “regime change”.

Ambassador Robert S., Ford is no ordinary diplomat. He was U.S. representative in January 2004 to the Shiite city of Najaf in Iraq. Najaf was the stronghold of the Mahdi army

A few months later he was appointed “Number Two Man” (Minister Counsellor for Political Affairs), at the US embassy in Baghdad at the outset of John Negroponte’s tenure as US Ambassador to Iraq (June 2004- April 2005). Ford subsequently served under Negroponte’s successor Zalmay Khalilzad prior to his appointment as Ambassador to Algeria in 2006.

Negroponte’s mandate as US ambassador to Iraq (together with Robert S. Ford) was to coordinate out of the US embassy, the covert support to death squads and paramilitary groups in Iraq with a view to fomenting sectarian violence and weakening the resistance movement. Robert S. Ford as “Number Two” (Minister Counsellor for Political Affairs) at the US Embassy in Baghdad played a central role in this endeavor.

To understand Robert Ford’s mandate in both Baghdad and subsequently in Damascus, it is important to reflect briefly on the history of US covert operations and the central role played by John D. Negroponte.

Negroponte and the “Salvador Option”

John Negroponte had served as US ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. As Ambassador in Tegucigalpa, he played a key role in supporting and supervising the Nicaraguan Contra mercenaries who were based in Honduras. The cross border Contra attacks into Nicaragua claimed some 50 000 civilian lives.

During the same period, Negroponte was instrumental in setting up the Honduran military death squads, “operating with Washington support’s, [they] assassinated hundreds of opponents of the US-backed regime.” (See Bill Vann, Bush Nominee linked to Latin American Terrorism, by Bill Vann, Global Research, November 2001, http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/VAN111A.html)

“Under the rule of General Gustavo Alvarez Martnez, Honduras’s military government was both a close ally of the Reagan administration and was “disappearing” dozens of political opponents in classic death squad fashion.

In a 1982 letter to The Economist, Negroponte wrote that it was “simply untrue to state that death squads have made their appearance in Honduras.” The Country Report on Human Rights Practices that his embassy sent to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee took the same line, insisting that there were “no political prisoners in Honduras” and that the “Honduran government neither condones nor knowingly permits killings of a political or nonpolitical nature.”

Yet according to a four-part series in the Baltimore Sun in 1995, in 1982 alone the Honduran press ran 318 stories of murders and kidnappings by the Honduran military. The Sun described the activities of a secret CIA-trained Honduran army unit, Battalion 316, that used “shock and suffocation devices in interrogations. Prisoners often were kept naked and, when no longer useful, killed and buried in unmarked graves.”

On August 27, 1997, CIA Inspector General Frederick P. Hitz released a 211-page classified report entitled “Selected Issues Relating to CIA Activities in Honduras in the 1980′s.” This report was partly declassified on Oct. 22, 1998, in response to demands by the Honduran human rights ombudsman. Opponents of Negroponte are demanding that all Senators read the full report before voting on his nomination. to the position of US Permanent Representative to the UN}” (Peter Roff and James Chapin, Face-off: Bush’s Foreign Policy Warriors, Global Research November 2001, http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/ROF111A.html

John Negroponte- Robert S. Ford. The Iraq “Salvador Option”

In January 2005, following Negroponte’s appointment as US ambassador to Iraq, the Pentagon confirmed in a story leaked to Newsweek  that it was “considering forming hit squads of Kurdish and Shia fighters to target leaders of the Iraqi insurgency in a strategic shift borrowed from the American struggle against left-wing guerrillas in Central America 20 years ago”. (El Salvador-style ‘death squads’ to be deployed by US against Iraq militants – Times Online, January 10, 2005)

John Negroponte and Robert S. Ford at the US Embassy worked closely together on the Pentagon’s project. Two other embassy officials, namely Henry Ensher (Ford’s Deputy) and a younger official in the political section, Jeffrey Beals, played an important role in the team “talking to a range of Iraqis, including extremists”. (See The New Yorker, March 26, 2007).  Another key individual in Negroponte’s team was James Franklin Jeffrey, America’s ambassador to Albania (2002-2004). Jeffrey is currently the US Ambassador to Iraq.

Negroponte also brought into the team one of his former collaborators Colonel James Steele (ret) from his Honduras heyday:

Under the “Salvador Option,” “Negroponte had assistance from his colleague from his days in Central America during the 1980′s, Ret. Col James Steele. Steele, whose title in Baghdad was Counselor for Iraqi Security Forces supervised the selection and training of members of the Badr Organization and Mehdi Army, the two largest Shi’ite militias in Iraq, in order to target the leadership and support networks of a primarily Sunni resistance. Planned or not, these death squads promptly spiralled out of control to become the leading cause of death in Iraq.

Intentional or not, the scores of tortured, mutilated bodies which turn up on the streets of Baghdad each day are generated by the death squads whose impetus was John Negroponte. And it is this U.S.-backed sectarian violence which largely led to the hell-disaster that Iraq is today. (Dahr Jamail, Managing Escalation: Negroponte and Bush’s New Iraq Team,. Antiwar.com, January 7, 2007)

John Negroponte described Robert Ford while at the embassy in Baghdad, as “one of these very tireless people … who didn’t mind putting on his flak jacket and helmet and going out of the Green Zone to meet contacts.”  Robert S. Ford is fluent in both Arabic and Turkish. He was dispatched by Negroponte to undertake strategic contacts:

[O]ne Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called “snatch” operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation. The current thinking is that while U.S. Special Forces would lead operations in, say, Syria, activities inside Iraq itself would be carried out by Iraqi paramilitaries. (Newsweek, January 8, 2005, emphasis added)

The plan had the support of the US appointed Iraqi government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi:

The Pentagon declined to comment, but one insider told Newsweek: “What everyone agrees is that we can’t just go on as we are. We have to find a way to take the offensive against the insurgents. Right now, we are playing defence. And we are losing.”

Hit squads would be controversial and would probably be kept secret.

The experience of the so-called “death squads” in Central America remains raw for many even now and helped to sully the image of the United States in the region.

…. John Negroponte, the US Ambassador in Baghdad, had a front-row seat at the time as Ambassador to Honduras from 1981-85.

Death squads were a brutal feature of Latin American politics of the time. In Argentina in the 1970s and Guatemala in the 1980s, soldiers wore uniform by day but used unmarked cars by night to kidnap and kill those hostile to the regime or their suspected sympathisers.

In the early 1980s President Reagan’s Administration funded and helped to train Nicaraguan contras based in Honduras with the aim of ousting Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime. The Contras were equipped using money from illegal American arms sales to Iran, a scandal that could have toppled Mr Reagan.

It was in El Salvador that the United States trained small units of local forces specifically to target rebels.

The thrust of the Pentagon proposal in Iraq, according to Newsweek, is to follow that model and direct US special forces teams to advise, support and train Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shia militiamen to target leaders of the Sunni insurgency.

It is unclear whether the main aim of the missions would be to assassinate the rebels or kidnap them and take them away for interrogation. Any mission in Syria would probably be undertaken by US Special Forces.

Nor is it clear who would take responsibility for such a programme — the Pentagon or the Central Intelligence Agency. Such covert operations have traditionally been run by the CIA at arm’s length from the administration in power, giving US officials the ability to deny knowledge of it. (Times Online, op cit, emphasis added)

Under Negroponte’s helm at the US Embassy in Baghdad, a  wave of covert civilian killings and targeted assassinations was unleashed. Engineers, medical  doctors, scientists and intellectuals were also targeted. The objective was to create factional divisions between Sunni, Shiite, Kurds and Christians, as well as weed out civilian support for the Iraqi resistance. The Christian community was one of the main targets of the assassination program.

The Pentagon’s objective also consisted in training an Iraqi Army, Police and Security Forces, which would carry out a homegrown “counterinsurgency” program (unofficially) on behalf of the U.S.

Operation “Syrian Contras”: Learning from the Iraqi Experience

The gruesome Iraqi version of the “Salvador Option” under the helm of Ambassador John Negroponte has served as a “role model” for setting up the “Free Syrian Army” Contras. Robert Stephen Ford was, no doubt, involved in the implementation of the Syrian Contras project, following his reassignment to Baghdad as Deputy Head of Mission in 2008.

The objective in Syria was to create factional divisions between Sunni, Alawite, Shiite, Kurds, Druze and Christians. While the Syrian context is entirely different to that of Iraq, there are striking similarities with regard to the procedures whereby the killings and atrocities were conducted.

A report published by Der Spiegel pertaining to atrocities committed in the Syrian city of Homs confirms an organized sectarian process of mass-murder and extra-judicial killings comparable to that conducted by the US sponsored death squads in Iraq.

People in Homs were routinely categorized as   “prisoners” (Shia, Alawite) and “traitors”.  The “traitors” are Sunni civilians within the rebel occupied urban area, who express their disagreement or opposition to the rule of terror of the Free Syrian Army (FSA):

“Since last summer [2011], we have executed slightly fewer than 150 men, which represents about 20 percent of our prisoners,” says Abu Rami. … But the executioners of Homs have been busier with traitors within their own ranks than with prisoners of war. “If we catch a Sunni spying, or if a citizen betrays the revolution, we make it quick,” says the fighter. According to Abu Rami, Hussein’s burial brigade has put between 200 and 250 traitors to death since the beginning of the uprising.” (Der Spiegel, March 30, 2012)

In early July [2011], US Ambassador Robert Ford travelled to Hama and had meetings with members of the “protest movement” (Low-key U.S. diplomat transforms Syria policy – The Washington Post, July 12, 2011). Reports confirm that Robert Ford had numerous contacts with opposition groups both before and after his July trip to Hama. In a recent statement (August 4), he confirmed that the embassy will continue “reaching out” to opposition groups in defiance of the Syrian authorities.

The project required an initial program of recruitment and training of mercenaries. Death squads including Lebanese and Jordanian Salafist units entered Syria’s southern border with Jordan in mid-March 2011.  Much of the groundwork was already in place prior to Robert Stephen Ford’s arrival in Damascus in January 2011.

Ambassador Ford in Hama in early July 2011

Ford’s appointment as Ambassador to Syria was announced in early 2010. Diplomatic relations had been cut in 2005 following the Rafick Hariri assassination, which Washington blamed on Syria. Ford arrived in Damascus barely two months before the onset of the insurgency.

Behind Closed Doors at the US State Department

Robert Stephen Ford was part of a small team at the US State Department team which oversaw the recruitment and training of  terrorist brigades,  together with Derek Chollet  and Frederic C. Hof, a former business partner of Richard Armitage, who served as Washington’s “special coordinator on Syria”. Derek Chollet has recently been appointed to the position of Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (ISA).

This team operated under the helm of  (former) Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.

Feltman’s team was in close liaison with the process of recruitment and training of mercenaries out of Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya (courtesy of the post-Gaddafi regime, which dispatched six hundred Libya Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) troops to Syria, via Turkey in the months following the September 2011 collapse of the Gaddafi government).

Assistant Secretary of State Feltman was in contact with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, and Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim. He was also in charge of a  Doha-based office for “special security coordination” pertaining to  Syria, which included representatives from Western and GCC intelligence agencies well as a representative from Libya. Prince Bandar bin Sultan. a prominent and controversial member of Saudi intelligence was part of this group. (See Press Tv, May 12, 2012).

In June 2012, Jeffrey Feltman (image: Left) was appointed UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, a strategic position  which, in practice, consists in setting  the UN agenda (on behalf of Washington) on issues pertaining to “Conflict Resolution” in various “political hot spots” around the world (including Somalia, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Mali). In a bitter irony, the countries for UN “conflict resolution” are those which are the target of  US covert operations.

In liaison with the US State Department, NATO and his GCC handlers in Doha and Riyadh, Feltman is Washington’s man behind UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahmi’s “Peace Proposal”.

Meanwhile, while paying lip service to the UN Peace initiative, the US and NATO have speeded up the process of recruitment and training of  mercenaries in response to the heavy casualties incurred by “opposition” rebel forces.

The US proposed “end game” in Syria is not regime change, but the destruction of Syria as a Nation State.

The deployment of “opposition” death squads with a mandate to kill civilians is part of this criminal undertaking.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA)

Washington and its allies replicated in Syria the essential features of the “Iraq Salvador Option”, leading to the creation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its various terrorist factions including the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra brigades.

While the creation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was announced in June 2011, the recruitment and training of foreign mercenaries was initiated at a much an earlier period.

In many regards, the Free Syrian Army is a smokescreen. It is upheld by the Western media as a bona fide military entity established as a result of mass defections from government forces.  The number of defectors, however, was neither significant nor sufficient to establish a coherent military structure  with command and control functions.

The FSA  is not a professional  military entity, rather it is a loose network of separate terrorist brigades, which in turn are made up of numerous paramilitary cells operating in different parts of the country.

Each of these terrorist organizations operates independently. The FSA does not effectively exercise command and control functions including liaison with these diverse paramilitary entities. The latter are controlled by US-NATO sponsored special forces and intelligence operatives which are embedded within the ranks of selected terrorist formations.

These (highly trained) Special forces on the ground (many of whom are employees of private security companies) are routinely in contact with US-NATO and allied military/intelligence command units (including Turkey). These embedded Special Forces are, no doubt, also involved in the carefully planned bomb attacks directed against government buildings, military compounds, etc.

The death squads are mercenaries trained and recruited by the US, NATO, its Persian Gulf GCC allies as well as Turkey.  They are overseen by allied special forces (including British SAS and French Parachutistes), and private security companies on contract to NATO and the Pentagon. In this regard, reports confirm the arrest by the Syrian government of some 200-300 private security company employees who had integrated rebel ranks.

The Jabhat Al Nusra Front

The Al Nusra Front –which is said to be affiliated to Al Qaeda– is described as the most effective “opposition” rebel fighting group, responsible for several of the high profile bomb attacks. Portrayed as an enemy of America (on the State Department list of terrorist organizations), Al Nusra operations, nonetheless, bear the fingerprints of US paramilitary training, terror tactics and weapons systems. The atrocities committed against civilians by Al Nusra (funded covertly by US-NATO) are similar to those undertaken by the US sponsored death squads in Iraq.

In the words of Al Nusra leader Abu Adnan in Aleppo: “Jabhat al-Nusra does count Syrian veterans of the Iraq war among its numbers, men who bring expertise — especially the manufacture of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — to the front in Syria.”

As in Iraq, factional violence and ethnic cleansing were actively promoted. In Syria, the Alawite, Shiite and Christian communities have been the target of the US-NATO sponsored death squads.  The Alawite and the Christian community are the main targets of the assassination program. Confirmed by the Vatican News Service:

Christians in Aleppo are victims of death and destruction due to the fighting which for months, has been affecting the city. The Christian neighborhoods, in recent times, have been hit by rebel forces fighting against the regular army and this has caused an exodus of civilians.

Some groups in the rugged opposition, where there are also jiahadist groups, “fire on Christian houses and buildings, to force occupants to escape and then take possession [ethnic cleansing] (Agenzia Fides. Vatican News, October 19, 2012)

“The Sunni Salafist militants – says the Bishop – continue to commit crimes against civilians, or to recruit fighters with force. The fanatical Sunni extremists are fighting a holy war proudly, especially against the Alawites. When terrorists seek to control the religious identity of a suspect, they ask him to cite the genealogies dating back to Moses. And they ask to recite a prayer that the Alawites removed. The Alawites have no chance to get out alive.”  (Agenzia Fides 04/06/2012)

Reports confirm the influx of Salafist and Al Qaeda affiliated death squads as well as brigades under the auspices of the Muslim Brotherhood into Syria from the inception of the insurgency in March 2011.

Moreover, reminiscent of  the enlistment of  the Mujahideen to wage the CIA’s jihad (holy war) in the heyday of the Soviet-Afghan war, NATO and the Turkish High command, according to Israeli intelligence sources, had initiated”

“a campaign to enlist thousands of Muslim volunteers in Middle East countries and the Muslim world to fight alongside the Syrian rebels. The Turkish army would house these volunteers, train them and secure their passage into Syria. (DEBKAfile, NATO to give rebels anti-tank weapons, August 14, 2011).

Private Security Companies and the Recruitment of Mercenaries

According to reports, private security companies operating out of Gulf States are involved in the recruiting and training of mercenaries.

Although not specifically earmarked for the recruitment of mercenaries directed against Syria, reports point to the creation of  training camps in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In Zayed Military City (UAE), “a secret army is in the making”  operated by Xe Services, formerly Blackwater.  The UAE deal to establish a military camp for the training of mercenaries was signed in July 2010, nine months before the onslaught of the wars in Libya and Syria.

In recent developments, security companies on contract to NATO and the Pentagon are involved in training “opposition” death squads in the use of chemical weapons:

The United States and some European allies are using defense contractors to train Syrian rebels on how to secure chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria, a senior U.S. official and several senior diplomats told CNN Sunday. ( CNN Report, December 9, 2012)

The names of the companies involved were not revealed.

While conditions in Syria are markedly different to those in Iraq, Robert S. Ford’s stint as “Number Two Man” at the US Embassy in Baghdad has a direct bearing on the nature of his activities in Syria including his contacts with opposition groups.


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About the author:

Michel Chossudovsky is an award-winning author, Professor of Economics (emeritus) at the University of Ottawa, Founder and Director of the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG), Montreal, Editor of Global Research.  He has taught as visiting professor in Western Europe, Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Latin America. He has served as economic adviser to governments of developing countries and has acted as a consultant for several international organizations. He is the author of eleven books including The Globalization of Poverty and The New World Order (2003), America’s “War on Terrorism” (2005), The Global Economic Crisis, The Great Depression of the Twenty-first Century (2009) (Editor), Towards a World War III Scenario: The Dangers of Nuclear War (2011), The Globalization of War, America's Long War against Humanity (2015). He is a contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  His writings have been published in more than twenty languages. In 2014, he was awarded the Gold Medal for Merit of the Republic of Serbia for his writings on NATO's war of aggression against Yugoslavia. He can be reached at [email protected]

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