United States Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford warned that Islamic radicals are rising as the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad crumbles.
"The longer the violence goes on the more extremist groups benefit," Ford said Thursday afternoon during a discussion organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"It’s incumbent on us to bolster moderates in the political opposition," said Ford, who stated that while Assad is clearly "losing" the battle, "there will be substantial fighting in the days ahead."
Affiliates of al Qaeda in Iraq are slowing gaining stature among rebel forces that are battling to depose Assad, Ford said.
These extremist forces are likely trying to gain a foothold in any government that replaces Assad, potentially creating a situation similar to that of Egypt, where the radical Muslim Brotherhood rose to power following the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak.
"Extremist groups in Syria have little by little been gaining influence among the armed opposition," Ford said. "There is an al Qaeda in Iraq affiliate operating in Syria more and more and there are groups cooperating with it. That really is a problem."
Ford also took aim at Iran and Russia, scolding these countries for supplying Assad with weapons and support. The U.S. is currently trying to unite moderate opposition forces in an attempt to negate the "pernicious" influence of these actors, Ford said.
"If we can keep these Syrian leaders united I think there will be less chance for Iran, Russia, pernicious actors, [the terror group] Hezbollah, to intervene in a negative way," Ford said in perhaps his most candid moment.
Ford was particularly tough on Russia, which has continued to supply Assad with military equipment that has then been used to murder Syrian citizens.
"The equipment being used are Russian-made helicopters, Russian-made jets," Ford said. "The Russians have a role in this. They need to restrain vis-a-vis their own military equip. Stop it."
Both Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed efforts to condemn Assad in the United Nations Security Council.
It is becoming "clear that the regimes’ forces are being ground down and they are losing" as opposition fighters get closer to seizing the Syrian capital of Damascus, Ford added.
Assad’s impending ouster has sparked reports that he is preparing to use chemical weapons on opposition fighter and civilians alike.
These reports have prompted the administration to take a firm stand, which Ford echoed.
"We want to be very clear to the Syrian government, as its situation deteriorates they must not think about deploying these things," Ford emphasized. "They must not deploy them."
"Utilization of those weapons in any way crosses an American line," Ford added, noting that the U.S. has long been concerned about the potential use of these weapons.