This week, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., brought forward a war powers resolution, backed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, that would bring U.S. troops home from Syria. On Wednesday night, the resolution was rejected by Democrats and Republicans alike. During the debate, some advocated for an endless occupation, while their arguments unwittingly made the point that the U.S. government may not be the best group to solve the crisis. This week on Deconstructed, Ryan Grim is joined by Robert Ford, who was President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Syria up until 2014. Although he was known inside the White House as a hawkish supporter of arming the Syrian opposition, this week he came out in support of Gaetz’s resolution to pull out U.S. troops. Ford describes some of the political maneuvering and behind-the-scenes conversations taking place in 2013 and why he is calling to remove U.S. troops from Syria.
[Deconstructed theme music.]
Ryan Grim: Welcome back to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.
So if you were watching the House floor this week, you could have been forgiven for wondering if you had stepped into a time machine and emerged somewhere between 2002 and 2003.
Here’s Rep. Ryan Zinke, Trump’s former Interior Secretary who now represents Montana in Congress, explaining why the House should reject a War Powers Resolution brought forward by Rep. Matt Gaetz, and backed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus that would bring U.S. troops home from Syria.
Rep. Ryan Zinke: The hard truth is this — either we fight them in Syria, or we’ll fight them here. Either we fight and defeat them in Syria, or we’ll fight in the streets of our nation.
RG: Gaetz is a Republican who represents the Florida Panhandle and led the rebellion against Kevin McCarthy in January. His War Powers Resolution came up quickly with little time for anti-war groups to mobilize their membership and lobby Congress, and it came up for a vote on Wednesday evening.
Here’s Gaetz with a brief history lesson on how we got here:
Rep. Matt Gaetz: And so people watching this debate might wonder how has it come to be that Syria has become the great platform of great power competition in the world. In begins in 2011, during the Arab Spring, when Assad, who is undeniably a madman and a despot, opens fire on his own people protesting; then part of the Syrian Army defects, they engage in warfare against Assad, and all of a sudden, they got a whole lot of weapons and money being sent from the rich Gulf monarchies through Jordan, into Syria.
So Iran’s no trust going to watch this. Assad’s their ally. They activate Hezbollah; they then invade Syria; so now you’ve got Jordan, the Gulf monarchies, Iran, but wait — Russia is pitching their vision of the world as a regime preservation force, whether you’re Maduro or Assad, so they get involved. And what do they get for their time? A warm-water port in the eastern Mediterranean.
So you’ve got Russia, the Gulf monarchies; Israel starts to get worried about Hezbollah and Iran. So Israel cuts a deal with Russia to keep Iran out of southern Syria. And if it doesn’t get any worse than that, now, all of a sudden, you’ve got the Kurds who declare war on Syria. And it makes it a little messy that the Kurds are also in conflict with Turkey, which is a NATO ally.
And then somehow the United States, in 2015 says: You know what? We need to get involved in this mess in Syria.
And since we have been there, we have seen Americans die. We have seen tens of billions of dollars wasted. And what is hilarious about the 2001 AUMF that the neoconservatives wave around like some permission slip for every neoconservative fantasy of turning an Arabian desert into a Jeffersonian democracy, is that that very 2001 AUMF would justify attacking the people that we’re fighting against, and the people were funding.
RG: Democrat Greg Meeks, previously chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee stood to oppose it.
Rep. Gregory Meeks: This measure forces a premature end to our mission at a critical time for our efforts. Forcing such a premature removal of U.S. forces not only endangers our national security, it threatens that of our allies and partners across the region and beyond.
RG: He made a version of Zinke’s argument, too.
GM: Our very small footprint in northeast Syria, alongside our courageous Syrian Kurdish partners, continues to serve a valuable purpose as we partner with them, in ensuring ISIS does not reconstitute and again, destabilize the region, or use Syria as a base for attacks elsewhere.
RG: So last year, an amendment from Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman, which required withdrawal within a year, got 130 Democratic votes, which is 60 percent of the caucus, and it got 25 Republican votes. With Gaetz as the lead sponsor, Democratic support was cut in half this week with just 56 voting to support it. Yet GOP support nearly doubled with 47 Republicans backing it. The rest sided with the types of arguments made by Zinke, who took his position to its logical extreme.
Rep. Zinke: But there is no doubt that Syria also remains a center for radical Islamic forces and terrorism, like ISIS, like PKK.
These are organizations that will never stop — ever. They are committed to destroy this nation and our allies, and we should be aware of their objectives.
RG: So not only is Zinke advocating an endless occupation there, his reference to the PKK exposes how bizarre and tangled all this is. The PKK represents the leftist separatist Kurdish movement in Turkey, and the PKK is allied with the leftist separatist Kurdish movement in Syria, the PYD, which is itself allied with the United States to fight ISIS.
When Zinke says the PKK is committed to destroying the United States and its allies, he is effectively saying the PKK is committed to destroying itself.
And this is not to pick on Zinke for being dumb. It’s not about that. New York’s Rep. Jerry Nadler, one of the smartest members of Congress, made a similar mistake.
Rep. Jerry Nadler: We are defending the courage against certain slaughter at the hands of the Peshmerga, if we were to withdraw our troops. The Turks, as we know, are supporting the Peshmerga. In addition to which, if we were to withdraw our troops, that increases the worry that Israel has to have about Iran. And that increases the odds of a conflict between Israel and Iran, which is the last thing the Middle East needs or the world needs.
RG: So the Peshmerga are actually Kurdish, not pursuing the annihilation of the Kurds. Peshmerga is a Kurdish word that means “those who face death.” There’s plenty of sectarian infighting among the various Kurdish factions operating in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran — and certainly, some Peshmerga forces have battled some PKK or YPG forces — but the Peshmerga are certainly not bent on self-genocide of the Kurds.
All of this confusion kind of makes the point that the U.S. might not be in the best position to resolve this crisis.
Robert Ford: The Americans can’t fix that.
RG: So that’s Robert Ford, who was President Barack Obama’s Ambassador to Syria up until 2014, and was known inside the White House as a hawkish supporter of arming the Syrian opposition.
This week, as The Intercept first reported, he came out in support of Gaetz’s resolution to bring the troops home, and he is our guest on today’s Deconstructed.
Ambassador Ford, welcome to the show.
Robert Ford: It’s my pleasure to be with you.
RG: And so this show comes out on a Friday. So by the time that it airs, it’s now Wednesday morning. By the time that it airs, the House will have already voted on the War Powers Resolution put forward by Matt Gaetz and endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus to withdraw troops from Syria within the next six months. We don’t, at this point, know exactly how that’s gonna go, but unlikely to get 218 votes, but it could be a respectable showing of pushing 160, 170, or something like that.
So you sent a letter to members of Congress recently advocating that they vote for this resolution as a way forward. What was your thinking of why you wanted to weigh in here?
RF: I think anytime we deploy American forces into a combat situation, anytime we do that, there needs to be a full explanation to Congress first and to the public, more generally, about the strategy that we will use to achieve the militarian mission, about timelines — estimated timelines — about the resources needed, benchmarks so that we can sort of measure progress on the way. And it needs to have a good discussion among people in Congress first because they vote, and ultimately, they’re responsible.
But it also needs to have discussion in a public realm so that there’s public support for it. And I don’t think we’ve had any of those things with respect to the American mission in Syria since it began in earnest in 2015.
RG: And we sort of had a public debate back in 2013, when Obama himself said that he wanted to get congressional authorization for airstrikes, for strikes inside Syria. There was then a public debate, and as it became clear that it looked like there wasn’t going to be support in Congress, my recollection is they decided not to have that vote.
Here we are 10 years later. So I wanted to get from your perspective since you were there, how did U.S. policy get to where it is today? Because I remember this kind of amazing moment — I don’t know if it was in New Yorker or somebody that reported it where Obama was sitting around with his team. And maybe you were in the room at this point, where people from the CIA are suggesting: Let’s arm these opposition groups, or let’s arm this group, and this is how we’ll get to the place we need to be.
And Obama said: When has that ever worked? Go back and tell me, find me over the last decades, when the CIA has armed an opposition group and we looked back on that fondly and said, We are glad that we did that.
So were you in that meeting? Do you remember when that happened? And how do we go from there to here?
RF: So there were multiple meetings about whether or not to arm elements of the Free Syrian Army, the rebel-armed opposition. So I was not in a particular meeting where Obama raised this question, but we certainly heard about him raising it.
RF: And I would just say two things. Number one, first of all, the situation in Syria was dynamic. And we were going to get involved one way or the other. And we did get involved, even if we didn’t arm the moderate opposition, we ended up sending the U.S. Air Force and ground forces into Syria.
A big point that I made at the time was that if we don’t arm elements of the moderate armed opposition, extremists will take over the rebel forces, and we will end up having to send troops. So it’s, I mean, you can have it one way, or you can have it the other way, but it will happen.
And the second point I would make is that, in many cases, what the CIA was looking at was arming opposition groups to overthrow a government, such as in Latin America. The point of the American policy at the time, when I was there was not to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Nobody wanted a repeat of Baghdad in 2003. And I spent five years in Iraq during the war. It was the last thing that I wanted was to get into another round of nation-building.
Instead, the idea was to get Bashar al-Assad to accept that he could not win militarily and that he would have to negotiate some kind of a transition in which he could or could not play a part; that would be up to the Syrian negotiators. But the idea that he would just impose his will by force, we said, would not restore stability in Syria, and to a large extent, it still hasn’t.
RG: So what did we end up doing when it came to arming different elements of the Syrian opposition?
RF: So in 2013, Obama finally agreed to begin. The program took a long time to get started; it didn’t really begin in earnest until 2014.
And to be very frank, there were two big problems with it. The first was — and I take personal responsibility for this — we did not get from the Syrian opposition a matching political program to win political support from Syrian communities so that they would push Assad to go to negotiations. Frankly, the rebel opposition thought they could win militarily, which was, we thought, never going to happen with Russia and Iran, but they thought they could. And we failed to condition the armed assistance, the weaponry, on the Syrian opposition, reaching out politically to pillars of support of the Assad government. That was a mistake.
The second problem we had was that we were not the only ones arming the Syrian opposition: Turkey was arming, Qatar was arming, for a time the Saudis were, for a time the Jordanians were — and everybody had their own favorite client groups. We did. Turkey did. Turkey was arming hardline Islamists. So were the Qataris. The Saudis were arming lots of people. And because everybody had their own favorite client groups, the armed opposition had no unified leadership. And it was almost chaotic. And that diminished the military pressure on Assad that we had hoped would compel Assad to go to the negotiating table.
RG: And there eventually seemed to be some daylight between the State Department and some of the opposition groups and their willingness to negotiate with Assad —
RF: Well that was true throughout. I had numerous hard conversations with the Syrian opposition about that and they had a reaction, which I think was understandable on a human level — barrel bombs were dropping, and chemical weapons were being used. And they would ask me, and in a very pointed, not friendly way: How can you possibly ask us to negotiate with a war criminal, with a guy drenched in blood?
And we would say: You can negotiate a transition government, that’s up to you, but there’s just no way you’re going to win militarily. It’s never going to happen. And there has to be a negotiation.
That was a very, very hard sell.
RG: Can you talk a little bit about the U.N.-brokered talks around 2014?
RF: Sure. So after much, much hard negotiating, we finally got the Syrian opposition, including elements of the Free Syrian Army, the armed opposition, to agree to a negotiation under United Nations auspices in Geneva in January of 2014.
I cannot tell you how difficult it was to get the Syrian opposition to agree to sit at the table with Bashar al-Assad. The Russians had agreed with us; John Kerry, for example, and then political Undersecretary Wendy Sherman, that they would get Assad and his government to come to the table — and they did.
When those talks started, the Syrian opposition gave the United Nations mediator, a diplomat named Lakhdar Brahimi, a written proposal that they were willing to negotiate a transition government, a new cabinet, a new set of leaders for the brutal, repressive security apparatus. They were willing to negotiate all of those, all positions in the government, they were willing to negotiate.
Lakhdar told me later that he was very surprised to get this in writing from the Syrian opposition. And he had asked them: Does this include negotiating the role of Bashar al-Assad?
And they said: It includes all positions, including the president.
Therefore, when people say that the Syrian opposition insisted that Bashar has to go, that’s a gross simplification, they were actually willing to negotiate it. [Laughs.]
When I explained this to Secretary John Kerry, what the opposition had put on the table, he looked at me in surprise, and he said: Well, Assad has to go!
And I said: Mr. Secretary, we can’t be harder-line than the Syrian opposition. I mean, that just would make no sense whatsoever.
And he readily agreed, as it turned out, the Assad government was prepared to negotiate no position in a transitional government. And they insisted that the only thing they would be willing to do is to have the opposition denounce armed resistance. And the armed opposition wasn’t willing to do that in return for no concessions.
So the talks foundered in February.
RG: And Secretary Kerry might have been willing to agree to that privately, but I don’t remember him ever saying publicly that the United States was willing to actually negotiate his staying.
RF: Yeah. What Secretary Kerry would say is there can’t be any stability with Bashar al-Assad’s government staying in power, which I think is essentially true. But he also said: The Syrians have to negotiate this.
It was very clear to everybody that the Americans couldn’t dictate a solution to Syria, and especially after Iraq, nobody in the United States government wanted to dictate a solution to Syria, and people understood how fractured Syria was.
RG: So how did U.S. troops end up inside Syria?
RF: In a sense, the extremists that I was talking about a little while ago did take over the Syrian armed opposition. The people we supported eventually got overrun by better-armed extremists. And the Islamic State captured major cities in Syria in 2014 — actually, starting in late 2013 and into 2014. And also then, using Syria as a kind of safe haven, went into Iraq from whence they had originally come, and captured cities in Iraq, notably Mosul in the summer of 2014.
President Obama looked at this very large territory that the Islamic State captured — and it had a lot of revenue, it captured money when it seized banks in Mosul; it had oil production in eastern Syria; it was on a totally different scale, from Osama bin Laden operating out of safe houses in caves in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001, prior to 9/11.
And so the President decided to drop the issue of a transitional government in Syria and focus on the fight against ISIS. And the Americans quickly linked up with a Syrian Kurdish faction fighting the Islamic State in northeastern Syria, right up close to the border with Turkey. We began with just airstrikes. Then we dropped some supplies, which infuriated the Turks — that was a forerunner of where we are today.
And eventually, in 2015, to better enable that Syrian-Kurdish faction to fight ISIS, the United States sent in small special operations teams to coordinate airstrikes.
RG: Now, by this time, you had resigned. What was the rationale behind your decision to step away?
RF: It’s really important when you’re an official, and in the administration, any administration, any administration, that you be willing to defend the administration’s policy when it’s challenged in any kind of public format. And I regularly had to go up to the Hill, to Capitol Hill, to testify to either the House of Representatives or to the Senate, about President Obama’s Syria policy. And many of the senators, both Democrats and Republicans, really laid into me about the tepid American support for the Syrian opposition. And my job was to defend the Obama administration’s policy, even though behind closed doors, in deliberations within the Obama administration, I was advocating for much greater action and greater support.
But in public, in these hearings, and there was one that stood out in the late summer of 2013, I had people like Sen. John McCain say that I didn’t understand Syria, and I should be working on some part of Africa instead of something important like Syria policy, and I had Sen. Bob Corker telling me I should personally be ashamed.
And I decided after that, I told Secretary Kerry and Bill Burns and Wendy Sherman, I was not going to have my personal integrity challenged over a policy I didn’t even agree with in the first place. And so there was nothing for me to do but resign. I stayed on at the request of Secretary Kerry as we tried to get those government opposition negotiations in Geneva underway, the ones that I had mentioned before, but they foundered in early February, and I was out the door at the end of the month.
RG: And so you went from somebody who was pushing for the U.S. to do more when it came to confronting the Assad regime, to now supporting the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Rep. Matt Gaetz and others who are saying —
RF: That’s right.
RG: Right. So how did that evolution come about?
RF: So the evolution is this, it’s really important in foreign policy to recognize when realities change, and the chance to get a negotiation to deal with the deep-seated Syrian political crisis, that window has long closed; I think it closed when Aleppo was recaptured by the Assad government in the winter of 2016. But in any case, it’s a long shot. And so the idea that somehow a small American Force out in the desert of eastern Syria is going to influence the course of events in the larger country of Syria, I think, is ridiculous. And it’s been shown to be completely ineffective; people who argued that this would give us leverage — and they made this argument a lot in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, have been shown to be wrong. The reality is it doesn’t give us leverage.
The idea that the United States can somehow achieve the enduring defeat of ISIS, the Islamic State in Syria, is also ridiculous for two reasons. Number one: The Syrian government controls most of the country and its control is not always very firm. And the Islamic State operates freely in central Syria — just today, there was, again, reports of an attack, an ambush and a small Syrian government control that killed four soldiers. So they do this a lot. And then they can move into the areas where the Americans operate farther east. So they go from central Syria and eastern Syria where the American forces are, and then they can run back out again. And how you achieve an enduring defeat of ISIS when you can’t get at them in central Syria, I genuinely do not understand.
The second point I would make is ISIS recruits; it recruits new fighters. Not a lot. I don’t want to over-exaggerate. They take casualties, but they replace them. And they maintain now, for four years, they’ve maintained a low-level insurgency. I don’t think 900 U.S. Special Operations forces can stop that recruitment. The recruitment is a result of bitter political divisions, and social problems in that part of Syria, and the Americans can’t fix that. Frankly, the Americans don’t even speak the language, much less have the ability to address these kinds of political divisions that enable recruitment. And so the mission itself, I would argue, is unachievable.
And that’s why I want a debate in Congress about this because it’s not that the operation is so expensive compared to the larger American military budget — maybe $2.5-$3 billion a year. But we’re putting people in harm’s way, for what reason? And that needs to be discussed.
RG: If we did have that debate, I would suspect that one of the arguments that you would hear from people would be: Well, if you withdraw U.S. troops now, then Turkey is just going to annihilate our one-time allies, the Kurds there, who have been fighting for their the autonomy that they now appreciate.
So one, is that actually the U.S. mission to defend the Kurds? But, two, is that true? What would happen vis-a-vis Turkey and the Kurdish separatists if the U.S. did withdraw?
RF: Well, I cannot overstate the animosity that the Turkish government feels towards this Syrian militia faction that we work with against ISIS. It’s deep-seated; it predated the Islamic State; it goes back decades and decades.
I’m happy to go into it in greater detail, Ryan, if you’d like to, but what I would say is, because of that severe Turkish animosity, the Syrian-Kurdish faction with whom we work actually has long-maintained relations with the Assad government in Damascus. They had very good relations with Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad. For a long time, the leader of the faction, Abdullah Öcalan, lived in Damascus, from where he could harass Turkey. The only reason he’s not in Damascus now is the Turks threatened a full-scale invasion and Damascus was afraid enough that it actually expelled Abdullah Öcalan from Damascus, but prior to that he’d been living there for many years.
Fast forward to today, this Syrian-Kurdish faction, our partners on the ground against the Islamic State, regularly — I mean, daily, weekly — talk to the government in Damascus. At one point in 2019, when Donald Trump said that the American troops would move back and not resist a Turkish advance into a border area in northeast Syria, the Syrian-Kurdish faction that we work with, went to Damascus and said: Would you please come up to the border and operate patrols with the Russians in order to deter the Turks? And the Syrian government did that. And to this day, there are Syrian government patrols with the Russians up along that portion of the border.
So if you think about what would happen if the Americans leave, I think you would see the same model repeated — worried about a Turkish incursion, this Syrian-Kurdish faction would go back to Damascus and ask for more of a symbolic presence of the Syrian government forces up in that area to deter a Turkish invasion.
I have to underline here, that the Syrian Government is not very strong, its economy is a mess; it doesn’t have a lot of resources, and they’re not going to be able to hold that part of the country sternly. I mean, as I mentioned, they’re already having trouble with the Islamic State in central Syria. So they’re not going to be able to hold eastern Syria in a rock-hard way — would it be enough to deter the Turks? Very possibly, especially if the Russians are doing the patrols, again, along the model of 2019. But the idea that somehow the Syrian-Kurdish communities of northeastern Syria are going to be destroyed by the Assad government or by the Turks, I think, is not accurate. It’s expressing an anguish that the Syrian-Kurdish faction, which has political control now, is relaying to us as a justification to keep us in Syria.
RG: Now, a separate issue from the U.S. troop presence is the ongoing international and U.S.-led sanctions. Where do you stand today on the effectiveness of those sanctions? You talked about the extraordinary weakness of the Assad government. Assad, like you said, drenched in blood, one of the most cruel, vicious evil people —
RF: A war criminal. There’s no other way to describe it.
RG: Absolutely a war criminal. But it raises an uncomfortable question, then, of: Are these sanctions on the Assad government actually effective? Or are they counterproductive and causing too much harm to a civilian population without doing anything useful? So where are you at now, when it comes to the effectiveness of the sanctions?
RF: Well, the first thing I have to say is that when I was the policy lead on Syria, I approved imposing additional sanctions on the Syrian government, particularly in 2012. So it’s not that I’m against sanctions as a matter of principle. But I think, as I said before, you have to understand how things evolve and what the reality is.
The reality now, in 2023, is that we have a very dense web of sanctions on the Syrian government, many of them predate the Syrian uprising and go back to the 1980s and 1990s, but it’s a very thick web of sanctions. They have produced no visible political concessions from the Assad government.
I want to repeat that, again, for the listeners: The sanctions, as harsh as they are, and they would be about as harsh as what we impose on North Korea and Iran; they have produced no political concessions from the Bashar al-Assad government. Yes, they do impose financial costs on some of Bashar al-Assad’s economic buddies, his business buddies — his crony, business buddies, yes.
But they also have put pressure on the Syrian currency, which has dropped in value, raised inflation in Syria, and raised food prices, for example, and ordinary Syrians suffer because of that. The sanctions are intended to, and do, disrupt capital flows that would enable the Syrians, some of these crony business people, to undertake redevelopment projects and build new housing, for example. That means without those projects, there are fewer jobs and fewer people who would earn wages to support their families.
So it hurts the cronies, absolutely. But it also hurts ordinary Syrians who are kind of caught in this really unhappy situation. And I think it’s disingenuous for the backers of sanctions to say: Oh, they don’t hurt ordinary Syrians.
Of course, they do. They’re intended to. I mean, if you’re going to disrupt an economy, it’s going to have an economic impact on citizens.
So I think there is a debate to be had about whether or not the pain we inflict on ordinary Syrians is worth whatever we’re trying to get out of the sanctions in terms of political concessions from Bashar al-Assad. That’s not self-evident to me.
RG: Do you have a sense of whether that debate is happening anywhere? And has the recent horrific earthquake, or series of earthquakes, at least sparked some interest in relooking at this policy, or is it so far down on the list of urgent priorities that it just gets — one week becomes another and it just goes on?
RF: There’s there’s an attached argument to this that American financial sanctions on Syria are so strict, are so tough, that most Western financial institutions, whether they be banks, or just Western Union doing money transfers — they just won’t touch Syria. I mean, anything on the address line of the recipient says Syria, they just won’t even process it. They’re just like: Thank you; no thank you.
So the Treasury Department shortly after the earthquake issued what it called a general license, saying anything involving humanitarian aid, we absolutely will not prosecute any bank or financial institution for moving money to Syria for the purpose of humanitarian aid in the wake of the earthquake. Whether that’s going to remain in place after a certain period, I don’t know. That’s up to the Treasury Department and the Biden administration.
There was an article, maybe some of the listeners saw it, a few days ago in The New York Times, where it mentioned that opponents of the Assad government are unhappy that the Treasury Department took this step of reducing the sanctions at least for a temporary period with respect to humanitarian aid. So maybe The New York Times article will be followed by other discussions about what are the sanctions achieving, versus what are they imposing in terms of pain on ordinary Syrians.
But if that debate, if it’s even going to start, it’s going to start from zero.
RG: Well, Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us. Maybe this will get a little bit of the debate started. And maybe Congress will actually take some interest in foreign policy.
RF: That would be great. I hope so.
[End credits music.]
RG: That was Robert Ford, the former American Ambassador to Syria.
And that’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
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