Syria's Unclear Path Forward

Syria's Unclear Path Forward

An interview with Ambassador Frederic C. Hof.


When Fred Hof talks or writes about Syria, people inside Washington and around the world listen what he has to say.

Before he joined the Atlantic Council as a Senior Fellow, Hof served as the Obama administration’s point man in the State Department for the Syria political transition—a portfolio that was perhaps one of the most mind-numbingly difficult in the entire U.S. Government. His remit included everything from preparing the Syrian political opposition for the “day after” the civil war ended to traveling around the Middle East with the mission of enhancing the opposition’s shaky international credibility. He decided to leave the ranks of government in 2012 — and if his writings during the last three years are any precedent, he likely did so in frustration that the U.S. Government wasn’t doing everything it could to stem the violence of a monstrous dictator in Bashar al-Assad.


Now that Fred Hof is out of government, he can say and write what he really thinks. He has done that without fail; in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October 2013, Hof described the administration’s Syria policy as fundamentally based on hope and haunted by lethargy. Immediately after the United States recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, Hof argued in his testimony, tha Washington should “have helped prepare the Coalition to establish an alternate government on liberated Syrian territory: one that we, as part of a broad coalition, would have recognized diplomatically, supported economically, and helped to defend. That never happened.”

Hof admits himself that he was far too slow in recognizing how counterproductive the Obama administration’s Syria policy was. Writing for Politico, Hof described his hope that Syria could escape the kind of political turbulence that Egypt, Libya, and Yemen experienced during those heady days of the Arab Spring if Bashar al-Assad had wised up, opened up the political system, and expanded personal freedoms. Before tens of thousands of Syrians took to the streets to protest a brutal and corrupt regime and before Assad started shooting protesters in the back with live ammunition, Hof envisioned a possibility that Washington could “alter the country’s strategic orientation” away from Iran through a comprehensive Israeli-Syrian peace agreement that finally resolved the status of the Golan Heights.

Yet Hof readily admits that he was wrong in his optimism—feelings that were extinguished long before he decided to leave Foggy Bottom. “By September 2012, when I resigned my State Department post…I knew that Syria was plunging into an uncharted abyss—a humanitarian abomination of the first order,” Hof writes. “And I knew that the White House had little appetite for protecting civilians (beyond writing checks for refugee relief) and little interest in even devising a strategy to implement President Barack Obama’s stated desire that Syrian President Bashar Assad step aside.”  


Fast forward to 2016, and the “humanitarian abomination” that is Syria today is even worse than when he first transitioned back into private life. Entire cities destroyed; over 400,000 civilians killed according to the U.N. (the death toll is so high that the U.N. stopped counting); half of the country’s population is displaced; war crimes and crimes against humanity being conducted by all sides of the conflict on a daily basis; and an inept U.N. Security Council unable to reconcile their own self-interests in order to save men, women, and children from being bombed or starved to death have come to define the 21st Century’s most brutal conflict.

Ambassador Hof was kind enough to agree to a quick interview at my request. I asked him about the Cessation of Hostilities agreement that is now all but dead; whether there is anything at all the U.S. and Russia could do to bring it back from the wilderness; and whether the international community needs to begin to swallow an unholy pact with the devil in order to end of a war that is now in its sixth year.

Q:  I must admit, the Cessation of Hostilities agreement brokered by the United States and Russia lasted far longer than I expected. Violence went down considerably, the death toll among civilians decreased exponentially, and humanitarian access to besieged areas improved to a far greater extent than before the truce came into effect. Were you as caught off guard as I was?

FH: I was pleasantly surprised that the cessation of hostilities produced the positive results it did for as long as it did. Russia and Iran's foreign Shi’a militias actually expended some effort against ISIS instead of Syrian civilians, escorting the Syrian Army into Palmyra. And even though the Assad regime continued to block some UN humanitarian relief convoys and steal medical supplies from others, there is no doubt that thousands of needy Syrian civilians got some long overdue relief from starvation. Now, however, it appears that Russian and Iranian interest in fighting ISIS has waned and the encirclement of Aleppo is the top priority. So the cessation of hostilities is breaking down, with regime aircraft targeting medical facilities in particular.

Q: It looks like the CoS is now effectively broken. Hundreds of civilians have reportedly been killed in Aleppo since April 22. The Assad regime appears to be back to its old ways of deliberately targeting hospitals and depopulating civilian areas. Is there anything at all Washington and Moscow can do to get the ceasefire back on track? Or is this a lost cause?

FH:  Moscow can put this ceasefire back on track with a word to Assad. I don't mean to imply that Bashar is simply an order-taker. Indeed, he believes he resides at the hub of the universe and that Russia and Iran need him more than he needs them. But Moscow can, if it wishes, make it clear to him and to his military chiefs that either things calm down or military assistance will be suspended indefinitely. It does not appear to wish to do so. Washington has put itself in a position of being totally dependent on Vladimir Putin's goodwill on this matter. Therefore Putin is, at least for now, the Decider. As the violence is killing prospects for negotiations, Putin has a decision to make.

Q: You have been one of the most vocal critics of the Obama administration’s Syria policy since you left government. When you talk about Syria, people listen. So where is the administration going wrong?

FH: The administration's objective is a negotiated political transition for Syria consistent with what the P-5 agreed at Geneva in June 2012. It wants to see a transitional governing body emerging from the current round of Geneva talks: one that would be created on the basis of mutual consent and would exercise full executive power. The mutual consent clause would effectively put Assad's fate in the hands of the opposition. The administration would welcome an Assad-free outcome, because it wants a united Syrian front against ISIS and correctly sees Assad - the author of countless war crimes and crimes against humanity - as a terminally divisive actor.

But the strategy for achieving this objective rests entirely on persuading Russia and Iran through sweet reason that ISIS lives large because Assad has killed indiscriminately. They already know that. Each, for its own reasons, wants Assad remaining in power. So: in western Syria an Assad policy of mass homicide and collective punishment prevails; a policy that makes negotiations impossible. In eastern Syria ISIS is chased by airplanes and harassed by a Kurdish militia. The administration therefore has the worst of both worlds. In the west it has protected not one single Syrian from regime mass murder over five years, and now watches helplessly as renewed violence against civilians sinks the negotiations it so dearly wants. In the east it hopes ISIS will not have enough time to do in St. Louis or Seattle what it did in Paris and Brussels. But it's not configured a ground force capable of putting it out of business.

Nowhere in Syria have administration objectives been accompanied with a realistic strategy.

Q: In your judgment, does the administration have a Plan B if the Geneva peace process collapses?

FH: I suspect that several Plan B variants exist. What any of them would require is an execution order from President Barack Obama.


Q: Is an Ali Abdullah Saleh-like scenario for Bashar al-Assad still possible? In other words, is there any chance that the HNC would accept a deal whereby Assad resigns in exchange for immunity for the crimes he has committed over the past five years? Or is this a ridiculous option to begin with?


FH: If Assad and his entourage were willing to step down and leave the country I suspect the Syrian opposition would give him whatever immunity assurances he wants. The practical problem would be the number of people covered and the reactions of those left uncovered. Assad knows his own civil servants have spirited tons of criminal evidence against him out of the country and into the hands of those who would facilitate eventual Hague proceedings. He probably calculates that staying in power in at least part of Syria is his best bet. The problem with an Ali Abdullah Saleh scenario—one in which Bashar would step down and stay in the country—is that the Saleh scenario has all but destroyed Yemen.