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The Interview: Fred Hof

Ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s address to the U.S. public, Syria Deeply’s Executive Editor Lara Setrakian spoke to Ambassador Fred Hof, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former special advisor to Obama on Syria.

Written by Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes

Hof, who first went to Syria as a 17-year-old high school exchange student, spoke about the best way forward for the country and the U.S. role in its conflict.

LS: Can you help us understand your message to Congress on Monday?

FH: The basic message to Congress is that to deny authorization to the president to conduct military operations in response to the chemical weapons usage is basically to destroy the prospects for a negotiated, political settlement in Syria for as far as the eye can see. The reason I say this is because the use of chemical weaponry is the visible tip of a very large iceberg. It’s that iceberg that is obstructing any possibility of political progress, and that iceberg is the longstanding trend of the Assad regime deliberately targeting civilian populated areas it does not occupy with artillery, aircraft and missiles. As long as that practice continues, it’s impossible to convene any kind of a peace conference that talks about compromise, peace, reconciliation or any of those matters. If Congress denies the president this authorization, the signal to Bashar al-Assad basically is, “Go back to business as usual, perhaps without using chemical weapons, but nevertheless, go back to business as usual.” It would be a disaster for Syria and a disaster for our allies and friends in the region.

LS: So you seem to think that authorizing use of force is the right move, but is the strike itself the right thing to do at this point and if so, or if not, why?

FH: I think the strike itself is the right thing to do. A lot depends on what it is, exactly. In broad terms, the president has spoken about strikes that would deter and prevent the use of chemical weapons. Obviously, the most reliable way to do this is to destroy that chemical inventory itself. There are some technical issues that make that process somewhere between very hard and impossible to do. The second best approach is to go after the systems that are capable of delivering chemical weapons. Here we’re talking about aircraft, artillery, rockets and missiles. The same systems, incidentally, that have used conventional munitions to kill over 100,000 people, to drive 7 million people from their homes, 2 million across international boundaries and destroy lives both physically and psychologically. It seems to me that if the president approves that kind of operation, it can be a force for good in Syria. It can actually enable a political process. If it is symbolic, if it’s very limited, if it’s a plume of smoke out in the desert, then the value will be questionable, to say the least.

LS: Do you think the threat of a strike has changed conditions on the ground, potentially weakening the regime? What have you heard and what do you sense?

FH: That’s a good question. It’s a tough one to answer with a great deal of confidence. My suspicion is that Bashar al-Assad may not be inclined to use chemical weapons in the future. I strongly suspect that both the Iranians and the Russians know the truth of what happened on August 21, and neither is amused by the stupidity of their client. It’s quite possible that Bashar al-Assad is already deterred in the technical sense from using chemical weapons. The danger though is that Congress rejects the authorization for Obama, and it will return to business as usual – killing and terrorizing large numbers of civilians using conventional weapons. This is a danger we should all fear very greatly.

LS: It’s a heavy word but do you trust the opposition, especially the Supreme Council, to be able to pick up the pieces, to take up the initiative?

FH: I’ve met with General Idris and some of his senior staff people. I think that General Idris is a very skilled officer who knows how to organize and build things. It’s not so much a question of trust. General Idris and his colleagues need the resources to be able to do what they say they want to do, which is to build a solid structure of military units that are dedicated to a vision of Syria that is nationalistic, non-sectarian and inclusive. Frankly, if the president gets his authorization or not, I suspect that there will be a lot of emphasis on doing a much better job of supporting General Idris and the Supreme Military Council.

LS: So you know that they want to stabilize Syria, but do they have the capacity? Can they do it given what they’re up against, especially with the prevalence now of some al-Qaida-linked groups on the ground?

FH: They need the resources. The decision of July 2012 not to provide these resources to the mainstream Syrian opposition is a decision that the president would do over if he had the opportunity. Because it kind of causes unintended consequences. There’s been a lot of private money flowing out of the Gulf to extremist factions, not necessarily al-Qaida per se, but other sectarian elements, some of which are foreign that have been attracted in part by the Assad regime and in part by this Gulf money. These units have been flushed with money. They’ve been flush with weaponry. For that reason, they’ve been very attractive to young Syrians trying to fight the regime. Not because these young Syrians believe in the ideology, but because that’s where the weaponry is. So if we expect General Idris and his colleagues to do the job we’d like them to do, they have to have the resources to draw people into their ranks.

LS: What specifically do you think the U.S. needs to give them and do you think they’ll get it?

FH: Training is an obvious need. Money is an obvious need. Advanced weaponry is an obvious need. Now, what I suspect may not be provided would be manned portable anti-aircraft systems. Who knows? Over time, that’s something that may be reconsidered. But there is a very strong concern in the United States and elsewhere around the world about proliferation. Now if the military operation being contemplated by the president and his advisers manages to take care of that problem, then that kind of weaponry would not be needed in any event.

LS: Do you think they’re going to get what you’re describing?

FH: Yeah, by all accounts. It’s not as much a matter of what I think, as it is the fact that senators McCain and Graham emerged from a meeting with the president last week, apparently convinced that the United States has really turned a corner in terms of its determination to support the Supreme Military Council with real things and lots of them.

LS: How do you think the moderates, as we often call them, are going to be able to outman and outwit what’s taken root around them in the form of Jabhat al- Nusra and ISIS? How will they route them? How will this problem be rooted out ultimately?

FH: I think it’s mostly a matter of resources that can attract manpower that has been attracted in the past to these groups despite their unacceptable ideology. As I mentioned, they have been the ones who have had the money and the weaponry so they’ve acted as a magnet for many young Syrians who frankly, need the resources to try to defend their homes and their families. So I think that it’s absolutely essential that General Idris and his staff get those resources so they can continue to pull the Syrian manpower back from these groups. All that these groups would be left with in the end is a collection of foreign fighters. They would be relatively inconsequential. Yes, they’ll have to be mopped up at some point, but the name of the game now is to attract Syrians to an effort that is 100% Syrian, and this is what General Idris represents.

LS: What is it going to take to stabilize Syria? How do you see the current order giving way to a different formula in power?

FH: That’s a tough one. The president and other Western leaders have said that there is no military solution to what is going on in Syria. The problem that we are facing is that Russia, Iran and the regime itself have an entirely different view. They believe a military victory is possible and they are working to that end. I think the best thing do under the circumstances is support the president and give him the authorization he needs, build up the Syrian opposition – both armed and unarmed – and encourage the Syrian national coalition to establish an alternate government inside Syria. The United States should recognize, support and defend that government. For millions of Syrians, who have very little respect and no affection for this regime, they’re still looking for the alternative. They’re still wondering, “OK, if Bashar and his clan go away, what’s next? Is it going to be better or worse for us?” As long as that alternative does not exist, the Assad regime has a good chance of survival. Creating that alternative, future governance and stability in Syria is absolutely essential.

LS: So on a practical level, what do you do with the regime holdovers? Are there people, you think, can be salvaged and mixed in with the coalition? How do you blend the old and the new in a way that’s palatable?

FH: I suspect there are serving civil servants, there are serving officers in the armed forces, there may even be serving ministers or office directors who can serve in a future government of national unity. I think it’s important to try to keep government offices functioning to the maximum degree possible. Obviously people with blood on their hands, people who have engaged in criminal activity, people who are well known in their corruption will have no future in the government of Syria. It would be reassuring to some Syrians to see people, who do have a degree of respect, kept on the job in a national unity arrangement.

LS: Do you think that’s possible given all that’s happened, all the bloodshed? Do you have any signs or indications that there’s willingness from those who are currently serving to stay on?

FH: The real question is whether there’s any inclination on the part of the Syrian opposition to keep some of those people. For example, I suspect that former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab would be a valuable asset for the Syrian opposition right now because of his connections, because of what he stands for. But, I suspect there’s some reluctance on the part of the mainstream opposition to consider using the services of people like that. I think that’s a mistake. I understand the emotion. But I think the opposition as a general matter needs to do a lot more thinking about this, because at the end of the day, some kind of a national unity arrangement that preserves the service of people who have served and behaved with honor throughout all of this would be a big part of an overall reconciliation process that will need to take place in Syria.

LS: What do you think would be the consequences for Syria and for the region at large if the U.S. does not strike?

FH: The main consequence is that even if it foregoes the use of chemical weapons, the Assad regime will return full time to the pogrom of mass terror it’s been using for the better part of two years now, targeting residential areas with artillery, rocket, missile, and aircraft fire – driving people from their homes, driving them out of Syria, killing large numbers of people. The consequences for Syria are obvious. The country is being destroyed by this kind of criminal and indiscriminate behavior. The consequences for the region are also very serious. You’ve now got 2 million refugees in neighboring countries. That number will likely climb sharply and at the end of the day, you could be left with a Syria that is basically either in total or in part an ungovernable place where bands of terrorists and criminals and warlords are free to operate with impunity. The doors to that consequence will open if Congress turns down this request for authorization.

LS: And what about for the region? The geopolitics of where Iran stands. What are the consequences if we don’t strike Syria now?

FH: There’s a lot of concern that Iran will be drawing certain conclusions about the willingness of Americans to stand behind their president and the willingness of the United States to take hard, tough decisions when its credibility, standing and reputation have been challenged and when unspeakable acts take place. I’m worried about the conclusion that all kinds of people, allies and adversaries alike, will draw if Congress turns down the president on this.

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