As the conflict in Syria continues to escalate, there are increasing calls for the international community to step up its involvement. Ambassador Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and the Obama administration’s special advisor for the Syrian transition in 2012, spoke with VOA’s Carol Castiel and Pamela Dockins on Press Conference USA about the need for a “paradigm shift” on the part of those responsible for formulating U.S. policy on Syria. Ambassador Hof urges Washington to support the mainstream Syrian opposition in establishing a legitimate, functioning government on liberated Syrian soil before the situation spirals further out of control.
Following, please find a transcription of select highlights of the interview. You can listen to the full version using the audio player below.
Castiel: You have said that an alternative to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is desperately needed and the U.S. and its partners should support the mainstream opposition in forming a legitimate Syrian government. Do you think Washington is any closer to this policy shift?
Hof: I think this amounts to a very, very difficult decision on the part of the [Obama] administration to move forward and support the establishment of an actual government on Syrian territory; because this government will need support, it will need considerable resources, it may need help with self-defense. These are the kinds of things that would require, I think, a basic, strategic paradigm shift on the part of the U.S.
Castiel: What is the situation on the ground, as you see it, in terms of territory liberated by the rebel opposition?
Hof: Overall, the trend seems to favor the opposition. More and more populated areas are falling to the opposition. There is a pretty solid ring of opposition presence in the suburbs of Damascus for example. The [Assad] regime is still quite capable of winning some tactical successes at this point though successes are occurring with assistance of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters…. The thing that really drives the humanitarian catastrophe is the fact that when the regime loses a populated area to the armed opposition, the next step is for the regime to subject these populated areas to unmerciful assaults from mortars, artillery, aircraft, and even Scud missiles. This is why the continuation of fighting is having such catastrophic effects both inside Syria and in terms of Syria’s neighbors.
“Syria left to the forces of nature is basically on a one-way trip to state failure. And, the implications of that for the people of Syria and the people in the surrounding neighborhood are enormous.” – Ambassador Frederic Hof
Dockins: The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said March turned out to be the deadliest month of the conflict, to date, with over 6,000 casualties. What kind of an impact could this escalation of violence have on the Syrian government’s relations with supporters, such as Iran and Russia?
Hof: It appears that from the point of view of Bashar al-Assad, in Syria, the support of Iran and others is critical. The policy objective of the U.S. government remains one of a negotiated political transition in Syria in accordance with the agreement reached by the permanent five members of the United Nations [Security Council] last June in Geneva. From that point forward, Bashar al-Assad has demonstrated no interest at all in that process. And it’s because he apparently thinks – as delusional as it is – that he can pull [off] a military victory here. And one has to assume it is the level of support from Iran and others that leads him to this false, but firmly held, conclusion.
Castiel: Do you really believe that Bashar al-Assad will leave Syria in anything but a body bag?
Hof: I frankly don’t know what to believe. I do think the prospects of a negotiated transition… are very slim, almost nil.
Castiel: How serious are the disputes between Syrian opposition supporters such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and how detrimental are these disputes to efforts to help the opposition defeat the regime?
Hof: I think the disputes are important, they’re not necessarily debilitating but they’re also inevitable. I think we have to appreciate the fact that Syria is coming out of an induced, political coma of almost 50 years in length. To expect people, all of a sudden, be able to interact politically in ways that are frank and ways that reflect relationships of trust and confidence where for the better part of 50 years people had to look over their shoulders… it’s expecting a little much. I think the most important thing here, the thing that can help the opposition transcend some of these personality conflicts and some of this attention to lesser issues is for this opposition to have a transcendent goal in mind. And that goal, I think, is the establishment of an alternate government on Syrian territory.
Castiel: What do we know about the jihadi influences that have infiltrated the opposition?…. How do you see the role of these jihadi elements and do you think they can eventually be marginalized before they have a much more nefarious impact?
Hof: I certainly think one of the objectives of U.S. policy should be their marginalization. And that would be accomplished through support of the mainstream military opposition… and by the establishment of a government that would link together [branches of the coalition]. These are all steps that could be taken to try to sideline this phenomenon which still represents a small slice of the Syrian opposition. In a larger sense, they are a gift to the Assad regime because they enable that regime to make a case, specious as it is, to Syrian minorities, that the only thing standing between those minorities and some ludicrous, jihadist regime is Bashar al-Assad. He’s making that case, and these groups are enabling him to make the case.
Castiel: This conflict has spilled over now into borders with Jordan, with Iraq, even Israel, and it’s also exacerbating the sectarian tensions and the so-called Shia-Sunni divide….How dangerous is this conflict insofar as it is exacerbating this divide in the region?
Hof: In terms of regional divides, I’m personally a little bit reluctant to break things down along the lines of Sunni and Shia. I understand that there are plenty of people in the region who see things pretty much through the lens of sectarianism. I kind of resist that myself. But, what I see is an Iranian national interest element at play here. Iran needs Syria for one thing and one thing only and that’s to maintain its bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah in Lebanon provides a service of great value to Iran. The reason Hezbollah has so much strategic weaponry in the way of missiles and rockets is to provide Iran with a deterrent force, vis-à-vis Israel. So, this summarizes the Iranian interest in Syria and, to me, it is much more useful to summarize it in those terms than it is in terms of Sunnis and Shia.
Castiel: How do you think the United States’ standing is being affected by [its] very cautious approach to Syria? Will this have a very negative or perhaps a deleterious effect on how the United States is seen as a superpower?
Hof: It is understandable that the president has regarded advice to the effect that he should have a more activist policy in Syria as something that would perhaps lead him down the primrose path into a kind of Iraq-like situation. It’s understandable that he would employ the Iraq analogy. Nevertheless, I think he is discovering that the analogy is not quite accurate, that trying to keep to the side, trying to keep Syria at arm’s length, even though it would seem to be a policy of prudence and caution and conservatism, is actually quite risky because Syria left to the forces of nature is basically on a one-way trip to state failure. And, the implications of that for the people of Syria and for the people in the surrounding neighborhood are enormous.
For more, listen to Frederic Hof’s full interview with Carol Castiel, also featuring VOA’s Pamela Dockins.
Post prepared by VOA Current Affairs intern Natalie Kudrle.
Carol S. Castiel is director of Current Affairs Programming for the English Division at the Voice of America. She produces and manages three 25-minute current affairs radio/Internet programs, which are broadcast weekly around the world on VOA’s short and medium wave frequencies. She hosts Press Conference USA, a newsmaker interview program, and Encounter, a news analysis show that elicits opposing perspectives on critical foreign or domestic policy issues. She also oversees the production of Issues in the News, a round-up of the week’s top stories by a panel of distinguished Washington-based journalists.