Since its commencement in 2011, the Syrian Civil War has predominated the headlines and captured the attention of the global community. While estimates vary, it is believed that nearly half-a-million Syrians have lost their lives, and roughly 5 million have been forced to flee the country, seeking refuge across the broader Middle East and Europe. Those who have remained, including Syrian Christians, have faced the dilemma of supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime or face subjugation and death from Islamic militants bent on the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.
Recently, Providence Editor Robert Nicholson sat down with Ambassador Frederic C. Hof to discuss the tragedy of Syria and American foreign policy in regards to the ongoing crisis. Ambassador Hof is a distinguished senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and specializes in Syria. On March 28, 2012, President Obama conferred on Hof the rank of ambassador in connection with his new duties as special adviser for transition in Syria. Hof was previously the special coordinator for regional affairs in the US Department of State’s Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, where he advised Special Envoy George Mitchell on the full range of Arab-Israeli peace issues falling under his purview and focusing on Syria-Israel and Israel-Lebanon matters.
RN– As an Army officer, policymaker, diplomat, think-tanker—you’ve spent an entire career in the arena with a special focus on the Middle East. How have you seen US foreign policy evolve, in both good and bad ways, as it relates to that part of the world?
FH– During my years of professional involvement in the Middle East, consistency in terms of US foreign policy objectives has generally prevailed. Securing the unimpeded flow of petroleum to world markets, supporting the security of Israel while facilitating a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians and Israel and its neighbors, securing the homeland from acts of transnational terrorism originating in the Middle East, preventing the regional use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and (especially during the Cold War, but even now in the case of Iran) preventing the region from falling into the hands of actors hostile to the US: these have been the general themes. Most US administrations have also tried to promote the observance and protection of basic human rights in the region. There have been some unmitigated disasters along the way: the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath; the failure of the US to push back against the Bashar al-Assad regime’s mass civilian homicide in Syria, with negative consequences not only for Syrians but for American credibility and for US allies as far away as Scandinavia; and the intervention of the US in Lebanon in 1982–83. The 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1991 liberation of Kuwait and subsequent Madrid process were perhaps the highlights.
RN– In 2012, President Barack Obama appointed you as special adviser for transition in Syria. These days it seems like Bashar al-Assad has beaten the odds and managed to stay in power with the help of the Russians and Iranians. Where did we go wrong? What are our interests in Syria now that Assad seems to have won?
FH– Even before the Syrian uprising (when I was mediating peace between Israel and Syria), the US was seeking a Syria predisposed to cooperate with the US in the region and beyond; a Syria at peace with all its neighbors; and a Syria enjoying the benefits of legitimate governance rooted in the consent of the governed and rule of law. It went wrong when President Bashar al-Assad decided to use lethal force to deal with peaceful protesters against police brutality. This ended a promising mediation that could have recovered all occupied territories in exchange for complete peace with Israel, and it plunged Syria into an internal war of incalculable costs, one that continues today. Assad’s brutality and his decision to concentrate militarily on western Syria opened a vacuum in the east filled by the Islamic State (ISIL). Today American interests in Syria center on the enduring defeat of ISIL, the removal from Syria of Iranian-led militias, and the start of a peace process ultimately leading to governance in all of Syria capable of suppressing violence, presiding over stability, presenting no threats to neighbors, resettling refugees, launching reconstruction, and achieving full accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. In terms of Assad “winning,” let’s see how effectively he consolidates “power” with none of the causes of the Syrian revolution having been addressed or resolved.
RN– Many Americans on the left and the right would say that Syria—perhaps the whole Middle East—isn’t our problem. That we should cut our losses and leave. How would you respond?
FH– If Syria followed Las Vegas rules—what happens here stays here—withdrawal from the Middle East might be a reality-based conversation. But nothing that’s happened there has stayed inside the country. Friends and allies of the US have been flooded with refugees. A 2015 mass migratory crisis—60 percent Syrian—washed over Western Europe and changed politics there in ways Russian President Vladimir Putin applauded. Mass civilian homicide and the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime may have set new standards for ensuring the survival of brutal regimes around the world. And the US intelligence community believes that ISIL and al Qaeda—both beneficiaries of Assad misrule—present security threats to the American homeland, as do Assad supporters Iran and Hezbollah.
RN– Syria presents something of a dilemma for American Christians who hate tyranny but also care about their co-religionists living inside that country. Assad is a dictator who has butchered hundreds of thousands of people, but he also claims to defend Christians and other minorities against Sunni extremists. This narrative, which I’ve heard repeated over and over again in Washington, puts America on the wrong side of the fight by its on-record support for the mostly Sunni opposition. What is true, and what is false here? How can we square the circle?
FH– Many Syrian Christians—including some of my closest Syrian friends—continue to support the Assad regime. Do they support mass murder? No. Do they support detention facilities featuring Nazi-like methodologies? No. Do they support starvation and medical deprivation sieges? No. Do they support chronic incompetence and pervasive corruption? No. But here is the key question: have they seen an attractive alternative to Assad? No. Some regional powers took advantage of an uprising that was initially entirely non-sectarian and pro-Syria to support Islamists; these regional powers wanted stooges and employees. They ended up helping Assad enormously by all-but-erasing respectable alternatives to his rule, by helping Assad militarize the conflict, and by helping the dregs of Syrian society become the key actors on both sides. Assad has been the big beneficiary. His behavior has contradicted every element of the Christian Gospel. But it is understandable that many Syrian Christians, fearing jihadist alternatives, have continued to back the devil they know.
RN– President Trump has said that, unlike past presidents, he won’t tell other countries what to think or how to act. Is this a positive or negative development? To what extent should America seek to promote its values in the region? Where should we draw the line?
FH– There can be no permanent victory over ISIL, al-Qaeda, or other forms of Islamist terrorism emanating from the Middle East until legitimate governance, reflecting the consent of the governed, begins to take root. We can’t dictate political legitimacy. Public sermonizing about human rights does no good. But make no mistake about it: the absence of political legitimacy across the Arab world is a deadly problem, one the Arab Spring of 2011 tried (unsuccessfully, for now) to address through inclusion and rule of law, and one which extremists and terrorists try to address for their own malevolent purposes. We simply must do business with some bad actors running important countries. But we should focus American assistance to the extent possible on the Arab world’s greatest asset: a population base overflowing with ambitious and entrepreneurial young woman and men. We’ve benefitted for 150 years from the best and the brightest of the Middle East coming to America to live lives of peace, prosperity, and dignity. We should focus on educational and economic reforms that enable the young people of the Arab world to live decent and productive lives at home so that they can change systems dominated by elites whose greed, corruption, and brutality repress an enormous human potential and create vacuums of illegitimacy that extremists seek to fill.
Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is Bard College’s Diplomat in Residence and a distinguished senior fellow of the Hariri Center. In March 2012, President Obama conferred on Hof the rank of ambassador in connection with his new duties as special adviser for transition in Syria.
Robert Nicholson is director of the Philos Project and co-editor of Providence.
Photo Credit: Ambassador Frederic C. Hof speaking on May 28, 2015. By Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, via Flickr.