December 18, 2013
With the Geneva II peace talks now only five weeks away, it remains to be seen who will travel to Switzerland to represent Syria’s increasingly fragmented opposition movement. The picture has become even hazier in recent weeks due to the emergence of the Islamic Front, a coalition of seven hard-line Islamist groups, as arguably the most potent force within the armed opposition. Despite stark ideological differences, Washington has sought to engage the Islamic Front in preparation for the upcoming peace talks. The Front’s leadership, however, has rejected these overtures, raising further questions about a peace process that many within Syria regard with skepticism or even scorn.
Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and until fall 2012 served as the Special Advisor for Transition in Syria at the US Department of State.
In the first of a two-part interview, he spoke with Syria Direct’s Alex Simon about why he believes the ascendance of the Islamic Front “complicates” Washington’s strategy in Syria, and how tepid Western support has resulted in a “hollowing-out process” among Syria’s moderate armed opposition.
Q: What does the Islamic Front’s ascendance mean for US policy, and for Geneva specifically?
I think from the point of view of US strategy it complicates things considerably, it makes things much more difficult. The administration has the specific idea that the Assad regime is actually quite fragile—that there’s a lot of grumbling going on within the Alawite community, presumably within security forces as well, about the extent of the sacrifice that’s been exacted from them to keep this Assad-Makhlouf clan in power.
The administration hoped that Geneva would be the place where an alternative government would be put on the table, that there would be a list of names coming from the opposition representing a transitional governing body, and that this list would reflect mainly the names of people who had served—honorably, competently, non-criminally—in the current or previous Syrian governments.
The first problem with that is the assumption the Syrian National Coalition is going to lead the delegation to Switzerland. The Coalition may still go to Switzerland, but it’s clear from events on the ground that the Islamic Front is now taking the initiative within the ranks of the armed opposition.
So now the administration has it in mind to try to persuade the Islamic Front either to come up with this list, or to authorize the Coalition to do so. And that raises the question of how and why a group of Islamists would come up with a list of names, several of which would be Alawites, most or all of which would have had some affiliation in the past—even if it’s an honorable affiliation—with the regime they’re sworn to destroy. So this is going to be a very heavy lift, and the odds against success are pretty steep.
Q: To what extent do you buy into the argument that Washington’s inaction is responsible for the rise of jihadist groups within the opposition?
I buy into that pretty thoroughly. Of all of the actors in the Syrian scene, the US alone seems to genuinely believe in the proposition that there is no military solution to the Syrian crisis. Others believe that there is—meaning the Iranians and Russians on the regime side, Saudis and private Gulf donors on the other side—and they have put in the hands of their respective clients the types of resources that reflect that belief.
The US has had the attitude that not only is a military victory unattainable, even if it were attainable it would be undesirable. We might have a situation like we had in Iraq, with government and security forces overthrown.
So the opposition elements that the US has favored have been kept on a very, very short leash in terms of the assistance they’ve been given—arms, training, equipment, money. And what this means is that young Syrian men who are determined to fight against this regime have had a tremendous incentive to go to organizations that can supply them with a payday, with ammunition, and with weapons.
The FSA, the SMC, the people we’ve wanted to support have been going through a hollowing-out process over the last few months. And what happened recently with the seizure of these supplies illustrates the point, but it’s been going on for a while.
Q: Do you think it’s possible to reverse this trend?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I would certainly favor reexamining the possibility of getting involved in Syria in a very serious way. But it’s not clear whether, in light of what’s happened in the last several months, we could actually gain enough traction to help build a militarily significant force on the basis of people who still stand for a Syria of citizenship.
It’s obviously much more complicated now, with the recent actions not only of the Islamic Front, but of the Kurdish PYD along wide extents of the Turkish border. Even if we wanted to do it, even if we wanted to put the Department of Defense in charge of it and do a serious job, the first thing we’d have to do is determine whether or not there is actually an operational basis to do something significant.
Q: Do you see any momentum toward such a reappraisal?
I’m not seeing any inclination or appetite on the part of the administration at present to reexamine those options. The president’s clear priority right now is to see the chemical weapons agreement completely implemented. That’s what he wants, and the removal of those munitions is a good thing. The problem with it is that it doesn’t touch the essence of the Syrian problem, which is a humanitarian catastrophe.
If the chemical weapons agreement gets fully implemented, if there’s a big check in that box, and if the regime continues its relentless application of war crimes against residential areas, might the president be persuaded to engage more actively, perhaps even reconsider creating the credible threat of military force? Maybe.
But I don’t think there’s any strong predilection on the part of Barack Obama to go in that direction. But the catastrophe that is Syria, and its impact on Syria’s neighbors, may ultimately oblige him to.
Q: What might deeper US involvement look like?
I think the kind of operation that makes sense under current circumstances is one that would focus on the elimination of the regime’s delivery systems that are terrorizing people on a massive scale every single day—artillery, aircraft, missiles. Put those out of business and hundreds of thousands of Syrians will have their first good night’s sleep in months.
Whether or not that would significantly change the tactical balance on the ground, I’m not sure, because these regime combat systems right now are being mostly employed against civilian populations, not the military formations of the opposition. So to me it’s an open question what impact a humanitarian intervention of that nature would actually have on the tactical situation.
Q: What is the Obama Administration’s overarching goal in Syria today, and how has it changed from a year ago?
The big-picture objective is one in which the departure of the Assad regime would cause a coalescing of the Syrian army and mainstream opposition forces—including some Islamist groups—against al-Qaeda, and the elimination of al-Qaeda from Syria. I think this is at least the vision the administration has.
I think the only thing that’s changed in all of this is the salience of al-Qaeda. This has become a much bigger factor over time. I’d say that the president’s objective for Syria has been essentially unchanged—he wants to see a negotiated transitional government reflecting the departure of the Assad regime from power, but also the continuation of Syrian governmental institutions, basic continuity of government.
Photo courtesy of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
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