December 19, 2013
Secretary of State John Kerry has referred to the Geneva II peace talks, currently slated to begin January 22, as the “best opportunity” to bring an end to Syria’s grinding civil war. Yet the planned conference has elicited skepticism and even scorn from Syria’s increasingly fragmented armed opposition, and these doubts have only increased following statements by US officials that Washington could be amenable to Assad’s remaining in power.
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 second of a two-part interview, he spoke with Syria Direct’s Alex Simon about his view that, for Geneva to succeed, the Assad regime must agree to a truce that would grant humanitarian agencies “total access” inside Syria. “If Geneva is to have a prayer,” Hof says, “I think it has to be preceded by something like that.”
Part 1 of the interview is available here.
Q: Is it a mistake to hold Geneva while not expecting results? Will it have negative repercussions if it fails?
It could easily have negative repercussions—it could thoroughly discredit whoever from the opposition shows up. As a general matter, I think it’s good practice to see conferences of this nature as elements of an overall strategy rather than as objectives in and of themselves, and I think this is the difficulty the administration is facing.
And it’s not just the administration, it’s the leaders of the West generally. The situation in Syria is so intractable that these leaders—whether it’s the president of the United States, the prime minister of Britain, the president of France—really feel the need to be seen as doing something. The something they’re doing right now is calling for a conference in Switzerland that they earnestly hope will produce good results.
Q: So right now the conference is an end in itself, not part of a larger strategy?
I think so. There are hopes for this conference, sincere hopes, that it will somehow catalyze the political transition that the international actors all think is essential for Syria to pull out of this nose dive. But hope is not a plan. And given the current condition of the Syrian opposition, I think expectations should be under control as far as its ability to perform in a way that would actually promote the transition that’s desired.
Q: Do you think Russia and Iran can play a productive role at Geneva?
I think it’s within the realm of reality for the US to press Moscow and Tehran into getting their client to abandon some of the worst human rights abuses in Syria. I don’t rule out the possibility that Iranians in particular, who by all accounts were not amused by the regime’s chemical weapons attack on August 21st, might be willing to persuade their client to take a step back from the crimes against humanity.
And the Russians have demonstrated that they understand the general formula here through the chemical weapons deal. They understood that for Assad to perpetuate his own survival, he’d have to get rid of the chemicals—now maybe they could be persuaded that it would be in Assad’s interest to scale back the war crimes.
I don’t place much faith in a government headed by Vladimir Putin to put humanity itself anywhere near the top of the priority list, but they may find it politically convenient.
Q: And then that de-escalation is a stepping-stone toward real negotiations?
Yes. As a practical matter, if you want to have a civilized conversation of any kind, as opposed to a shouting match—the throwing of shoes, the exchanging of insults—the minimum ante is behavior inside Syria that does not rise to the level of pure barbarism.
I’ve argued that if you want to accomplish anything at a Geneva conference, it really has to be preceded by a humanitarian truce, which would basically take the form of UN and humanitarian agencies being granted total access anywhere they want to go in Syria.
If that were to happen, I think the practical effect would be the suspension of attacks on populated areas, because the regime would be aware that there are UN personnel in there. If Geneva is to have a prayer, I think it has to be preceded by something like that.
Q: So it sounds like you’re not optimistic about Geneva as it’s currently conceived.
I am not, and more importantly than that I don’t think the administration is all that optimistic. We’re seeing the deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken refer to Geneva as “a test,” a test as to whether the regime’s supporters are willing to take the steps that would make this diplomatic exercise worthwhile. So I think the administration is aware that it’s got a real long-shot proposition ahead of it.
Photo courtesy of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
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