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Ambassador Frederic Hof: ‘I would be very surprised if I were to see in a Biden administration the resurrection of the Obama approach to Syria’

Ambassador Frederic C. Hof warns that this new round of sanctions which aims to achieve a genuine political settlement, “will prove to be ‘too little too late.’

2 July 2020

Although the newly applied Caesar Act represents an unprecedented American stance regarding the conflict in Syria since the eruption of public protests in the country in 2011, Ambassador Frederic C. Hof warns that this new round of sanctions which aims to achieve a genuine political settlement, “will prove to be ‘too little too late,’ if the US is placing all the cards on the Act. There is “nothing that would prevent the [Assad] family and its entourage from using its military capabilities to stay in place, even as the country suffers, and Syria could become a sort of Levantine North Korea,” especially given that Russia and Iran will continue, at least on the short term, “to support the regime, but for entirely different reasons,” Hof, who served as a special adviser for transition in Syria under President Barack Obama, told Syria Direct’s Editor-In-Chief, Manar Rachwani, in a recent online interview.

Concerning the possible consequences of a Joe Biden administration on Syria, Hof, currently Diplomat-In-Residence at Bard College and the former director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said that he “would be very surprised and, of course, deeply disappointed, if I were to see in a Biden administration simply the resurrection of the Obama approach to Syria.”


Let me start with the Caesar Act that went into effect recently. Although it might be the most decisive step taken by the US, so far, regarding the Syrian conflict, the law could still be considered ‘too little, too late’ given the facts on the ground. What is your take on this?

The central importance of the Caesar Act is that it is a confirmation of sorts that Syria will not be rebuilt under the auspices of Bashar al-Assad and his entourage. On the other hand, much depends on how rigorously the act will be enforced over time. But beyond that, much depends on other things the US and its allies have to undertake. 

First, it is inevitable that in any kind of a sanction regime there will be unintended consequences affecting normal people. The Syria regime is already trying to blame all of the economic woes of the country on the Caesar Act. This is nonsense, of course. For most Syrians, even those living in regime-controlled areas and Syrians who begrudgingly, might be willing to accept the continued rule of Bashar al-Assad because of the perceived lack of alternatives, the corruption and the incompetence of the regime is not a secret.

Also, what comes next is going to be very important. My personal view is if the US is placing all of its cards on the Caesar Act then it will indeed prove to be ‘too little too late,’ because I’m seeing nothing that would prevent the Assad family and its entourage from using its military capabilities to stay in place, even as the country suffers, and Syria becomes a sort of Levantine North Korea. 


What are your expectations concerning the reaction of Russia and Iran to the new round of sanctions, especially given that, in addition to being the most important backers of the Assad regime, the two countries were specifically mentioned in the Caesar Act?

In the short term, I believe both countries will continue to support the regime, but for entirely different reasons. The difference is important because in one case it leaves open the possibility of policy change, while in the other I think it doesn’t.

For Iran, Bashar al-Assad and the entourage are an absolutely essential pillar of Iranian foreign policy. There is practically no settlement at all in Syria for subordinating this proud country to Iran and even to [the Secretary-General of Hezbollah] Hassan Nasrallah, beyond the ruling Assad family and the entourage.

Hezbollah’s presence and status in Lebanon are the Jewel in the crown of Iranian foreign policy, and the Iranians see Assad as absolutely essential for the preservation of Hezbollah and its prospering in the future. So, unless there is a change in the governance structure in Iran itself, I really don’t see any choice for the Islamic Republic but to back the regime and to do so unconditionally. There may be, however, conditions in the sense that Iran might be, for example, reluctant to employ Hezbollah’s fighters in certain areas of Syria.

Russia, on the other side, is somewhat different. I think it is clear to all outsiders, and it is becoming increasingly clear to Russian insiders in academia and I very strongly suspect in the foreign ministry and elsewhere in the Russian federation government, that Bashar al-Assad and his entourage represent a liability for Russian interests in Syria and the region more broadly. The problem in my view is that the interests of President Vladimir Putin don’t correspond to the interests of the Russian federation. 

For President Putin, it is all about maintaining and projecting, well into the future, his own political power in Russia. A primary argument he has been able to use in Russian domestic politics to shore up the support of people who realize that the economy is failing and corruption is ubiquitous: ‘we the Russians are back on the world stage as a great power after years of humiliation and disgrace. And in terms of evidence, my exhibit A is Bashar al-Assad. He is, certainly, not a great political leader, not someone who draws a great deal of respect in the world, but through our determination, we have saved this person from a western regime change attempt’. 

I suspect as long as President Putin maintains his hold on power, Russia will be obliged to support Assad for the political benefit and sustenance of Putin. But in terms of the objective interests of the Russian state, I think, Assad is more than expendable. 


Based on that, and for the sake of striking a balance between Putin’s interests and Russia’s interests, is it possible to expect efforts by Putin to push Assad toward accepting some kind of a political settlement to the Syrian conflict, which could include keeping Assad in power but at the same time satisfies other international and regional powers, except Iran maybe? 

I actually believe that the Russians have passed messages to Assad, sincerely requesting that he participates in the UN-led discussions in Geneva on the subject of constitutional revisions, and the UNSC resolution 2254 in general. 

I think that at a minimum the Russians want their client to play the game. The theory of the case is: “If you play the game you might at least open up the possibilities of some reconstruction assistance, perhaps from Europe or elsewhere, if you are seen as engaging.” Assad has absolutely no interest in this. 

Assad’s attitude, quite frankly, is that he resides at the hub of the universe, that everything orbits around him and that Russia and Iran support him not because they love him personally- and it is clear to him they don’t, especially the Russians—but because he personally and his regime are essential for these other parties to attain their own interests. This seems incredible given the economic situation in Syria and the obvious evidence of deep-seated discontent in places like Suwayda and elsewhere in the south. 

Assad believes he is in the driver seat at least until now. For that reason, I think it is going to be difficult for the Russians to persuade him to engage significantly in peace talks. 

I think it is simply an objective truth that for this regime to yield and share power is just impossible. One thing I think Bashar al-Assad does understand is that to go down that path is to go down a slippery slope that could bring him someday to trial for all of the things that have happened under his auspices.


Related to the differences of perceptions and expectations between Iran and Russia, could these differences, especially with new variablessuch as the Caesar Act and the Russian-Turkish relationslead to a serious conflict between the two countries, or they are going to maintain their alliance as they share the same goal of keeping Assad in power?

I think since they share the same goal, at least for the time being, that will be the prevailing trend. There is already conflict, certainly not in the form of armed conflict, although there is an interesting element of that, but in the form of a difference of opinion between Russia, and I include even President Putin in this, on the subject of how Assad should act and be perceived with regard to negotiations over the constitution and other subjects. 

It is interesting, though, that, for example, there is an understanding between Russia and Israel. Russia will not object to Israeli military targeting of Iranian and Iranian militia elements in Syria provided Israel refrains from targeting the official Syrian military. I think the Russians would very much like to maneuver Assad into a more flexible position. They obviously have Syrians in Moscow who they would like to see take up positions in some kind of a Potemkin government of national unity. But for the near term preserving this regime is still at the top of the list in terms of priorities for both Iran and Russia.


Could Idlib be the arena of an immediate Russian-Iranian reaction to the Caesar Act, through a new round of escalation? And would the US put serious efforts to prevent the Assad regime and its allies from capturing northwest Syria, especially since that would mean supporting Turkey, which has serious problems with the US regarding the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and some NATO members, namely France and Greece?

Idlib remains a potentially very volatile situation. I think the Russian preference at the current time is to continue to try to work with Turkey to keep a lid on this boiling pot. For President Putin, somehow being able to create a gap and even detach Turkey from its relationship with the United States, and its status within NATO, is an infinitely greater prize than seeing the Assad regime restore its grip on Idlib province. So, I think this is probably the Russian inclination, which is certainly being encouraged by the United States. Also, the Turkish military performance against regime elements several months ago was quite devastating. And with all the problems the regime is having drafting sufficient numbers of young men into the military, and having to use elite units to accomplish anything at all there, there is probably some reluctance to feed more units and soldiers into this Turkish meat grinder in Idlib.

Having said all of that, it’s not as if this war from the beginning has been fought on a purely rational calculus, and this is what worries me. Mistakes and miscalculations on the parts of all parties have been ubiquitous from the beginning, which is why I cannot rule out further mass conflict in Idlib featuring, as it always has from the beginning, the Assad regime putting defenseless civilian populations directly on the bull’s eye. 

In recent years, with significant Russian support, particularly in targeting health facilities, this has become a specialty of Russian pilots in particular. And in that connection, let me just mention that last year I served on the Syria Study Group, which was a group mandated by the United States Congress to come up with a body of recommendations. One of our recommendations was that the U.S. administration commission a study on Russian war crimes in Syria. And I must say if that recommendation has been taken, it’s been taken very, very quietly because I have seen no evidence of any activity in that direction.


Recently, you wrote asking Syrian external opposition to “Disband, move, or do the bidding of others.” Based on your experience with this opposition, where exactly lies the problem, its members, institutions and/or its backers?

The Syrian opposition obviously has had difficulty on issues of internal unity, political policies and relevance to events inside Syria.

Personally, first as an American official and then as an outside commentator, I have had a lot more sympathy and even empathy toward this opposition. It’s extraordinarily difficult for people to be awakened after the equivalent of a 50-year politically enforced coma to start exhibiting teamwork, independence and all of these good characteristics of leadership right from the beginning. 

We in the West would have been well-advised to be a bit more patient and helpful, and less critical. But I think there was always a broad tendency, in effect, to blame this external opposition for the policy failures of the West. That’s understandable politically but it’s not a particularly noble or honorable course of action for powerful parties to blame the least powerful parts of this equation. 

I’ve taken the position that the Syrian external opposition has to be well prepared to work with Syrians inside the country in the event that this regime does begin to wobble and perhaps fall. I’ve asked the question and come to a tentative conclusion about whether basing key elements of this external opposition in Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia really contributes or detracts from the ability of this opposition to work creatively, and more importantly than that work independently as Syrians. This is not necessarily a critique of Turkish or Saudi policy. I’m just trying to look at it objectively and to put myself in the position of Syrian external opposition figures who certainly do want to play a positive role in their country’s evolution.

From the beginning, one of the big problems the opposition has faced is its reliance on external actors for funding, places to live and other forms of support. My conclusion is that the opposition should give very serious consideration to removing itself from Istanbul and Riyadh and perhaps setting up shop in Western Europe. This is, of course, not ideal; the ideal would be to set up shop somewhere inside Syria.

At one point, I thought that the United States would give serious consideration to taking full advantage of its initial military victory over ISIS in the eastern part of Syria and facilitate the growth of governance in that part, governance that might enable the United States to get out of the disgraceful position of continuing to recognize Bashar al-Assad as the president of the Syrian Arab Republic. Notwithstanding all of the rhetoric and all of the provisions of the Caesar Act and everything else everybody has said from the president on down in the administration, the United States still considers Bashar al-Assad to be the president of the Syrian Republic. This is shameful.


As we are talking about the presence and performance of the Syrian opposition, one of the variables that need to be taken into account is the Russian and Iranian insistence on the formation of a so-called “inclusive opposition body”. This means, in practice, infiltrating the opposition by parties, groups and individuals that are actually pro-regime. How should this issue be overcome, especially given that the West, in general, still seems reluctant to put serious pressure on Russia and Iran?

After I finally left the government in November 2012, there was a Friends of the Syrian People Meeting in Marrakech in December of that year. The primary thing that came out of that meeting was a declaration by the Friends of the Syrian People, led by the United States, that the new National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces is the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. At the time, I thought this was a marvelous gesture, but it turned out that all it was was an empty gesture. There was no follow up at all, and no sustained attempt beyond a couple of relatively small technical assistance programs to prepare this opposition for eventually performing governance functions inside of Syria to build linkages between this opposition and people inside Syria trying desperately to create and sustain civil society initiatives in non-regime areas. 

So, it goes back to your initial question about our current gestures, like the Caesar Act, if it is ‘too little, too late.’ I don’t know the literal answer to that question but when I look back at the last eight or nine years, I see opportunities that were missed gratuitously. And it’s a shame because the costs borne by the Syrian people for these missed opportunities have been enormous.


As public opinion polls suggest, there is a high possibility of seeing former vice president Joe Biden in the White House next year. This, consequently, causes serious concern among Assad’s opponents, especially the Syrians, because of the fear that Mr. Biden would replicate the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran, which empowered the latter in Syria and beyond. Do you think that such concern and even fear are justified? 

First of all, I have not yet seen from Vice President Biden himself any definitive statements on these matters in terms of which way he would take American policy. I would guess that the incoming Biden administration would look for ways to reestablish the nuclear agreement (the JCPA) with Iran and perhaps strengthen it and expand or establish some kind of dialogue with Iran aimed at mitigating bad behavior by Iran in the region.

In the Obama administration and in particular with the president, there was faith in the proposition that by signing the nuclear agreement, Iran would begin to modify its other regional policies. Many of us believed from the beginning that this was false, that it was not going to happen. And I think it’s a lesson learned. 

Now, I know that the Vice President Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser Antony Blinken, who is a possible future secretary of state, has written publicly that there were substantial mistakes in the Obama administration’s approach to Syria. Others within the Obama administration, and I’m thinking, in particular, Samantha Power, who was the US ambassador to the U.N., and John Kerry, the Secretary of State, both would go to the president periodically and protest personally about the failure of the United States to lift a finger to protect Syrian civilians. They correctly saw the protection of civilians not as some nice to do, optional, or humanitarian gesture, but something that was at the absolute heart of the geopolitical disaster being inflicted on the West through this regime behavior fully supported by Russia and Iran.

My bottom line is I would be very surprised and, of course, deeply disappointed, if I were to see in a Biden administration the resurrection of the Obama approach to Syria. In the case of President Obama, I am convinced that at a certain point, and I don’t know exactly where that point was, his reluctance to use American military force to defend civilians became fatally compounded by his desire not to offend Iran, the target of nuclear negotiations, in Syria.

There was a fear that pushing back with military operations against civilian slaughter would somehow deeply offend the Supreme Leader and cause the Iranians to walk away from the nuclear negotiations. I think the president and maybe two or three of his aides in the White House believed in that. Others in the administration did not. And many people, including myself, expected the Iranians would understand fully and were very surprised when the United States did not lift a finger. So I think those aspects of the Obama approach to Syria would not be replicated by a Biden administration. I could be wrong, but this is my sense.

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