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Fred Hof: Ibrahimi Efforts Most Likely to Fail in Syria
Published in AL HAYAT on 11 - 01 - 2013

Until last September, Fred Hof was the top advisor for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Syria. He led efforts to relaunch the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations in 2010, and met with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad prior to the uprising of March 15, 2011 that stalled US engagement in Syria and left Assad fighting for his own survival today.
Hof, who worked for decades on the Middle East, talks to Al-Hayat about the strategic mistakes of the Assad regime, the international diplomatic push led by Al-Akhdar Ibrhaimi and which he likely expects to fail. Hof does not share the view that Assad is in a bubble, and contends that he “has an accurate appraisal" of his own situation.
Al-Hayat met Hof at his new office as a senior fellow at the “Rafik Hariri Center of the Middle East" at the Atlantic Council, and following is the Q and A:
Where do you think the Syrian regime went wrong in sliding from an opportunity to regain its regional stature in 2010 , into a battle for survival today?
The fundamental mistake was at the beginning and how the security forces reacted to teenagers drawing graffiti in Daraa. President (Bashar) Assad's biggest mistake was reacting violently to peaceful protests. He had a choice of following the playbook that he had inherited which says react quickly and violently, or he could have reacted in a more political manner, by perhaps visiting Daraa with Mrs. (Asma) Assad. He could have heard the grievances, and made some strategic firings in the security services, provided compensation for the families, and maybe then he could have put that genie back in the bottle.
-Having met him on several occasions, why do you think Assad went by the playbook, is it him or is the regime structure bigger than the President in this case?
That is a very difficult question to answer. Even though i had met few times, i would not claim to know him well enough to be able to understand why he reacted the way he did. Certainly the reaction was standard, planned over the years, there was nothing remarkable about such a reaction for this regime. It would have taken a real active leadership based on an accurate appraisal for the situation in Syria, for President Assad to have acted differently. Was it a leadership failure? Was it a failure to appreciate that this could spread like a wildfire if it was not handled correctly? I don't know but the facts speak for themselves.
-The US administration waited few months before calling on Assad to “step aside". You were part of this process at the State Department. How did that decision come about, and is their a difference between “step aside" and “step down"?
I don't think there is a philosophical or operational difference between the various ways that it can be phrased. I think it took some time for the US government to analyze very carefully the question of whether Bashar Assad could be part of the solution or was very much at the center of the problem. When the analytical judgement was reached that he was at the center of the problem, that there wasn't a practical way he could contribute to the solution, that's when the decision was made by the US President (Barack Obama) to speak directly about it.
-Assad in his speech last Sunday was still defiant, do you see the situation getting worse? Or does the UN envoy Ibrahimi have a chance at a diplomatic breakthrough?
Ibrahimi is making an effort, but i suspect with all the due and tremendous respect I have for him, his efforts will probably fail. My sense is President Assad probably has an accurate appraisal at this point of his own situation. It is impossible for him not to notice for example that the airport in his capital city is out of business more often than not, or that the government which is operated as an extension of the regime, does not have control very far into Syria anymore. I doubt that he is still living in this bubble of unreality, nevertheless, he is still making many of the familiar arguments. All of which, i strongly suspect he knows to be false, such as saying that the opposition is predominantly foreign or entirely terrorists, he knows for a fact that none of these things is true.
-Who is he addressing with these allegations?
My suspicion is he is trying to rally and reassure the faithful in Syria. People who have stuck their necks out for this incompetent, corrupt and brutal regime, they have to be worried that the family ultimately will make its own arrangements, in an effort to save itself. This has been the pattern, and it wouldn't be surprising at all if the reason for this speech was to calm the suspicions of those who find themselves possibly in a lifetime of legal jeopardy to support this regime.
-But, some say that Assad has regained some control in Homs and Hama and his community -the Allawites- still largely backs him. The opposition has not also captured any land. Are these indications that Assad could be looking at and saying to himself he could for longer?
He has probably come to the conclusion that he could go on for longer. I doubt very much though that he believes that this genie can be put back in the bottle, or that he and his family can rule Syria as they did prior to the 15th of March 2011. Those days are over. It is quite true, however, that those units who support the regime have fairly impressive capabilities. It is true that, except in complex urban situations, a Syrian special forces regiment can possibly still take and hold territory against a less capable armed opposition unit. But the same regime units are having to be used over and over again, their supply lines are being interdicted, every time they move from one location to take another, the initial position reverts to the control of the opposition. This is a process that could yet go on for a long time but it's probably a one way trip for this regime.
-The US has made clear that it doesn't want the infrastructure of the Syrian state to collapse. How does Washington find the balance between supporting the rebels as they try to oust Assad and making sure that the state collapses?
One hears different things on the need for weapons. The major source of weaponry right now is from within the country, it is rebel units seizing stocks of units and armories, or Syrian soldiers either defecting with weapons or giving or selling weapons to the opposition. The capability of the opposition on the ground is increasing slowly but surely. The problem is time is of the essence. This regime is quite willing to risk the permanent destruction of Syria to try to save itself, this is why countries like the US that are not automatically inclined to jump into the middle of this by providing arms, have to constantly evaluate that policy.
-So do the rebels need sophisticated weapons to turn the situation around?
It is quite possible. I cannot give you a unit by unit breakdown of what is needed or what would be useful.The irony is that the US administration stands accused by the regime, Iran, Hezbollah and perhaps others of arming the rebels. It also stands accused by many Syrian rebels of not doing enough. It's the worst of both worlds.
-Do you agree with those who say that Assad can remain in power as long as Allawites support him?
It is a very important pillar of his power. But i can say without contradiction, that there is virtually nobody in Syria who has any illusion about the level of corruption, incompetence and brutality of the regime. Assad has seceded socially and economically from the Allawite community but now is falling back on it to save the regime. The regime has made sure from the 70s, that there would be no alternate structures or spokespeople in the community, I have referred to this as the construction of a poisoned pill where if the regime was ever seriously challenged by major portions of Sunni community in Syria it would immediately try to characterize this as a dire threat to minorities. What is regrettable is some people in the opposition, perhaps only a very small minority, are inclined to assign blame to the allawite community for the crimes of a very specific family clique .
-Do you mean extremist groups such as Jubhat Nusra or or clerics outside the country?
Yes and they are a minority, nevertheless they get lot of publicity and their views are pure poison for the future of Syria.
-But there is talk that they get lot of money from outside.
There is private money flowing in that direction. That has been a standard problem, but in a way, this money for this purpose is a lifeline for the Assad regime because it helps it make the case that there is a sectarian assault going on against Syrian minorities.
-What are the risks of Syria disintegrating if we don't see a political or military breakthrough or intervention anytime soon?
I don't know the extent to which military intervention itself is the thing that prevents Syria from disintegrating. The longer this situation goes on, the higher the chances are for Syria disintegrating. But I think Syrian people have made lot of progress since 1946 in building the sense of national identity and citizenship. Breaking that down is not that easy, but the regime is doing its best to break it down and once broken it would be hard to put it back together. It could take decades.
-You have visited Russia and met with senior officials. How do you explain their position? Will there be a point where it is against their strategic interest to support this regime?
It is already against the strategic interest of the Russian federation to be supporting this regime and this is why various Russian officials have made public statement to the effect that Moscow does not care about Assad. So at least rhetorically Russia is trying to counter this impression, because the Assad regime is terribly unpopular not only in Syria but also from one end to the Arab world to another. At the same time, Russian specialists tend to emphasize in their analysis the fear in Moscow of western abetted regime change as a general proposition, and this is what predisposes some Russians to at least hope that Assad regime will hang on and somehow reforms its way out of this dilemma.
At the working level and fairly senior levels in the Russian Federation, there was a clear understanding that this is not going to happen. I suspect at the very top of Russian federation there is still hope that Assad can hang on and the reform scenario discussed a year or so ago can take place.
Iran wants to talk to the US about Syria. Is that a good idea?
My suspicion, and I am not an Iran expert, is that Tehran is part of the problem and probably not the solution. What we're seeing an Iranian effort on the ground in Syria to preserve the Assad regime, since Iran sees it as essential to its own ability to penetrate the Arab world, and maintain a strategic force in Lebanon. Almost any successor government one can imagine in Syria would fundamentally change the relationship between Syria and Iran. Any future government will endeavor to make Syria the senior partner in such relationship as opposed the junior one it has become over the last 12 years.
-How will Senator John Kerry shape the Syria situation?
Senator Kerry has no illusions at all about the ability and the desirability of Bashar Assad regime surviving this. I can't imagine any difference at all between Senator Kerry's analysis of this situation and the analysis that the Obama administration has long reached.

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