Ambassador Frederic C. Hof’s Remarks at the National Defense University

I’d like to thank the US Army Special Operations Center of Excellence and Ambassador Greta Holtz for having invited me to this symposium. It’s been a quarter century since I’ve worn the green suit of an Army officer, and I know for a fact it no longer fits. But as a veteran of Vietnam and the Lebanese civil war, my mind remains very focused on the American soldier. When I say “thank you for your service” I am very mindful of all the danger, sacrifice, and heartache it entails.

I’ll focus my comments on Russia in Syria. But let me state at the outset something I strongly believe to be true: what happens in Syria does not stay in Syria. When the President of the Russian Federation thinks about whether, how, and when to project power toward the west or the south, he sees Syria not only in terms of Syria-specific objectives to be accomplished, but as a laboratory in which Western action and inaction is assessed for potential application elsewhere. I think that Kremlin conclusions about Western indifference, agnosticism, and ambivalence have potential implications far beyond the Syrian Arab Republic.

I believe that President Putin’s objective in Syria is to perpetuate indefinitely the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is not to say that Mr. Putin likes Assad. It is not to say that he respects Assad, or sees Assad as a model client and collaborator. I strongly suspect that Putin sees Assad as a manipulative bungler, someone who has consistently avoided political engagement with opponents in favor of collective punishment and mass homicide.  

Still, what Mr. Putin would like to do, for purely domestic political purposes, is demonstrate to Russians beset by bad governance and economic distress that Russia is back as a great power. President Putin tells his constituents that his American counterpart is on a regime-change and democratization binge in the Middle East: that Washington has deliberately undermined legitimate states and has made common cause with terrorists in the process. Mr. Putin has identified Syria as the place where this alleged American regional destabilization agenda will be stopped cold.

What this means in practical terms is that whatever reservations President Putin may have about Bashar al-Assad, those reservations are operationally irrelevant. American diplomacy over the past year—since Russia intervened militarily in Syria—has sought to find common ground with the Kremlin based on Russia’s claim that it entered Syria to fight Daesh and other al-Qaeda-related-or-descended terrorists. Our President and Secretary of State have argued that Assad’s survival strategy of collective punishment and mass homicide is a gift that keeps on giving to extremists seeking to radicalize Sunni Muslim communities globally; that Assad is the poster boy for Daesh and al-Qaeda recruitment in Syria and around the world. Therefore, as John Kerry has argued, Russia should cooperate with a political transition plan to move Assad off-stage so as to expedite the defeat of Daesh and other extremists. But how is Putin to do this without standing accused of collaborating with the alleged regime change agenda he has vowed to stop? Is not Bashar al-Assad the face of the state he has vowed to save?

Russia entered Syria specifically to save Assad. This is why Russian airpower has largely ignored Daesh. This is why Russian airpower has focused instead on the much maligned and often underestimated armed Syrian opposition that is essentially nationalistic in its outlook. The key fact is that Bashar al-Assad does not regard Daesh or even the Nusra Front—now going by a new name—as his most dangerous enemies. Indeed, they are his enemies of choice: they enable the false narrative that the choice in Syria is between Assad and Islamist terrorism. Assad sees the real threat to family rule coming from armed Syrian nationalist rebels and from civilians who are building real civil society for the first time in Syria, and under the most horrific of circumstances. These, therefore, are overwhelmingly the targets of choice for Russia, the regime, and yes: Iran.

We may, as we speak, be at some kind of an inflection point in Syria. The administration is reviewing options aimed at bringing a modicum of protection to Syrian civilians. The commander-in-chief and his key advisors understand fully that nothing good will happen politically in Syria so long as civilians are on the bullseye. Assad has had an absolutely free ride in targeting civilians, thereby subverting negotiations while recruiting for his enemies of choice. Russia, while totally committed to keeping Assad in power and perhaps lacking the leverage to remove him in any event, may be exhibiting some sensitivity to charges of war crimes, which are becoming more common as the bombing of residential areas and hospitals in Aleppo continues. Although the United Nations has labeled the gesture insufficient, Russia has paused the air assaults and declared its willingness to facilitate the evacuation of civilians and fighters while expediting the delivery of humanitarian aid.

My overall sense, however, is that President Putin will probe until he encounters steel, and this probing will, by no means, be restricted to Syria. As someone old enough to have witnessed the probing of an American President some 55 years ago and the subsequent onset of a nuclear crisis brought about by Soviet miscalculation, I am deeply worried. I think President Obama is right: ultimately Russia will pay a price for having backed someone as loathsome and incompetent as Bashar al-Assad. It is what happens between now and that happy day of reckoning that worries me a lot.  

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to reporters during a visit for a summit of former Soviet republics at Kyrgyzstan's international Manas airport outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, September 17, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Mikhail Klimentyev/via REUTERS