November 15, 2018
Frederic C. Hof’s Remarks on Syria at the World Affairs Council
By Frederic C. Hof
Syria is a country that’s been an important part of my life since I was 16-years-old, when I went off to Damascus during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school as an American Field Service exchange student. I lived with a Syrian family, won lifelong Syrian friends, and learned a lot about a country that had, for a century, sent many of its best and brightest to America.
Nine years ago, George Mitchell—the former Majority Leader of the US Senate—invited me to serve as one of his deputies in the State Department. He had been appointed Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, and my job was to try to find a way to Syrian-Israeli peace. By early 2011 I was making real progress—shuttling quietly between Damascus and Jerusalem—when, for reasons I still don’t clearly understand, the Syrian leader with whom I was negotiating decided to use lethal violence against Syrian citizens peacefully protesting police brutality. This decision destroyed a very promising peace mediation. Seven-and-a-half years later, that fateful decision has all-but-destroyed Syria, a country filled with decent, talented, entrepreneurial, and generous people.
I mention this history—personal and professional—so I can admit something up-front: my interest in Syria and my sense of its importance is relatively unusual. It is shared in by few of my fellow Americans. Even here, at the World Affairs Council of Greater Reading, I suspect many of you listening politely and even attentively to my words harbor a deep suspicion that, at the end of the day, no matter what happens in Syria—no matter how horrible—it matters not much to the lives of Americans or the security of the United States.
I get this. It neither frustrates nor angers me. I think it’s fully understandable. I’m old enough to remember American leaders claiming that the security of our country and the world hinged on the future of Vietnam: a specious argument that put me in that country for a year as an army lieutenant and cost the lives of over 58,000 of our countrymen. Most of us are old enough to remember being assured that the people of Iraq would welcome our invasion, treat us as heroes, and help us spread democracy from Iraq to Iran and beyond. Given Vietnam, Iraq and other places where Americans have been placed in harm’s way for reasons false or unclear, it surprises me not at all that most Americans will look at Syria as a mess well-worth avoiding; a humanitarian and political abomination for sure, but someone else’s problem: not ours.
I understand this point of view and I respect it. If I agreed with it, I would have to plead guilty to having wasted the last ten years of my life. Once my peace-making mission came to an end in the spring of 2011, I agreed to stay on as an advisor on Syria to the secretary of state. I left government in late 2012 and became a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council—a Washington, DC think tank—where I continued to focus on Syria and related problems. Eventually I would lead the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, still paying a lot of attention to the Syrian crisis. I’ve been at Bard College since this past summer, but Syria remains very much on my mind, as my presence before you today testifies. I’m not prepared—not yet, anyway—to enter a guilty plea for time-wasting. I’d like to explain why.
The Syrian uprising began in March 2011. It was part of a broader Arab uprising sweeping the Middle East. Syrians—mainly young people—along with their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere came out in the streets peacefully to shout “enough:” enough with corrupt, incompetent, and self-enriching family-based regimes; enough with political criminals presiding over rising unemployment and chronic underemployment; enough with leaders and entourages unable or unwilling to treat people with justice and dignity. Peaceful protestors were demanding a new deal: political systems deriving their power not from dictates high up, but from the consent of the governed.
President Barack Obama seemed to appreciate why these uprisings mattered for American security. He knew that political systems solidly rooted in the consent of the governed would close the Arab world to the kinds of violent extremists who pulled off 9/11. He saw those extremists as vacuum-fillers, as violent Islamists ready and willing to fill voids of governing illegitimacy. Those voids would open when authoritarian regimes shut down peaceful dissent and channeled all opposition into sullen resignation or armed resistance. Obama sensed that for these dictators to hang on, they’d have to kill lots of people and open doors to political Islamists of the violent, terrorist, Al Qaeda variety. He knew that these terrorists would proclaim their hatred not just of corrupt regimes, but of a United States that often had armed those regimes and worked with them.
Those nervous dictators faced with peaceful protests told a different story. They described the protestors as the terrorists and themselves as the only ones standing between stability and chaos.
But in Egypt, the army refused to fire on demonstrators and President Mubarak went down. In Tunisia, the army declined to shoot protestors, and President Ben Ali fled to exile in Saudi Arabia. In Yemen, President Saleh was willing to do anything to stay in power, but a grant of legal immunity persuaded him to step down. In Libya, Muammar Qadhafi was prepared to commit mass murder, but a NATO intervention helped to bring him down. In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad would shoot and imprison protestors. More importantly, the regime would release violent Islamist criminals from its prisons to pollute a nationalist, non-sectarian opposition. It wanted to solidify its own base in Syrian minorities, and to militarize an uprising it feared losing if the uprising were to remain peaceful. It was very successful with this cynical, bloody-minded survival strategy.
Over the past seven-and-a-half years, Syria has resembled the victim in Murder on the Orient Express. The Assad regime planned and orchestrated the killing for the simplest of motives: to cling to power at any cost. It is overwhelmingly at fault—though not alone—for a cavalcade of depressing statistics: Upwards of 500,000 (mainly civilians) dead; more than half of the pre-war population of 23 million displaced from their homes, both internally and as refugees; tens of thousands illegally detained and subject to torture, rape, starvation, and execution; hundreds of thousands trapped in starvation and medical sieges; and countless defenseless civilians—many of them children—permanently traumatized by a regime military strategy that has focus relentlessly on mass civilian homicide—a state terror campaign trying to separate rebels from civilian supporters, a civilian-centric campaign that has used every weapon at the disposal of the Syrian state, including chemicals.
But many knives were plunged into the corpse. Taking advantage of the regime’s disappearance from eastern Syria, ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—filled the vacuum, set up shop in the Syrian city of Raqqa, and invaded Iraq in 2014. Then it conducted bloody terror operations in Paris, Brussels, and several places in Turkey.
ISIS and the Assad regime have had mainly a live-and-let-live relationship. ISIS’s flamboyant brutality has enabled Assad to tout himself as the civilized alternative. And Assad’s brutality has given ISIS a recruiting tool. It’s been a truly symbiotic relationship.
For Americans, however, ISIS’s 2014 invasion of Iraq brought US troops back into Mesopotamia and put American boots on the ground in eastern Syria itself. They are still there, in both places. And our decision to use a Syrian Kurdish militia as our ground combat force against ISIS has contributed to a crisis in our relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally. That decision—instead of using a professional ground force coalition-of-the willing to kill ISIS in Syria—has lengthened the war, magnified the damage to civilians and property, and it gave ISIS the time to plan and execute bloody terror operations in Paris and Brussels.
Sadly, some of the knives plunged into the corpse were in the hands of American partners and allies. I mentioned that the initial, peaceful phase of the Syrian uprising was non-sectarian; it was Syrian nationalist. Assad emptied his jails of violent Islamists to change the nature of the uprising; to make it something he might be able to suppress and defeat. As Washington tried to look the other way and keep the Syrian uprising at arm’s-length, regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others poured arms and money into anti-regime militias they each hoped to control.
These militias were Islamist in orientation—Sunni Muslim to be specific—and they were more-or-less reliable clients of the countries paying their salaries and giving them weapons. Unfortunately, these donor countries were united only by a profound dislike of the Assad regime; they had little regard or respect for Syria or Syrians per se. The armed elements they supported sometimes fought effectively, but they played into the hands of Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Many of these militias engaged in common crime, all to the delight of the Assad regime in Damascus. Private Arab funders—mainly Kuwaitis—subsidized Al Qaeda inside Syria. All of this was done to try to unseat Assad, who was widely portrayed as an Alawite mass murderer of Muslims. All of it played directly into Assad’s survival strategy: these organizations scared Syrian minorities and even a sizeable minority of Syrian Sunni Muslims. The growing sectarian nature of the struggle for Syria ultimately enabled Assad to call on Iran and Russia to intervene militarily to save a regime whose own military was good at killing civilians, but little else.
I know what many of you are thinking: it’s a sad story. Indeed, it’s an outrage. But why does it matter to the United States? Paraphrasing the 2013 words of a senior official of the Obama administration to some Congressional staffers, what’s wrong with standing aside and watching as a bunch of bad actors slaughter one another? Set aside the humanitarian implications for defenseless civilians of that official’s deep dive into bottomless cynicism: what does any of it really matter to the United States?
My concern as an American—and I’m trying hard to discount my own interest in Syria—is that a ruined Syria in the hands of the Assad family and its entourage will continue to hemorrhage desperate human beings and host Islamist terrorists for as far as the eye can see. The Assad regime cannot govern without state terror. The Assad regime cannot oversee the country’s physical reconstruction without lining its pockets. The Assad regime cannot exist without relying on Iranian-commanded Shi’a foreign fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Even before the uprising many Syrians were eager to get out, searching for opportunities their own officials reserved for themselves, their families, and their supporters. With the Assad regime propped up by Iran and Russia, the only people other than the regime and its external supporters who will see the country as a profit center will be violent Islamists seeking again to fill vacuums of governing illegitimacy.
The prospective emptying of Syria should matter to us. In 2015 a migratory wave—60 percent of it Syrian—swept over Western Europe. We can, if we wish, declare ourselves uninterested in the resulting growth of political nativism in Europe. We can, if we wish, deny the existence of a straight line between the 2015 migrant crisis and Brexit. We can, if we wish, ignore the effects of that crisis on European unity more broadly. Indeed, we can, if we wish, decide that European unity and the political survival of effective European leaders are of no consequence to the United States. Russia’s Vladimir Putin hopes this is how we will process things. He is trying his best to blackmail the West into sending his client billions of dollars for Syria’s reconstruction, suggesting that refugees will never go home and millions of Syrians could again be on the road to Western Europe, with Turkey unable or unwilling to hold them all.
Many Americans, however, will not be swayed by arguments centering on the well-being of allies. Some of our countrymen would, I suspect, take in stride the disestablishment of NATO and the liquidation of American mutual defense commitments. Few Americans lose much sleep over challenges to European unity. My own view is that we need healthy, politically stable allies, and that this is one reason why Syria matters. My own view is that when the United States elects to stand aside and exact no price of a government bent on subjecting its citizenry to mass murder, the political consequences can leap-frog the humanitarian results. Not only will people in the Kremlin decide on the basis of American passivity—a huge gap between declaring a red line and not enforcing it—that they can change the map of Europe with impunity, but other beleaguered leaders around the world will conclude that mass homicide is the free ticket to political survival.
The bottom-line is that what has happened in Syria has not stayed in Syria. I admit that I have a special interest in the humanitarian consequences for Syrians. But Stalin was right when he said that one death is a tragedy, while a million dead is a statistic. Americans were momentarily interested when they saw the body of that little boy washed up on a Turkish beach. But that passed. If I am to convince any American that Syria matters, it must be on some basis other than allies and humanitarianism.
Syria, in my view, should matter most to Americans because of its potential for becoming an incubator and a base for transnational terrorism; an ungoverned space where Iranian-commanded Shi’a foreign fighters try desperately to force Assad—their client and servant—in a country that is two-thirds Sunni Muslim; a country that simply cannot attract significant international funding for reconstruction so long as the Assad regime stands ready to steal whatever it can. Syria is, in short, the prototype for violent illegitimacy producing a vacuum to be filled by extremist alternatives to official violence, terror, and kleptocracy.
We have, in our country, excellent people and abundant resources protecting us against terrorist threats from abroad. But no one—not the FBI, not the Department of Homeland Security, not the TSA—would claim that we are immune from something replicating the impact of 9/11. If the failed state that is Syria becomes the terrorism incubator I fear it may become, we will not be able to secure our country through a domestic defense alone. If we really think we can defend ourselves adequately without spending quality time monitoring Syria and working for a civilized political outcome, we will probably act as if what happens in Syria doesn’t matter. I’m afraid we will simply find out the hard way that it does matter.
Please note that I have not mentioned the word “Israel” until now. I have not made the argument that Iran’s presence in Syria and the existence of its Lebanese subsidiary—Hezbollah—present sizeable threats to Israel. They do. But I am willing to assume that many Americans are no more interested in Israel than they are in NATO, the UK, France, Germany, Latvia or Lithuania; not interested enough to support an American commitment; certainly not important enough to put quality time and effort into Syria.
If I’m going to succeed in convincing many of my fellow citizens that Syria matters, I suspect it will be the terrorism incubator argument that wins. We have, after all, been fighting ISIS longer than we fought in World War II. Assad’s strongest supporters—Iran and its Lebanese franchise (Hezbollah)—have long and notorious histories in international terrorism. In my mind, however, the biggest threat would be the resurrection in Syria of extremist Islamism of the Al Qaeda Sunni variety in response to Iran’s extremist Islamism of the Shi’a variety. It is precisely this threat that seems to have convinced a skeptical President Trump not to leave Syria in the next 20 minutes.
I don’t doubt that much of President Trump’s political base would have no problem with an early exit from Syria, leaving the country in the hands of Iran, Russia, and Assad. But administration senior officials seem to have convinced the president that this would not be a wise course of action: That even if we succeed in the coming months in eliminating ISIS militarily, it or something like it would arise again if lawless, undisciplined, Iranian-led militiamen were turned loose on populations recently liberated from ISIS. Sealing the victory over Sunni Islamist extremism in Syria means keeping it dead. This will be difficult to do if Shi’a Islamist extremism is permitted to run roughshod over liberated areas in the east or over Turkish-controlled territories in northwestern Syria.
The Trump administration has settled on a Syria strategy that retains the number one objective of the Obama administration: Defeat ISIS. It parts from the Obama administration by saying, in effect, the only way to keep ISIS (or something like it) dead is to get Iranian-commanded militia units out of Syria. And—like the Obama administration—it wants a negotiations process under UN supervision in Geneva to address the underlying problem: an Assad family and entourage that will not voluntarily yield power, cannot effectively share power, and will burn the country to the ground to keep its place.
The administration hopes Russia will cooperate in all of this but does not necessarily bet on it. In my view it cannot count on Russia while Vladimir Putin rules the Kremlin. Putin has no illusions about Bashar al-Assad. But Assad’s political survival gives Putin a winning domestic political argument: by saving Assad we have saved the Syrian state; and by saving the Syrian state we have restored Russia to great power status after decades of humiliation. From Putin’s point of view, talking about the rescue of Assad and Russian power obviously beats talking about a troubled Russian economy or world-class Russian governmental corruption. Unless and until he decides that Assad is not his top domestic political talking point, he will work with Iran to keep Assad in place indefinitely.
The administration’s strategy has several elements. It will support the stabilization of Syrian lands east of the Euphrates River liberated from ISIS, keeping American forces in place and looking for burden sharing partners willing to help rebuild ruined areas. It will support Turkish efforts to prevent the regime and Russia from launching civilian-centric terror attacks in northwestern Syria, an area already packed with displaced people. It will support a UN-led negotiation process that it hopes will solidify ceasefire and already existing deconfliction lines. The idea is to end the violence, get humanitarian assistance moving to those millions of Syrians who need it, turn the screws on the Iranian economy in part to demonstrate to Iranians the cost of the Syrian adventure, and begin talks that may eventually lead to the kind of political transition that can put Syria back together.
This will not be an easy strategy for the administration to implement. Iran sees holding onto Syria as a national security imperative. This is something Iranian hardliners and pragmatists agree upon. They see it as the projection of Iranian and Shi’a Islamist power into a predominantly Arab Sunni region. They see Hezbollah as the Arab arm of Iran and they see Syria as essential for Hezbollah’s health and well-being. Iranian leaders are prepared to sacrifice for Syria. They may challenge American forces in eastern Syria. They may target American forces in Iraq. They may, in short, challenge the endurance of the United States and the readiness of Washington to devote the level of resources needed to give the American strategy a shot at success.
When Russia challenged Washington earlier this year by sending a mercenary ground force across the Euphrates, the Russians were routed by American firepower. No doubt the Iranians were impressed. No doubt they’ll avoid conventional frontal assaults. The tests will likely come in other ways. But they will come.
The Trump administration is not seeking war with Iran in Syria. Nor is it seeking violent regime change. Its main goal is to beat ISIS and keep it dead. It very much sees this goal in terms of defending the American homeland from the kinds of operations that terrorized Paris and Brussels. Where it parts company with its predecessor is on the issue of Iran.
President Obama wanted, more than anything else in the Middle East, a nuclear agreement with Iran. He believed such an agreement would prevent war and eventually make Iran a good neighbor in the Middle East. He knew how vital Bashar al-Assad’s survival was to Tehran. He feared (incorrectly, I think) that if he took steps to defend Syrian civilians from mass murder—if he took steps senior administration officials and State Department diplomats were begging him to take – he would alienate Iran and ruin the nuclear talks. When he decided to intervene militarily against ISIS in eastern Syria, President Obama reportedly took the extraordinary step of assuring Iran’s Supreme Leader in writing that Bashar al-Assad would not be on the bullseye for military strikes. Like many aspects of the Obama approach to Syria, this assurance had unintended but predictably disastrous consequences. It told Assad he could do what he wanted to his own people and not worry about the United States exacting a price. That’s exactly what he did and continues to do.
Obviously, the Trump administration is not solicitous of Iranian feelings. Still, it is not at all clear how it intends to get Iran out of Syria. It is not at all clear that it has the stamina to outlast Iran in Syria. The real measure of administration seriousness and commitment will be seen in the lands liberated from ISIS. Will the administration successfully secure—mainly from partners—adequate funding for stabilization and reconstruction? Will it attract Syrian partners capable of building, in Syria east of the Euphrates River, a legitimate political system providing, at long last, a visible alternative to the Assad kleptocracy? Or will it fold if and when seriously challenged by an Iran which is in no hurry to go anywhere?
My own view is that if we focus successfully on eastern Syria—with its oil and agricultural resources—as a model of how Syria should operate, and if we exact a price of the Assad regime in the west any time it embarks on mass homicide, we can prevent what most Americans would agree is the worst from happening in Syria. That definition of “worst” would be Syria as a political death star, hatching and hosting transnational terrorists for as far as the eye can see. It is this prospect that ought to convince all of us—not just those of us who have a special appreciation for the place—that Syria matters. For those of us already possessing a keen appreciation for a beautiful country and a wonderful people, unspeakable horrors have already occurred: crimes that have, to date, avoided punishment.
But we can compound this disaster exponentially and perhaps even bring elements of it to the United States if we decide that Syria—a faraway place with lots of problems—simply does not matter. What happens there does not stay there, and in the 21st century, oceans are neither wide nor deep enough to protect us from what might emerge. No one is calling for a second Iraq; no one is calling for invasion and occupation. Stabilization of liberated territory, protection of defenseless civilians, and peace talks producing political transition toward consent of the governed in Syria: these are the steps that can keep Americans safe from the worst consequences of a failed state.
Frederic C. Hof is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.