Keeping Syria in Focus

On May 11, I will become Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Leading an extraordinarily talented cadre of Hariri Center colleagues in their quest to understand the dynamics of change in the Middle East-North Africa region and to identify how the United States and its transatlantic partners can influence things for the better will be daunting. Yet I am struck by the worthiness of the endeavor. Among other things it will give me an opportunity to build within our Center a Syria program that will long outlive and significantly outperform anything I have done during my three and one-half years in the Rafik Hariri Center to date.

My message to those who have appreciated my efforts and to those who have criticized them is that the focus on Syria I brought to the Hariri Center in late 2012 will persist and expand. The change in title and responsibility is dictated by the needs of an organization established in the name of Rafik Hariri and dedicated to honoring his life’s work and legacy. It is not about building a resume or a bridge to whatever is next. This is the capstone of a professional life very much focused on the Middle East-North Africa region. The issue of legitimate governance in Syria—how to create it, what the United States and its transatlantic partners can do to facilitate it—will remain a matter of strong concentration for me and the Center.

For over five years the Syrian people have endured unspeakable suffering. Most, though not all of it, has been at the hands of a president, a family, and an entourage. They have waged war relentlessly on civilians, and have done so without a hint of restraint or regret. It has all been horrific and totally unnecessary.

Had the President of the Syrian Arab Republic taken himself and his office seriously at the outset of Syria’s troubles he could have dealt with disturbances in Damascus and Daraa with decency and restraint. Had he done so Syria would have been spared all of the deaths, dislocation, trauma, and ruin that today dominate the landscape. Had he done so Syria today might be at peace with Israel. Had he behaved in 2011 in a manner respectful of the dignity of Syria’s citizens he might have acquired the respect and even affection of 23 million Syrians. But he chose differently. And today the fate of a key country—one still possessing enormous human capital—and the neighborhood surrounding it hinges on one person, one family, and one entourage. The best of Syrians are being held hostage by the worst.

For over five years the United States and the West have struggled and failed to respond appropriately to the challenges posed by a regime waging a war of collective punishment, mass homicide, and human eradication against a major portion of the citizenry. For over five years the transatlantic community has not protected one Syrian inside Syria from Assad regime mass murder. Yes, chemicals and chemical capabilities were removed: a good thing. Yet chemical attacks were a minor facet of regime criminality in terms of civilian deaths and displacement, and they have resumed in the form of chlorine canisters packed into barrel bombs. There is something not right when an American president tells an interviewer that one of his proudest moments in office was a sudden, private decision to recoil from striking decisively at Assad’s mass homicide delivery systems. The death toll of Syrian children and their parents since September 2013 has been far too high for any Western statesman to take pride in anything Syria-related.

As the United States prepares for a general election it seems clear that foreign policy will play a more prominent role in the judgments of the electorate than it did in 2008 and 2012. Will the United States, in league with partners, play the leading, catalytic role in the Middle East-North Africa region in helping the peoples of the region successfully address fundamental challenges of governance? Or will Americans want the policies of their government to reflect notions of “America First” and allies as “free-riders?” Indeed, will voters endorse the notion that America is a declining power internationally, that walls should be built to protect the homeland, and that any application of military force anywhere on the globe is preordained to failure?

Syria—a quintessential problem from hell—will present a challenge of considerable complexity and danger to whomever takes the oath of office on January 20, 2017. Ironically the complexity and danger have deepened as a result of the West trying to hold this problem at arm’s-length. Ritualistic chants of there being “no military solution” for Syria have not stopped Russia and Iran from all-but-obtaining one in a manner that has, conveniently for them, subjected Western Europe to a migration-induced political crisis. The abject failure to complicate the Assad regime’s ability to inflict industrial-level civilian slaughter has had unintended political consequences, including the complete undermining of a peace process. Failure to build a ground-force coalition of the willing to kill the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) in Syria (where it is an imposed presence) runs the risk of giving Raqqa-based monstrosities time to replicate, in North America and elsewhere in Europe, that which they were able to plan and execute in Paris and Brussels. Failure to help prepare the Syrian opposition to govern in areas to be liberated from ISIS and Assad alike has only aggravated a post-conflict stabilization planning deficit that helped produce disasters in Iraq and Libya.

Failure in these precincts to influence decisive change in Western policies toward Syria is deeply regretted. Yet it is not grounds for surrender. Many have given up on the Obama administration. Yet it has more than eight months of life ahead of it. And the identity of its successor is not clear. For the Rafik Hariri Center, surrender on Syria is not an option. Its new Director will work hard to sharpen the focus, improve the analysis, refine the argumentation, and persuade the persuadable to change the policy before more disasters befall the Syrian people, their neighbors, and American allies in Western Europe.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: A boy walks under an opposition flag during an anti-government protest in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria March 25, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi