Noting the addition of the Hariri Center’s newest senior fellow, the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East convened a public event on December 13 with Ambassador Frederic Hof, former US Department of State special advisor for transition in Syria, to address the ongoing crisis in Syria and the international community’s role. Amb. Hof presented seven key points that are critical to understanding the unfolding situation in Syria and urged a more engaged policy in Syria.
Amb. Hof began by acknowledging that the ongoing conflict in Syria is now an overwhelmingly military affair whose outcome will be decided by those fighting on the frontlines. Although Bashar al-Assad’s departure is inevitable, the question of when remains unpredictable, and a critical factor that continues to contribute to this durability is the unflinching support of Iran. Assad’s Shiite patrons have proved steadfast in its support of the Syrian regime, which provides a key logistical bridge between Tehran and Hezbollah. While Amb. Hof noted that Iranian operatives have been reportedly providing on-the-ground support for pro-government forces in Syria and Hezbollah fighters have been killed battling against Syrian rebels, he does not believe these actors could play any constructive role in overseeing Assad’s departure. He noted that Russian support for Assad does not appear to be waning, even though a top Russian official acknowledged the very real possibility of Assad’s ouster.
Amb. Hof asserted that the only way outside parties can exert influence is by providing direct military assistance to their preferred parties. If the Obama Administration chooses to make a policy shift in this direction, they should ensure a high level of confidence regarding who will receive weapons and how they will be transported. An optimal moment to announce such a policy change would be during an upcoming visit to Washington by the leader of the new Syrian National Coalition, Moaz Khatib; this timing would confer tremendous credibility to the new opposition movement.
Amb. Hof also noted the urgent need for greater action by the international community on the humanitarian front. He insisted that, while the United States has stepped-up in providing $210 million dollars in aid, and while neighboring countries such as Turkey have gone to great lengths to assist Syrian refugees, the international community has thus far fallen short. Moving forward, this is an area that will demand substantial improvement in what will inevitably be a messy transition process.