Rafik Hariri Center Resident Senior Fellow Frederic C. Hof writes for POLITICO on the origins of the Syrian conflict, what he got wrong, and what the Obama administration needs to do to change course:

Now and then I am asked if I had predicted, way back in March 2011 when violence in Syria began, that within a few years a quarter-million people would be dead, half the population homeless and hundreds of thousands of defenseless civilians terrorized, traumatized, tortured and starved. The companion question, more often than not, is if I had forecast the failure of the West to offer any protection at all to Syrian civilians subjected to a systematic campaign of mass homicide. Having first been exposed to Syria as a teenage exchange student, I was expected by questioners to know something about the place. And as a State Department officer, I was assumed to know something about my government.

But no. It took me the better part of eighteen months to comprehend fully the scope of an unfolding humanitarian and political catastrophe. By September 2012, when I resigned my State Department post as adviser on Syrian political transition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I knew that Syria was plunging into an uncharted abyss—a humanitarian abomination of the first order. And I knew that the White House had little appetite for protecting civilians (beyond writing checks for refugee relief) and little interest in even devising a strategy to implement President Barack Obama’s stated desire that Syrian President Bashar Assad step aside. But at the beginning, nothing drawn from my many years of involvement in Syria inspired accurate prophesy.

That Russia’s recent military intervention in Syria has shocked the Obama administration is itself no surprise. For nearly two years, Washington had chased Moscow diplomatically in the belief that the Kremlin’s soothing words about supporting political transition in Syria were truthful. That which was obvious to many—Russia’s desire to perpetuate Assad in office—is now jarringly clear to the administration. That training and equipping anti-Assad rebels to fight anyone but Assad has been dropped like a bad habit by an administration warned not to proceed along these lines is hardly a bolt from the blue. But the White House is not alone in failing to accurately forecast the severity of the Syrian disaster.

The major reason for my lack of foresight: It didn’t have to turn out this way, and I remain mildly surprised that it did. It is not that Syrians were without grievances concerning the way they were being governed. Widespread unemployment, underemployment and opportunity deficits were already prompting those with means among the best and brightest to leave the country. Although the regime’s corruption, incompetence and brutal intolerance of dissent were hardly state secrets, Assad was not universally associated by Syrians with the system’s worst aspects: “If only the president knew” was a phrase one heard often. Some Syria watchers believed that the Arab Spring would visit the country in the form of political cyclone. I did not. I did not think it inevitable that Assad—a computer-savvy individual who knew mass murder could not remain hidden from view in the 21st century—would react to peaceful protest as violently as he did, with no accompanying political outreach. And as Syria began to descend into the hell to which Assad was leading it, I did not realize that the White House would see the problem as essentially a communications challenge: getting Obama on “the right side of history” in terms of his public pronouncements. What the United States would do to try to influence Syria’s direction never enjoyed the same policy priority as what the United States would say.

Read the full article here.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof