Seeing a new course in Syria
WASHINGTON - Have recent developments on Syria’s battlefields brought the civil war any closer to a political solution?
That is the question The Arab Weekly posed to Frederic Hof, former US State Department special representative on Syria and current resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He acknowledged that the Bashar Assad regime “has suffered some tactical reverses on the battlefield over the last couple of months, both in north-western Syria and south-western Syria and at the loss of Tadmur to Daesh”, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (ISIS).
But for Hof the most important development involves Iran and Hezbollah. “They are discussing in some detail the actual dimensions of an Assad mini-state. I do not think there is a real prospect of Iranian forces or Hezbollah and Iraqi militias trying to reconquer Sunni areas that have been lost. What is important to the Iranians and Hezbollah is the Qalamoun area and major parts of Latakia and the Tartus provinces that front the Mediterranean,” Hof said.
Hof said both Iran and Hezbollah want to keep Assad in power but “their resources are such that they want to limit the amount of territory they must defend; at a minimum Latakia, Tartus and Qalamoun. At most, it would include Damascus, Hama and Homs,” he said.
In the absence of realistic prospects for a political solution, talk about mini-states in Syria can be heard in Washington and Europe. Hof agreed that “there is no recognisable political horizon at the moment. [UN Special Envoy] Staffan de Mistura is making a very conscientious effort but he has no real leverage and no cooperation from key parties including the regime, Iran and Russia”.
The Obama administration’s reluctance to get involved in Syria has given the impression that Washington is not interested in finding a solution. Hof said he disagrees, “There is permanent interest on the part of the Obama administration in a political transition process and scenario that would move the Assad family off the stage and have it replaced by a national unity structure according to the Geneva final communiqué.”
What is lacking, he said, is “a strategy to bring this about. What is being pursued so far is a continued dialogue with Russia, [but] nothing is likely to come of this.”
Moreover, Hof said, even if Russian President Vladimir Putin were willing to have Assad replaced by a national unity government, “the external party that has real leverage over the Assad regime is Iran, not Russia”.
Hof said the US programme to train and equip the Syrian moderate opposition to be “too small and too slow to have any significant impact on the situation”. He said the programme’s “main purpose is to create a ground combat component against ISIS”, even though “the population from which [the US] wishes to recruit is under severe military pressure from the Assad regime. Trying to recruit people by telling them your main target is ISIS is a problematic recruiting theme.”
The Obama administration would like to believe that a nuclear deal with Iran will change Iran’s behaviour in the region, including its role in Syria. But Hof said he doubts that “the administration is so naïve as to believe that there will be 180-degree turn in Iran’s policy.
“I do think the president and his advisers think that a successfully concluded and implemented nuclear deal will over time modify Iranian behaviour in the region. This may well be correct,” he said.
“The key phrase is ‘over time.’ If we are looking at additional months or years in which Iran continues to facilitate mass murder in Syria, then we are looking at enormously bad consequences for the region, increasing number of Syrians will probably look to ISIS for protection against the regime and Syria will continue to haemorrhage human beings into all the neighbouring countries.”
Hof said he feared that “in the end, we could have a situation in which Syria is informally partitioned between two sets of mass murderers: ISIS and the Assad regime. This would be the worst possible outcome.”
Is there hope for a new American course in Syria?
“I have some hope that sometime in the 20 months remaining to it the Obama administration will change course in Syria,” Hof said. He mentioned in particular reconciliation with Turkey, “The main objective of the US is the military defeat of ISIS, while the main objective of Turkey is the removal of Assad.”
Hof said these objectives can be reconciled if each side made concessions. “For example,” he said, “the US needs an effective ground force against ISIS. The Turkish Army could provide that force in the near term, perhaps joined by other regional elements. Working with the US Air Force, they could defeat ISIS in Syria, and this will have major positive effects on fighting ISIS in Iraq.”
In return, Hof said, “The US would recognise a new Syrian government in areas liberated from ISIS, establish a security assistance relationship with it and urge others to recognise it.”
With the new political reality in Turkey, however, things are not simple for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Major Turkish opposition parties are opposed to Turkish intervention in Syria against the Assad regime. But Hof said the scenario that he has in mind would have a potentially decisive but indirect effect against the regime. The immediate combat emphasis would be against ISIS.
But, he said, “if a new government is established in… Raqqa or Deir ez-Zor, you could have the basis for national unity negotiations. You would have a regime in Damascus and a new government of Syria in the newly liberated areas. If the regime refused to negotiate, then the new government could build a new stabilisation force, with the assistance of the US and regional powers and would in the fullness of time be able to pacify the entire country.”