Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. In 2012 Ambassador Hof was tasked by President Obama to head the Syria policy at the State Department. Ambassador Hof was previously the special coordinator for regional affairs in the Department of State’s Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, where he advised Special Envoy George Mitchell on the full range of Arab-Israeli peace issues falling under his purview, focusing on Syria-Israel and Israel-Lebanon matters.
He has previously served as U.S. Army attaché in Beirut, Lebanon and later in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Director for Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestinian Affairs. A Vietnam War veteran, Ambassador Hof’s awards include the Purple Heart, the Department of State Superior Honor Award, the Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Medal and the Defense Superior Service Medal. He sat down with Reza Akhlaghi to discuss the Syrian conflict’s dynamics vis-à-vis Iran ahead of the presidential elections in Iran.
The entity once known as Syria appears to be deeply fragmented both literally and metaphorically. Many parts of the country have turned into bloodbaths with warring factions fighting fiercely for what increasingly appears to be an elusive victory. What does the ‘Syrian Government’ mean today and how much farther the fragmentation of Syria can continue?
For the past four decades the term “Syrian government” has meant a cabinet, an overlapping collection of intelligence agencies (including armed units), the armed forces, and a variety of public institutions, all in the service of the head of a ruling family, a person bearing the title of President of the Syrian Arab Republic. The “government,” in the sense of a prime minister and a cabinet of ministers, has had no executive powers; prime ministers have been order-takers and real power has rested entirely in the hands of the family regime. By reacting as he did in March 2011 to peaceful protests, with deadly force and visible arrogance, President Bashar Al-Assad set family rule in Syria on the pathway to its own destruction. Yet in employing politically reliable security elements (including army units) drawn in large measure from his own minority Alawite sect against protesters mainly from Syria’s majority Sunni sect, he also injected a corrosive sectarian element which, if left unchecked, can destroy Syria as well. The challenge for Syrian nationalists and their international supporters is to defeat Assad and his sectarian strategy without taking the regime’s deadly bait; without seeing Assad’s sect and other Syrian minorities as the enemy. For if they take that bait and defer to the jihadist fighters drawn to Syria by the regime’s sectarian survival strategy, they will be complicit in prolonging the regime’s tenure, creating a failed state, and perhaps guaranteeing that a government of law and citizenship will not take hold in Syria for decades, if ever. Syria today seems to be on a one-way trip to state failure. The possibilities of fragmentation are limitless. The longer the regime is free to pursue a sectarian survival strategy based on the support of fearful minorities taken hostage by the regime’s lawless tactics, the more entrenched Syria’s fragmentation will become.
Given the grim situation in Syria and its bleak prospects, what does Iran stand to benefit from its relentless support of Assad? Do you think Iran has a policy in place for relations with a post-Assad Syria potentially dominated by the Sunnis?
With the passing of Saddam Hussein, Iran has but one use for Syria: a political and logistical bridge to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. In Bashar Al-Assad Iran has someone who regards Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah as a peer; something Assad’s father Hafiz would never have considered. In Bashar Al-Assad Iran has someone willing to operate as Iran’s junior partner; something the elder Assad would have deemed impossible. Iran’s “Plan A” is to try to sustain Assad in power, even though Tehran has no illusions about his competence or leadership qualities. “Plan B” is a broken Syria, but one through which Iran can maintain some kind of land corridor to Hezbollah in Lebanon. So long as Iran and Israel remain at odds, it will be essential for Tehran to sustain Hezbollah’s missile and rocket force in Lebanon as a deterrent against Israel. Iran probably realizes that any coherent successor to family rule in Syria will almost certainly alter Syria’s relationships with Iran and Hezbollah in ways Tehran, under present management, will not like. This is why Iran has made a significant commitment to the regime in terms of Quds Force combatants, and this is why Tehran has ordered Nasrallah to commit Hezbollah fighters to the struggle to save the Assad regime, notwithstanding Lebanon’s official policy of “disassociation” from the conflict in Syria.
Would you expect a different approach to the Syrian crisis from a particular faction in Iran? Is Iran’s Syria policy faction-agnostic?
I think in the context of Syria there is only one faction in Iran that counts: the Supreme Leader and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). They are willing to fight to the last Syrian to preserve their bridge to Hezbollah. They see the uprising against family rule in Syria as a very serious national security challenge to the Islamic Republic. As long as the prospect for a military confrontation with Israel exists Iran will see the preservation of Hezbollah’s leadership cadre and its military capabilities as a core national interest.
To what extent are the current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program impacted by the dynamics of the Syrian crisis? What do you make of the point of view that demands by Iranian negotiators are influenced by regional dynamics?
My sense is that although there is a clear connection in the form of Hezbollah—as a deterrent force in the nuclear context and as a foreign intervention force in the Syrian context—between the two matters, the dynamics of the Syrian crisis do not necessarily affect the course of nuclear negotiations. Yet the reverse may be true. Indeed, if Tehran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) can come to a satisfactory accommodation on the nuclear matter, thereby significantly reducing tensions between Iran and Israel, Iran might be tempted to abandon or scale back the distasteful and expensive task of propping up someone in Syria for which it has little regard or respect. On the other hand, if the Assad regime comes down in a way that effectively burns Iran’s land bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon before a nuclear accommodation is reached, Nasrallah will be left in the position of a very well-armed military commander, but one with no real prospects for timely and complete resupply in the event of a major battle. No commander wants to be in this position. Iran’s current efforts in Syria are aimed at saving Nasrallah and his leadership cadre from being placed in this dilemma.
For a long time, due to its own strategic interests, the former USSR supported Hafez Al-Assad, father of Bashar Al-Assad, who is supported by Russia today. And throughout Iran’s post-revolutionary period Syria has remained Iran’s staunch and only Arab ally. Do Iran and Russia have shared interests in Syria? What is your assessment of their possible shared interests?
Despite Russian protestations to the contrary, Moscow and Tehran seem to have one fundamental shared interest: preservation of the Assad regime. Tehran’s motive is clear: saving a junior partner who is more than useful in the context of Hezbollah. Russia’s motives are debatable, especially among Russians and Russia specialists. On the one hand, Moscow signed on to an agreement in Geneva in June 2012 with the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that established a framework for a negotiated transition in Syria, one that would replace the Assad regime with a national unity transitional government created by government and opposition negotiators on the basis of mutual consent: a mutual veto process that would rule out the ruling family’s continued participation in Syria’s governance. This new government, according to Geneva’s terms, would receive full executive powers from the regime. In short it would be peaceful, stable regime change; change that would preserve major structures of the state but place them at the disposal of a real government instead of a family business. Yet Russia has progressively backed away from the Geneva formula, leading some to conclude that President Putin has no interest in cooperating with the West on the removal of Assad. Perhaps he sees a big contrast between the skepticism and indecision of the West with regard to Syria on the one hand, and the obvious dedication of Iran and Hezbollah to preserving the Assad regime on the other. Perhaps Putin is processing the Syrian situation as a proxy war to be won largely through the efforts of Tehran and its Lebanese partner, but one for which he would take full credit domestically if Iran and Hezbollah succeed.