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Looking Toward Geneva II on Syria

Interviewee: Frederic Hof, Resident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 16, 2014

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The second Geneva conference on Syria is scheduled to begin January 22 in Switzerland if parties opposed to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad agree to attend. The conference's purpose is to negotiate "the creation of a transitional governing body," says Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department adviser on Syria. But the Assad government has given no indication that it would agree to a transitional government, says Hof, and the most radical Islamist parties refuse to attend the conference. If the conference does take place, its best outcome would be that Assad agrees to allow UN humanitarian agencies full access to the country to supply food and medical supplies, Hof says.

One question about the planned conference is whether Iran will be invited. Russia and top UN officials want the Iranians there, since they are major military supporters of Syria; the United States does not. What will happen?

Technically it is still possible for the Iranians to get an invitation if they issue a statement to the effect that Tehran fully accepts Geneva I, that is, the final communiqué of June 30, 2012, and its mandate for political transition. That would basically check the box in the eyes of the United States. Special U.N. Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi takes the position that unless there's agreement between the United States and Russia on inviting a particular party, he does not feel empowered to issue an invitation. That is the condition that [Secretary of State John] Kerry has put up.

In another sense, Iran can be present at Geneva in any event. The invitation is specifically for the opening session on [January 22] in Montreux. The conference itself will reconvene two days later in Geneva under Brahimi's chairmanship. And that conference will have only three parties: Brahimi, with his team; a delegation from the Syrian opposition; and a delegation from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. However, it's quite likely that most, if not all, of the thirty countries invited to the opening ceremony will also maintain some kind of delegations in Geneva, if for no other reason than to have a listening post.

They won't be sitting around the table.

They will not be sitting around the table. Therefore, if Iran wishes to have an impact on the proceedings, it too can have a delegation in Geneva. It can have people in Geneva who can engage in discussions with the United States and others on various aspects of this.

A man in Deir al-Zor, eastern Syria. (Khalil Ashawi/Courtesy Reuters)

What are the issues?

The whole purpose of the conference is a negotiated agreement on political transition—the creation of a transitional governing body. Absent that, there is no reason to have this conference. The purpose is to implement Geneva I, which was signed on June 30, 2012. There is a range of ancillary issues that presumably could be discussed. From the point of view of Moscow, these ancillary issues—like a cease-fire, discussions about Syrian territorial integrity, sovereignty, and so forth—are the central issues. Moscow does not want the discussion to get very deeply into political transition, because it's that discussion and subject that puts its client somewhat at a disadvantage.

In other words, it does not want to discuss the turnover of the Assad regime.

That's correct. And it knows that its client does not want to discuss that subject. The Syrian information minister has made it very clear that the powers, the person, the prerogatives of President Bashar al-Assad will not be open for discussion at Geneva.

Who will represent the opposition? There are so many opposition groups.

Yes there are. According to the Friends of the Syrian People—particularly the core group of that collection of states, the so-called London Eleven—the opposition delegation will be led by the Syrian National Coalition, which at present is based in Istanbul. The delegation will also presumably contain people who are not members of that coalition.

What about the various Islamist groups and jihadist groups fighting in Syria?

There's a range of opinion within those groups as well. At the one end, you have this ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] organization and al-Qaeda affiliate, which is dead set against Geneva, against any coalition. ISIS is under some military pressure. The large town of Raqqa [in north central Syria] is the one sizeable area that ISIS took over, lock, stock, and barrel. It has been trying to impose their notion of governance on Raqqa, which is very primitive—the word "medieval" gives it too much credit. As a result, it's overreached, it's alienated a lot of people, so there is a sort of a combination of the more moderate Free Syrian Army elements and other Islamist elements that have banded together to try to push ISIS out of the picture.

My strong suspicion is that the Syrian National Coalition is trying to take into consideration the views of those Islamist groups that are at least committed to a Syrian solution of some kind. ISIS has a sort of universal al-Qaeda "set up an emirate that transcends national boundaries" approach. And ISIS has made it clear that its first priority is not to fight the regime, but to establish its form of governance in areas that it can dominate both inside Syria and in Iraq.

You wouldn't expect them to even want to come to Geneva.

The ISIS people would have absolutely nothing to do with Geneva at all. Some of the other non-al-Qaeda Islamist leaders have also expressed some hostility to the idea of negotiations at Geneva. And some of them have condemned the National Coalition for even considering this possibility. My understanding is that discussions between some of these leaders and leaders of the National Coalition are ongoing. And at least some people in the U.S. administration think that there is a possibility that many of these Islamist leaders will give their consent to the National Coalition participating in these negotiations.

If there's at least a semblance of a cease-fire, that would be a major accomplishment.

It would be. An accomplishment that would outstrip that and mean a lot more for people across the board would be the Syrian government's acceptance of the right of United Nations humanitarian agencies and personnel to go anywhere they want.

Right now that's not possible?

Right now they cannot even enter uncontested rebel-held areas, because the rules of the game for the United Nations are if you are going to operate inside any part of country X, you need the explicit permission of the government of country X.

"If the regime were to give the kind of blanket authorization that the president of the Security Council called for several weeks ago, it would amount to a humanitarian truce."

So as long as you do not have the permission of the Assad regime, you cannot even operate, bringing in humanitarian relief to areas that, say, are six to eight hundred miles beyond the control of the regime. This is a matter of the Damascus suburbs, of Aleppo, Aleppo province broadly, and to the east, where the United Nations would want to go. If the regime were to give the kind of blanket authorization that the president of the Security Council called for several weeks ago, it in effect would amount to a humanitarian truce, because it is unlikely the regime would continue artillery, aircraft rocket, and missile attacks on densely populated areas if it knew or suspected that United Nations personnel were in those areas delivering humanitarian aid.

And the reason it's important, quite aside from stemming the unbelievable human cost that's taking place here, if you want to have anything at Geneva that resembles a practical and even creative diplomatic dialogue, you've got to have conditions on the ground that actually support that.

You were very critical when the Obama administration suddenly decided not to use military force in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. If the United States had used military force even on a limited basis, could it have brought about some kind of cease-fire and brought in more humanitarian aid at that time?

My feeling was that any military action we would have taken—and they would by definition have been air strikes, mostly by standoff weaponry; there would be no boots on the ground—probably would have been concentrated on regime aircraft and their support infrastructure, on regime artillery, and on regime rockets and missiles. And to the extent that a campaign, say, a week in length could have put a significant dent into those systems, it would have either eliminated, or significantly restricted, or downgraded the ability of the regime to bring mass fires on populated areas. That is the one thing that is happening in Syria routinely that is driving this humanitarian catastrophe more than anything else. So yes, an opportunity was missed.

What happened, and you can put this in the long list of unintended consequences for Syria, was that the threat of such an attack was traded for the chemical weapons agreement. The chemical weapons agreement in and of itself is a good thing. Relieving Assad of this weaponry is good for the people of Syria; it's good for the people of the neighborhood. But the unintended consequence is that Assad took this transaction to mean he could do what he wanted to populated areas as long as he didn't do it with chemicals. And this is why we have this ongoing abomination, right on the eve of Geneva.

Would you have thought when the Syrian uprising started in 2011 that it would've kept going so long?

I was afraid from the beginning that unless the regime could somehow be dissuaded from using lethal force against peaceful demonstrators, that this thing would spread virus-like throughout Syria and eventually people opposed to the regime would be obliged to take up arms, first to defend themselves and then later to conduct operations in an effort to take down the regime. And given the fact that the Assad regime had to rely for the most part on specialized military and intelligence armed units largely composed of minority people, mostly Alawites, my big fear was that the lethal response would eventually lead to a largely sectarian confrontation. And when you've got that kind of confrontation, whether it's sectarian or ethnic, you almost inevitably get to the point where unless it's turned off, you have results that are absolutely consistent with genocide. Whether genocide per se is in the mind of the perpetrator, I don't know. In other words, are Sunni Muslims being killed because that's who they are? Or is it simply a matter of pounding heavily-populated areas in the hope of catching three or four rebel soldiers? The bottom line is the same.

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