How to Weaken the Assad Regime

The United States should cripple the Syrian government’s ability to kill masses of its own people and openly intensify its support to opposition forces, says expert Frederic C. Hof.

September 04, 2013

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Wars and Conflict

The top U.S. priority in Syria should be to "destroy or significantly degrade" the military’s ability to fire on populated areas, no matter what type of munitions the Assad regime is using, says former U.S. special adviser on Syrian affairs Frederic C. Hof. Other goals for the United States and world powers, he says, should be ousting Assad and aiding the formation of a new government—one "as inclusive, representative, and nonsectarian as possible."

Hof says it is also time for Washington to make public and increase its support to opposition fighters, perhaps transferring this responsibility from the CIA to the Defense Department. Hof hopes that, at this week’s G20 summit in St. Petersburg, President Barack Obama will be able to push President Vladimir Putin for greater Russian cooperation on the Syrian crisis, but he suggests that the prospects for peace will likely remain dim "for the foreseeable future."

In your rather critical article about U.S. policy toward Syria, you say that President Obama, when he goes to the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg this week, should be armed with a "Syria strategy based on clear objectives." What would you suggest?

I see three objectives that I believe make sense for the United States. Objective number one, obviously, now has to do with deterring and preventing the Syrian regime from using additional chemical weapons. I would go a step beyond that and say that objective number one needs to be to destroy or significantly degrade the ability of the regime to fire on populated areas regardless of the kind of munitions that are used.

There are something like fourteen hundred people who died, I’m sure, agonizing deaths from the use of sarin. There have been tens of thousands of others who have been killed with conventional explosives, from bombs dropped by airplanes, explosives carried in by scud missiles, and other artillery during the course of this conflict. This has driven two million people across international boundaries, more than double that internally displaced. It is a catastrophe for Syria and for its neighbors, so I think that is objective number one.

Objective number two is clearly the ending of the Assad regime. This was stated by the president two years ago, [on] August 18, 2011. It doesn’t imply the methodology to be used, but clearly it’s a national security objective at this point.

And the third objective would be to replace that regime with something as inclusive, representative, and nonsectarian as possible. Again, it doesn’t imply that this is an assignment for the United States alone, but I think those are the three broad national security objectives. You’d have to build a strategy to accomplish those objectives.

Well, let’s start with the first one. So you think there needs to be more than just a one- or two-day, modest use of cruise missiles to accomplish that objective?

I would think so. My suspicion is [that] there is no really reliable way to deter the Assad regime from the further use of chemical weapons. On the one hand, if we’re lucky, and if the Syrian people are lucky, the current crisis we’re going through now may serve to deter the regime from dipping into that part of its stockpile again. On the other hand, a regime that sees chemical ordinance as essential to its survival, I think, will not be deterred in the least by strikes that are really limited in effect and duration.

In the resolution the president has sent up to Capitol Hill, he mentions both deterrence and prevention, and I think prevention is probably the stronger basis in this case—so that if you do have strikes that destroy or seriously degrade the ability of the regime to muster artillery shelling, aerial bombing, [and] rocket and missile strikes against Syrian population centers, that by definition would make it hard for the regime to kill, injure, terrorize, and stampede Syrians by the tens of thousands—whether it’s using chemical munitions or conventional ordinance.

The president said on Saturday that U.S. "action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope." I don’t know that he meant that literally, but I don’t think that a shot across the bow or a pinprick operation deters anything. If anything, it might encourage the wrong people to ask the rhetorical question, "Is that all there is?"

On to your next point: getting rid of Assad. How do you get him to step down?

This has to do with really getting serious about supporting opposition elements inside Syria so we have some confidence, both in terms of their military abilities and their basic political attitudes about inclusiveness and nonsectarianism and so forth. Some things have been done, but not much.

Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are indicating that they believe there is a major change coming in this area. I certainly hope that’s true whether, at the end of the day, it results in some kind of an opposition military victory or, ideally, it results in a Geneva conference where the aims of the Geneva June 2012 agreement are implemented. Either way is fine with me, but getting serious about supporting the alternatives to Assad, I think, is the main way forward.

When we last talked [in May 2013], it was after Secretary of State John Kerry had gone to Moscow and worked out with the Russians the idea of another Geneva conference. You were not very optimistic then about the chances of success, and of course the Russians now are not very keen, with their side in the ascendancy. So how do you get a Geneva conference going?

Well, their side cannot be in the ascendancy in order for a Geneva conference to have any legs at all. And, as I have mentioned before, the president is a true believer in the notion of a negotiated settlement. He is a person who is saying there is no military solution to all of this—and obviously I think the Iranians, Hezbollah, the Syrian regime, and the Russians for that matter have a different view entirely. As he heads off to St. Petersburg, the president has an opportunity to run some of this aground.

Vladimir Putin, first, is probably inclined to believe that there will be an American military operation of some kind on Syria, and I would be very, very surprised if he actually believes the nonsense his government has been putting out about there being a) no evidence of a chemical attack and b) that it was the rebels that did it. This is an opportunity for President Obama to have some hard talk with his Russian counterpart and, I presume, even though their summit conversation in Moscow was canceled, they’ll have an opportunity to speak on the margins of the G20. And the president can satisfy himself [as to] whether there are any near-term Geneva possibilities, and he ought to tell Putin, "Look, you’ve got to do something about the behavior of your client, and if you don’t, then with the authorization of the United States Congress, I will."

I’ve noticed that a number of Iranian specialists have been hoping, I think, more than knowing, that the new Iranian government might be inclined to be supportive of doing something, but I don’t know if that’s really the case. In other words, leaning on Assad to do something.

There are some very important Iranian national security interests involved here. The key one is maintaining in Syria, or in an important part of Syria, this logistical linkage to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. Iran is not in the most envious of economic situations, and yet it is writing big checks to keep Syria afloat.

In the unlikely event that there is an agreement on the nuclear issue, one that essentially does away with the prospect or the possibility of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, then the Iranians will recalculate the extent of their assistance to this miserable Syrian regime—and I have no doubt that they consider it to be a miserable regime. Having been on the receiving end of chemical weaponry years ago [from Iraq], my suspicion is that they are not the least bit amused or supportive of what their client has done here.

You’re saying that they are supporting the Syrians because the Syrians are a vehicle for supporting Hezbollah, which is a threat to Israel?

I think that’s all they need Syria for, quite frankly. This regime has been, for a variety of reasons, very supportive of this endeavor over the years, and the Iranians realize that any replacement that is non-regime in nature—that is, non–Assad family in nature—at a minimum is going to significantly alter the Syrian-Iranian bilateral relationship in the context of Lebanon.

Coming back to Obama, clearly what’s being said in Washington now, the leadership at least in the House now seems to support the president on a military strike. Would your prediction be that the Congress will support the White House on this?

I think the Congress will support the president. The two variables that interest me would be, number one, would the president’s authority here be constricted in some way by additional language, and number two, obviously, is what is the president actually going to do with this authority.

I think Republican and Democratic critics alike will recognize the really negative implications for the reputation, the standing, and the credibility of the United States if the president is shot down on this thing. There may be any number of members who, knowing what the final arithmetic on the vote is, will go ahead and vote no. But I would be shocked and disappointed if the president did not get this thing approved.

And what are the chances of some kind of peace agreement in Syria?

Very, very low, I’m afraid. Notwithstanding criticism I have of specific things this administration does in the Syria context, I share completely in the president’s desire for a near-term negotiated settlement fully in accordance with the Geneva Final Communique of June 30, 2012, which I helped write. I’ve got kind of a personal stake in this too. It’s just that the objective conditions that are out there do not make this prospect a very bright one for the foreseeable future.

So then the United States is going to have to step up its military activity?

I think so. Regardless of the extent of whatever operation would take place after congressional authorization, the United States really does need to step up its game here, particularly with the opposition. You read in the press that to the extent we are providing arms and training, it is covert in nature. It just seems to me that if we are going to get serious about this in terms of the quantities of things that will be required to help a respectable military force be constituted, this is a mission that I think would have to be turned over to the Department of Defense and be done openly. And it may well be that some of what I understand to be legal reservations that have caused this to be done differently may go away if we are actually having cruise missiles impacting on Syrian territory.

So do you think we would have to have U.S. military advisers with the opposition?

Certainly not on the ground. I’m not talking about a repetition of early 1960s Vietnam, not at all. I am fully on board with the notion of no American boots on the ground inside Syria, but certainly training in neighboring countries and just the sheer quantity of material that is needed would require the logistical capabilities of the U.S. Department of Defense as opposed to that part of the government [the CIA] that according to press reports is running this operation now.