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Syrian Opposition, International Community Strategize for Ending War, Transition

December 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As time seems to be running out for President Assad's government, how prepared is the Syrian opposition to take over? Jeffrey Brown talks to Fred Hof, former special adviser to Secretary of State Clinton, about the potential roles played by the U.N., the U.S. and Russia to end Syria's war and inspire a transition of leadership.

JEFFREY BROWN: With me now is Fred Hof, who’s had an up-close look at both the on-the-ground and diplomatic efforts, serving until recently as Secretary of State Clinton’s special adviser for transition in Syria. He stepped down in September and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Mr. Hof, welcome.

Looking at that meeting in Dublin today, do you sense movement in the diplomatic effort, especially that would include Russia?

FRED HOF, Atlantic Council: Jeff, I think the meeting is potentially important, but at this point it would probably be prudent not to read too much into it.

Lakhdar Brahimi, as you know, replaced Kofi Annan as the United Nations and Arab League special envoy last summer when Mr. Annan left.

He is trying desperately to try to try to put together some kind of a diplomatic game plan to put an end to the civil war in Syria and to inspire a complete political transition.

So, this was his initiative to try to bring these two — these two senior officials together.

JEFFREY BROWN: If we’re at a crucial moment here, how much is the U.S. actively engage with opposition groups in Syria? And do you think it could be more and should be more engaged?

FRED HOF: The U.S. is actively engaged with the Syrian opposition, both inside Syria, or at least with contacts with groups inside Syria, and with the external opposition as well.

The United States played an important role in encouraging the opposition to form a new national coalition, which does appear indeed to be quite representative of the opposition.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much are we able to control the flow of arms and supplies inside? Are we able to pick the good guys and the bad guys, the potential winners and losers? How much do we play a role there?

FRED HOF: I suspect, Jeff, that we know a lot more now than we would have known 90 days, 180 days ago or a year ago.

The amount of non-lethal supplies that are going into Syria is quite substantial. To the best of my knowledge, the United States is still not in the business of sending weaponry into Syria.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your title was literally looking at transition whenever it comes, right?

What kind of influence do you think the U.S. can hope to have, based on everything that’s happened up to this point, when we do get to — when and if we do get to a post-Assad Syria?

FRED HOF: I think the United States and its allies can have a great deal of influence on the shape Syria takes post-Assad.

I know from my own experience there has been an intensive amount of planning within the State Department and other agencies of the executive branch across seven or eight major sectors, plans that include cooperation with allies in working to restore the Syrian economy and help Syrians get back on their feet. This has been a very, very serious effort, not much noted in the press, but it’s ongoing.

JEFFREY BROWN: No. And it is widespread and looking at all facets of Syria?

FRED HOF: It’s looking at all facets of Syria.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give us an example of what kinds of things we might have learned from past experiences that you think would apply in Syria.

FRED HOF: I think one of the things we certainly learned from past experiences is that it’s going to be very important, to the extent possible, to preserve as much of the state and the existing government as we can.

Now, when I say existing government, I’m not talking about the regime.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re not talking about Assad and those close people.

FRED HOF: Right. The regime, we’re talking about, Assad, his extended family and that circle of enablers around him. I think it’s inevitable that they’re going to have to leave in order for a stable settlement to take place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think — if and when Assad falls, how prepared is the opposition from what you see now to manage a transition like that?

FRED HOF: You know, the opposition is still very much a work in progress on that score.

It’s hard work. This is a political culture that has been repressed for the better part of a half-century. It’s a political culture that, in effect, has been in a coma for all that time.

It’s not easy for opposition people to bring to the table with one another the requisite levels of trust and confidence to cooperate on a transition scheme. Remarkable progress is taking place, but there’s more to be done.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, just in our last minute here, I noted that it was a full year ago, it was last December, that you told a congressional hearing that President Assad was a — quote — “dead man walking.”

It’s a year later. How long does he — what’s your assessment? How long does he…

FRED HOF: Well, he’s still walking. And, as a matter of fact, I didn’t personalize it. I said at the time that the regime is a dead man walking.

And this — there is no question, there is no question that this regime is coming to an end. There’s no question that Bashar al-Assad’s rule is coming to an end. When exactly that’s going to happen, it’s impossible to say, but sooner rather than later is important, because the more time he has, the greater the risk that this country will be destroyed.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Fred Hof is a former special adviser to Secretary of State Clinton.

Thank you very much.

FRED HOF: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks, Jeff.