Former US envoy not optimistic about Syria solution

Former US envoy to Syria Frederick Hoff told As-Safir that a political solution to the Syrian crisis is not likely to happen, as the regime prepares for presidential elections.

al-monitor George Mitchell waves upon his arrival with his then-adviser Frederick Hoff at Shaab Palace in Damascus, July 26, 2009. Photo by LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

syria, russia, peace talks, palestine, nuclear talks, israel, iran, bashar al-assad

Apr 15, 2014

During the past three years, the map of conflicts has changed across the world in general and in the Middle East in particular.

As the Syrian crisis stalls, at least at the political level, the Iranian nuclear dossier developments that occurred in November, a comprehensive and durable agreement with Iran that is expected to be reached in May and the settlement negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis that are still deemed as “nesitive” [negative + positive] are all factors that have affected in one way or another the international strategy of perceiving balances and solutions, especially now that the Ukrainian crisis has joined the US-Russian skirmishes line.

Is a political solution still possible in Syria? Can a party settle the issue militarily? What about the Turkish role in Kassab, the rapprochement with Iran and the efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry in the peace talks?

“I'm not very optimistic about [finding] a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis,” said Frederick Hoff, former US envoy for the transitional period in Syria, in an interview with As-Safir on the sidelines of the fourth regional conference held by the Center for Research and Strategic Studies of the Lebanese army, which concludes its work today [April 12] at the Monroe hotel in Beirut.

When As-Safir asked Hoff about the US optimism that the solution in Syria would be political, Hoff said, “At the moment, I am not optimistic, as the Syrian regime made it clear in the two rounds of negotiations in Geneva, and even clearer when it announced holding the upcoming elections, that it is not interested in applying the Geneva I formula.”

“In all cases, that is the formula agreed upon by the five permanent members of the Security Council. These consider that this is the only formula for negotiations and for a solution, and I do not think that the regime is interested in participating in such a formula,” he added.

The former envoy tackled the upcoming Syrian presidential elections and the nomination of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a third term. When As-Safir asked about the possibility of Assad’s re-election and whether this stage was critical in the course of the crisis, Hoff jokingly replied, “If I look into my crystal ball, I can predict that Assad will win the presidential election. The analytical question I am thinking of is whether he will win with a 93% or 97% rate?”

The US official did not mention the political fragmentation plaguing the Syrian opposition and the infighting between armed parties fighting the regime. He also avoided mentioning the Arab, regional and international parties sending arms and militants to Syria, while he stressed the need for the United States to support, albeit with caution, these parties with weapons.

He continued, “The administration of US President Barack Obama is currently facing the same challenge that it confronted when John Kerry became secretary of state. Back then, Kerry said that the challenge at that stage was rechanneling and changing the Syrian regime’s calculations and equations in the negotiations.”

“What I can say now is that the situation and the balance of power on the ground are the only things upon which the regime is relying to make its calculations, as it receives tremendous support from Iran by sending armed men, and from Russia as well. The only way through which the US administration could change the equation is by significantly increasing its assistance to the Syrian opposition. The US must know who is the real national opposition, and what it should get, and this is very important for the support it provides not to be given to the wrong people,” Hoff added.

In an attempt to explore the reality on the ground, As-Safir tried to ask Hoff about the role of the Turkish regime in the currently raging Aleppo battle. “It is hard for me to define this role. I see a lot of conflicting reports on the situation on the ground as well as the motives of Turkey. I cannot talk about this subject with certainty,” he replied.

While Americans always insist on “the protection of minorities” in Syria, the Armenian presence in Kassab is currently threatened as the 100-year anniversary of the Turkish genocide against the Armenians approaches.

The US diplomat said, “Americans in general are deeply interested in the Syrian situation and in the latest mass killings that occurred in various areas of the country. We Americans have a tendency to say that 'the situation is actually terrible, but is it really our business? Or is it that of someone else?'”

He added, “The only way to overcome this kind of behavior, which is not necessarily good but understandable, is through presidential leadership. That was the case in the 20th century when the US was facing similar difficulties. At the time, the US decided that there must be some kind of [military] intervention and the issue was successfully explained to the people in Congress.”

Iran and the P5 +1

Hoff showed great optimism about the Iranian issue and confirmed that an international agreement is very likely to be formulated within the set deadline, which expires in July.

“As a US diplomat, and given that we are part of the P5+1, I can affirm that there will be big efforts in order to reach a final agreement,” Hoff added.

“There are obstacles and different points of view within Iran, and I think that the decision will be ultimately taken by the supreme leader of the Republic of Iran [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]. Obstacles are likely to emerge. Although I have been away from government work for a year and a half, I have many colleagues involved in the nuclear negotiations, and I can safely say that the tireless work and efforts will lead to a good and solid agreement.”

Settlement negotiations

Hoff asserts that the negotiations will ultimately lead to a result, but did not say what kind.

“I cannot believe that something that John Kerry put his heart and soul into can come to an end. He is exerting tremendous efforts to reach an agreement,” Hoff said, adding, “Kerry will maintain his persistent efforts to keep the negotiations ongoing, and I am sure that he will be able to forge an agreement.”

More from  Ali Shukair

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