On the Issues Episode 9: Frederic C. Hof
My latest guest for ‘On the Issues’ is Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a specialist on Syria. Prior to becoming director, he was a resident senior fellow with the Center.
On March 28, 2012 President Obama conferred on Hof the rank of ambassador in connection with his new duties as special adviser for transition in Syria. Hof was previously the special coordinator for regional affairs in the US 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 and focusing on Syria-Israel and Israel-Lebanon matters. He joined the State Department in 2009 after serving as the president and CEO of AALC, limited company, an international business consulting and project finance firm formerly known as Armitage Associates LC.
Hof’s professional life has focused largely on the Middle East. In 2001 he directed the Jerusalem field operations of the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee headed by former US Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and was the lead drafter of the Committee’s 2001 report. In 1983, as a US Army officer, he helped draft the “Long Commission” report, which investigated the October 1983 bombing of the US Marine headquarters at Beirut International Airport. Both reports drew considerable international praise for fairness and integrity.
A 1969 graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Hof began his professional career as an Army officer. He is a Vietnam veteran and served as a US Army Middle East Foreign Area Officer, studying Arabic at the Foreign Service Institute in Tunisia and receiving a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School. He served as US Army attaché in Beirut, Lebanon and later in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as director for Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestinian Affairs.
Hof has written extensively on Arab-Israeli issues. He is the author of Galilee Divided: The Israel-Lebanon Frontier, 1916-1984 (Westview Press, 1985); Line of Battle, Border of Peace? The Line of June 4, 1967 (Middle East Insight, 1999); and Beyond the Boundary: Lebanon, Israel and the Challenge of Change (Middle East Insight, 2000). He has also written many articles on Jordan Valley water issues. His writing on the Israel-Syria, Israel-Lebanon, and (by virtue of his work on the “Mitchell Committee”) Israel-Palestinian tracks of the Middle East peace process has contributed positively to the body of literature promoting Arab-Israeli peace.
His 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 resides in Silver Spring, Maryland with his wife, Brenda.
Alon Ben-Meir: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is Fred Hof, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafiq Hariri Center for the Middle East, who specializes in Syria. In March 2012, President Obama conferred on him the rank of Ambassador in connection with his new duties as Special Advisor for transition in Syria. He was previously special coordinator for Regional Affairs in the United States Department of State’s Office of the Special Envoy for the Middle East. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.
You’ve been so much involved, directly with the Syrian situation, the civil war in Syria, and most recently, as of course you know, there’s negotiations going on sponsored by Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Where do you think this is going to go, even if they consolidate the ceasefire they’ve been talking about?
Fred Hof: I think Alon, the best thing that can come out of this conference would be the consolidation of some kind of reduction of violence, cessation of hostilities, even a formal ceasefire. This would mitigate the ongoing humanitarian outrage that is happening in northwestern Syria. This is obviously of great importance to Turkey, which is already hosting 2.7 million refugees or something like that. I think it’s important to the Russians because what the Russians I think want to do at this stage is consolidate the diplomatic results of their very successful military intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad.
You know, when they first came in, President Barack Obama gave them some Dutch uncle advice about, don’t get yourself trapped in a quagmire.
FH: OK? And I think Putin knows his client Assad well enough to know that if he tries to help Assad reconquer all of Syria meter by meter, this is going to take years, it’s going to take billions and billions and billions of rubles, and I think what Putin would probably prefer at this point is a diplomatic settlement that more or less recognizes that Assad will be around for awhile.
ABM: But yeah, perhaps for a transitional period of at least two to three years. I mean, it’s possible. My concern is not – the issue really that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Let’s say there is a ceasefire between the rebels and the government. But then you have scores of other extremist groups who are operating throughout Syria. And when we talk about some kind of political solution, what sort of a solution is Bashar Assad going to accept when in fact the Sunnis are still a majority in Syria? The Alawites are still a minority in Syria, the Christians already decided they don’t want to have anything to do with the central government, and they’re trying to consolidate their enclave along the line of what the Iraqi Kurds have done. So where is this going to? Even if you consolidate the ceasefire, they cannot control the other groups that are fighting one another, and against the government, not to speak of ISIS. I’m assuming that ISIS sooner or later will be defeated.
FH: Yes. I think that’s a good assumption.
ABM: Yeah, I think that’s what’s going to happen. But then what are you going to do with these other groups that have a vested interest to continue to aggravate the situation in Syria, because they have their own stakes as well.
FH: Yeah, yeah.
ABM: And no one controls them.
FH: Yeah. This is going to be a very long and complicated process, Alon, even if everything goes well.
ABM: Yeah, of course.
FH: Even if there’s a modicum of good faith on the part of various parties, it’s still going to take a long time. And I think the only way to go about this sanely is to take it step-by-step. The main challenge the Russians face right now in trying to consolidate a ceasefire is that their client, Bashar al-Assad, is not particularly interested in that course of action. So far he has been riding the Russians and Iranians to one victory after another. He would like to stretch this out indefinitely until he, Bashar al-Assad, is in charge of all of Syria, along the lines of the way he was in charge in March 2011, before things fell apart.
ABM: But don’t you think this is an illusion on his part? I mean, does he really believe that he can actually achieve that?
FH: It’s possible that he does believe it, Alon. To understand Bashar al-Assad, I think the beginning of wisdom is to understand that he resides at the center of the universe. That everything revolves around him. That Russia and Iran need him even more than he needs them.
ABM: Well this is true, he believes that, and for good reason. Iran wants to maintain its influence, and to some extent presence in Syria almost under any circumstances; they will not relinquish that. Nor will the Russians. So Russia has had a naval base going back 40 years, Iran wants to maintain that crescent between the Gulf and the Mediterranean, for them Syria is a lynchpin.
FH: That’s right, and I think where they potentially differ – they don’t differ right now because each side for its own reasons wants to keep Bashar al-Assad in power.
ABM: To serve their interest.
FH: To serve their interest. From the Iranian point of view, keeping Bashar in power indefinitely is obviously very, very, very, very important. Because what does Bashar do for them? He provides Hezbollah in Lebanon with a secure hinterland, with a real backup. Bashar al-Assad does anything Iran wants him to do with respect to Hezbollah. The Iranians are smart enough, they know Syria well enough to know that there is no constituency for this kind of subordinate relationship beyond Bashar and the family. So their interest in Bashar al-Assad is permanent. The question I ask myself is, is the Russian interest permanent? And I’m not so sure. On the one hand, Bashar al-Assad does provide a service to Vladimir Putin, he enables Putin to turn to his domestic audience and say, ‘look, I have defeated American regime change in Syria, we are back as a great power, so please my friends, pay no attention to that failing economy. Pay no attention to the corruption of your government, we’re back as a great power.’ And with Assad being the face, the personification of the state that has been saved, it’s obvious that Vladimir Putin does not want Bashar al-Assad to go anywhere in the next 20 minutes. But beyond that, if you’re going to have an expanded naval base, if you’re going to have an air base in Syria, what do you do about a platform that is so weak, that will never recover, that will never attract significant funding for reconstruction as long as Bashar al-Assad and his entourage exercise executive power? The Russians know this guy, and they know the family. They know how corrupt it is. They know how incompetent it is. So if the Russians are going to keep Bashar al-Assad in power indefinitely, they have to weigh the fact that Syria will continue down the path of a totally failed state. And is a failed state really the place where you want to have military bases?
ABM: Yeah, but this is the point. They cannot possibly, in my view, count on Bashar Assad to stay there so-called indefinitely. How can he possibly be there indefinitely? That is, if the ceasefire is to be followed by serious political negotiations to reach some kind of an agreement, there’s no question at least – please correct me if you think I’m wrong on this – the rebels are not going to agree that Bashar al-Assad remains in power indefinitely. They’ll have to agree on some kind of a political solution. He may be there for a transitional period, for four years, or go to elections maybe once or twice, but he’s going to have to go at one point or another. Do you think the rebels will ever accept a solution that’s going to keep him permanently?
FH: No, they will not accept such a solution, but look at it from the point of view of Bashar al-Assad, ok? Why should I, Bashar al-Assad, care one way or the other, what the rebels will accept or not accept? I have won a military victory that has sustained me in power, that has rolled back a very serious challenge to my tenure as president of the Syrian Arab Republic. If I can keep the Russians and the Iranians engaged against the rebels, I have a chance of having it all. Right now, I’m in the driver’s seat, why should I give up anything to these people?
ABM: Well, this is exactly the point. That is, are the Russians and the Iranians prepared to continue to invest this much time, energy, money, resources, military, everything, indefinitely? They want to have some kind of a solution that can consolidate their position in Syria, and somewhere along the line get out of this mess.
FH: I think it’s clear Alon that the Russians want to move in that direction, and the Russians recognize at least in an academic sense that there has to be some kind of power-sharing so that there can be a respectable-enough government in Syria to attract the international financial institutions, the major countries of the west, Japan and others, to put money into the country for reconstruction. I think the Russians get that. You know, they may embark on a strategy of trying to move Assad into more of a ceremonial position, so that actually skilled people, technicians, can run a central Syrian government. I have no doubt that Assad will push back against that. He will oppose it. If you have a mafia-style organization, mafias are really not into power-sharing, much less giving up power. This would be an unnatural act for Bashar al-Assad and his entourage to do this, so who becomes a key character here? This would be Iran, ok. And Iran, from my perspective, really does want Assad. For them, Assad is the genuine article, he is the only Syrian who can really be relied upon to deliver with respect to Hezbollah. And for Iran, Hezbollah is everything. Hezbollah is its long arm of penetration into the Arab world. Lebanon is kept under domination and you’ve got a permanent threat to Israel.
ABM: This is true, they want him to stay for as long as possible, that means they’ll have to continue to support him for as long as they want him to be in power.
ABM: Now when we talk about some kind of sharing, creating some kind of government where there’s representative of — who this government’s going to represent. So let’s say you have an agreement between the rebels and the government. What happened to the other major minority groups, like the Christians, like the Kurds, and others, and so who is going to represent whom? In what kind of representation, power-sharing, you can actually envision, where these people – I mean if you talk about power-sharing, the Christians say, well we want to be part of that. The Kurds, even though they are trying to consolidate their own enclave, they may still not want to be left out completely; after all they need some kind of resources to maintain their strength and presence. So who is going to share that kind of power, under what kind of an arrangement, specifically if we’re talking about some kind of proportionate representation of the population. What other group, other than the rebels? And do the rebels in fact represent the Sunni community, all of it? That’s the problem I see.
FH: Yeah, the armed Syrian rebels are predominantly and indeed overwhelmingly Sunni Arab. The broader Syrian opposition, the unarmed Syrian opposition, has representatives of all of the sectarian groups, plus Kurds, in it. I mean, there are Alawites, there are Christians, Sunnis, and Kurds involved.
ABM: And Druze.
FH: One way to go about this would be consistent with what the permanent 5 members of the Security Council agreed in Geneva in June 2012. And that is that at Geneva, under the auspices of the United Nations, the Syrian government, and a delegation representing the opposition, would create on the basis of mutual consent, a transitional governing body, ok? In effect a national unity government, that would run Syria for an agreed period of time. That would work on restoring stability, getting the United Nations humanitarian aid in everywhere, begin reconstruction, write a constitution, et cetera, et cetera. Again, mutual veto as to who’s on it. One way to accommodate the Russians, perhaps, would be to exclude the Syrian presidency from this arrangement.
ABM: Only if it is ceremonial.
FH: Yes, and it would be basically ceremonial in nature. Full executive power in accordance with the 2012 Geneva final communique would be exercised by this transitional governing body, which would probably consist of current members of the Syrian government to include some people in the security services who are not necessarily suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity, some of the more prominent opposition leaders. This could be done, and the merit of doing it this way is it’s fully in accordance with what the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China agreed in 2012. It’s not going to be pretty, it’s not going to be a pristine process.
ABM: It’s impossible, I mean, in my view, it’s extremely difficult to get to this point, because let us say you have a representative government. Again, I want to go to the point, is it going to be proportionate. Will the Sunnis have a single vote, or two, equal to everybody else? How do you get a representative government, transitional government that is going to satisfy the groups, one of which is a complete majority in all of Syria, and the others are small minorities? What sort of representative government can you put together?
FH: I think Alon, as a general matter – and look, there’s a wide variety of opinion within Syria. But as a general matter, Syrians remain very nationalistic, notwithstanding the efforts of Bashar al-Assad to turn this into a sectarian battle. Most Syrians still resist having sectarian identification at the top of the way they identify themselves politically. They are Syrians first. I think that the manner in which a transitional governing body performs will mean a lot more to Syrians than the sectarian identity or the relative shares. To sum it up, I do not think there is much sentiment in Syria in favor of a Lebanese-type solution.
ABM: No, I agree with you, but just [unclear] of course, you know, after all, the Syrians have been living under the Assad regime now going for 45, 46, 47 years.
Since Hafez al-Assad. And then there were demonstrations took place 6 years ago and were met with force, so notwithstanding – and I agree with you, there is that nationalistic tendency. And so do the Iraqis to great extent, have the same kind of tendency, some kind of – they’re nationalist. But here again, you have outside powers who are going to do whatever it takes to secure their position in Syria, for the very reason you mentioned – Iran because of Hezbollah and [unclear] and Assad because he wants to have a presence in the Middle East, and Syria is a wonderful place to be, and he’s been there for some time. So these powers are going to have to be also satisfied in what sort of transitional government you’re going to have so that it will continue to serve their interest as well. So here where there is going to be a conflict in my view between the national tendency, that is get together, work together, restore Syria as a single unit, where in fact these other powers are going to be pulling and pushing to make sure they all count, and they continue their–
FH: I suspect Alon that the central problem with respect to outside powers really does boil down to Iran. Because of all the outside powers we’re referring to, and leave aside Russian military bases, just put that to the side—Iran is the only party that really wants to have a large, permanent presence in Syria. Iran is already in the business of trying to build a Hezbollah-like structure in Syria. Just in case some time in the future the Assad family can’t hang on. They’d like to see a Syrian version of Hezbollah that is essentially a state within a state, or perhaps the only real state inside Syria. I mean, Turkey, for example, really wants to see peace and quiet in Syria. It would like to see the restoration of economic ties which had grown very, very rapidly in the years preceding the civil war. The problem the Turks have, quite aside from Syrian Kurds, is the Turks look at the Assad regime, and they just don’t see the kind of leadership that can breathe any life into Syria. From the point of view of the Turks, if the Assads are still in the picture, with actual executive power, Syria will continue to die, Syria will continue to hemorrhage human beings, and Turkey’s problems will just multiply in the years ahead. The Turks are facing the fact right now that the Russians and the Iranians have purchased Assad a military victory. The Turks are facing the fact that the United States is AWOL. They’re trying to make the best of a bad situation. But reports that Turkey is going to leave NATO and become Russia’s ally, or that Turkey is going to reconcile itself to Bashar al-Assad, I think these reports are highly exaggerated and false.
ABM: I think so, I agree with you in that regard. But you know, for Turkey, obviously they need stability. I don’t think they care who is going to rule Syria as long as there’s some kind of political stability.
FH: But political stability will require a strong measure of national reconciliation, and political stability will require reconstruction – basic infrastructure, housing stock, lines of communication, and Turkey’s conclusion is you can’t get there with Bashar al-Assad in power. Nobody in his right mind is going to invest in Syrian reconstruction as long as you’ve got this clique sitting there with its hands open, prepared to take a percentage of whatever comes into the country.
ABM: Yeah, Fred, my understanding, talking to some Turks in this area, they are supporting the cease-fire, they want to consolidate it. They want to see if they can alleviate the problem with the refugees. But they also know exactly what you said, that Turkey does not have any confidence that this is going to lead to any kind of serious reconciliation anytime in the foreseeable future. So that’s how they see it. But they want to alleviate some of the pressure.
FH: In effect, the Turks want to put a tourniquet on a gushing wound right now.
The full recovery of the patient, that’s something for the future.
ABM: Exactly, that’s what they’re saying. So that’s what Erdogan is aiming for, and he absolutely doesn’t want to see if he could help it, that Assad staying – even a transitional period of time, they don’t want to see that happening. But I’m not sure they can control that.
FH: No they can’t.
ABM: That is, they cannot control that. Because if they want a cessation of hostilities, at least between the major combatants, that is the rebels and the government, then they’re going to have to agree that Assad is going to have to be, at a minimum, a figurehead at this point.
FH: I think so, and look, I think the Russians understand this as well. The Russians understand intellectually what the problem is here. And they’ve had a lot of experience with Assad over the years. They know what they’re dealing with. The real question is whether a) they want to slide Assad into a more ceremonial role so that Syria can get on the road to recovery, and b) if that’s what they want, do they really have the leverage to make it happen? Because Assad will resist this. As I mentioned earlier, Assad is not into power-sharing, it’s not exactly second nature for him, and he’ll fall back on the Iranians, who are not interested at all in Bashar al-Assad playing the role of Syria’s Queen Elizabeth.
ABM: That’s exactly – I mean, his survival depends, really, to a great extent, on continuing support of Russia at this point, and Iran.
FH: I would say mainly Iran. Mainly Iran.
ABM: Ok, mainly Iran. So, what is going to serve Iran’s long-term interest here? You know? Keeping Assad for as long as they can. And perhaps in the interim, they can create some kind of a basis along the line of what you’re talking about, create some kind of Hezbollah group to be in Syria: should Assad eventually depart in one form or another, they have already consolidated their presence by other means.
FH: This I think is their strategy.
ABM: This to me seems to be their strategy, trying to do that. They need two, three, four, five years, maybe six years, to be able to establish that kind of presence, and then the hell with Assad.
FH: Well the Iranians have said that at a minimum, Bashar al-Assad should serve out his current term, which takes us out into I think it’s June 2021.
That hypothetically would give them enough time to build a structure in Syria that if necessary, I mean, who knows, by 2021, who knows what the relationship between Iran and Israel might be, ok? We can’t completely eliminate the possibility of a détente of some kind, in which case, Hezbollah as a military force becomes not relevant to Iran, and the whole equation changes then.
Keeping Bashar al-Assad in actual power until 2021 may not be so important to the Russians. In fact, the Russians may see several downsides to that, but it is of paramount importance to the Iranians. The Iranians need time a) to build a parallel structure in Syria that can keep them in the driver’s seat, and b) to see what is the world going to look like in 2021? Are we still going to be more or less on the edge of armed conflict with Israel? Are we still going to need Hezbollah to be pointing whatever it is, 100,000 rockets and missiles at the Jewish state, will this still be necessary? We know it’s going to be necessary for the foreseeable future, in 2021 instead, who knows?
ABM: I just want to touch on Turkey versus the Kurds in Syria. Notwithstanding everything we’ve been just talking about, Turkey has unique, different interests as to what’s going to be with the Syrian Kurds. And right now, basically they’re fighting them, for all intents and purposes. Under what circumstances could that attitude of Turkey change toward the Kurds, under any kind of scenario in terms of finding power-sharing, some kind of a permanent ceasefire, long-term ceasefire, or even forming some transitional government? Where do you see Turkey going with the Kurds, which they consider a staunch enemy as far as I know.
FH: I think there are a couple of aspects to the Turkish attitude here. First, the official Turkish belief, and I think it’s the belief of the Turkish population in general, is, yes, there are plenty of Kurds in Syria, but there’s no such thing as Syrian Kurdistan. And in a technical demographic sense, this is true. You know, unlike northern Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Kurdish, the strip of land along the Turkish-Syrian border on the Syrian side is far from 100% Kurdish. There are a lot of Kurds, but there is no Kurdistan. Second, from the Turkish point of view, the dominant Kurdish political force in Syria, the YPG, is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK.
ABM: PKK, that’s how they see it.
FH: Which has been listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, and this is one of the great ironies. The United States is using the Syrian affiliate of the PKK to fight the ground war against ISIS in eastern Syria. So naturally, the Turks are not amused by this.
They find it quite offensive, and they’d like to see the United States get out of that business, which is understandable. But you know, in my discussions with Turks, what I say is, this is fine, what you’re saying is perfectly logical. But understand one thing – in order to defeat ISIS in Syria, an organization that is carrying out atrocities in Turkey, we need a ground force. You can’t win a military victory from 30,000 feet against a bunch of guys in jeeps and on foot. It can’t happen. So if it’s not going to be the YPG, who’s it going to be? Let’s have a discussion on who it’s going to be. This is how I perceive it.
ABM: And you’re right, and I suppose their intense hatred for the Kurds is really blinding them from seeing the reality, don’t you think?
FH: Well, to use a current expression, there could be an alternate reality here. I mean, the United States does have the option, and in fact, Alon, I think this is taking place. The United States has the option of doing a top-to-bottom strategic review of how we are pursuing the war against ISIS in eastern Syria, ok? The way we’re pursuing it, right now, has made it kind of a slow-motion war which has enabled ISIS in Raqqa to plan and execute major atrocities in Turkey and Western Europe, alright? You’ve got a predominantly Kurdish force that certainly is not interested in going block-by-block in booby trapped Raqqa to save the place. T
Their interest is in an autonomous zone along the border, so the thought is, alright, we’ve recruited a bunch of Arabs to serve with the Kurds, what we call this Syrian Democratic Force, we’ll feed them into Raqqa to save the city, as if there’s no requirement for professional soldiers or marines who are trained in urban combat. I mean, you can’t take a collection of militiamen and feed them in like that. Not only will it be bad results for them, it’ll be bad results for civilians who are caught in the place.
ABM: Exactly. I fully agree with you. Now that President Trump is talking about, joining forces with Russia, basically to focus on ISIS, to defeat ISIS sooner than later. I mean, that’s what I understand the thinking is.
FH: Well, what he said as a candidate is number 1, ISIS is his first priority. I mean, he’s even telling NATO that ISIS is our first priority. But in Syria, ISIS is the first priority, and he’s held out the possibility, he said perhaps we should support Russia and Assad in their battle against ISIS. I suspect that President Trump understands two things by now: number 1, Russia and Assad have not been fighting ISIS.
ABM: Absolutely, yeah.
FH: Except for the occasional episode of Palmyra falling and being recaptured.
ABM: When ISIS is in the way, they fight them.
FH: Yeah. I think the president of the United States understands that now, and even more importantly, I think he understands that if you get into bed with Assad and the Russians, there’s another party in that bed with you, which is Iran. And at the end of the day, an American-Russian-Assad alliance puts Iran in charge of Syria, and I don’t think this is something the Trump administration wants.
ABM: So when he’s saying we need to eliminate ISIS, so far, from the air, yes, we have made significant progress but not been–
FH: Yeah, there has been progress.
ABM: But we’re not going to defeat ISIS, exactly what you said, from the air alone. Doesn’t that mean that we need to send ground troops?
FH: Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if that is one of the options.
ABM: But would you advise him?
FH: I would. And if I were asked, I would advise him to go in that direction, and try not to make it a 100% unilateral American initiative. Try to make this a coalition of the willing on the ground. Look, if we’re going to separate ourselves from the YPG in this battle, this is a major political victory for Turkey. This is being very forthcoming with the Turks, giving them something they really want. Ok, how about something in return? How about a couple of divisions to help secure eastern Syria once ISIS is defeated? You know, we discovered in 2003 when we went into Iraq, that post-combat stabilization really is important, it was a lesson relearned in Libya in 2011. Are we going to relearn the lesson the hard way again in 2017 in eastern Syria? We need to be prepared for the day after. Because defeating ISIS militarily is one thing, it’s absolutely essential, I have no reservations about that at all.
ABM: No, there’s no question. And we cannot do that peacefully.
FH: But filling in the vacuum that these people filled in the first place with some effective local governance, with security, with the United Nations bringing in humanitarian assistance as rapidly as possible, this all has to be part of the overall plan. And if we’re going to use American troops in there, I want to see Turks, I want to see Jordanians, it’s possible that the French, who I think were really ready to go after the Paris attack.
AMB: The French will be ready to go.
FH: Get the French in there, the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Bahrainis.
ABM: But what about Russian ground troops?
FH: I don’t think so. I don’t think the Russians are inclined to do that. And my preference would be to keep them out. Keep them out and by all means, keep the Assad regime out of eastern Syria. It’s the performance of the Assad regime that made Syria safe for ISIS and al-Qaeda in the first place. You can use Syrian civil servants who still live in eastern Syria, people who know how to turn on the electricity and pick up the garbage and teach in school, great. Great. One of the basic principles of civil affairs is use the infrastructure that’s available to you. But letting the Assad family and the entourage back into areas liberated from ISIS, this would be catastrophic and self-defeating.
ABM: Just one last thing in terms of the coalition you’re talking about. Yes, I think the United States should not be doing this single-handedly, and it can’t. At this point, even we cannot do that. That’s because there are already other forces involved. The Russians are involved, the Iranians are involved.
FH: But not in eastern Syria. In eastern Syria right now, it is simply the predominantly Kurdish force on the ground. There are Syrian army units in Deir es-Zor and in Hasakah, I think. And they are basically just sitting there. These are predominantly Sunni units that Assad put out in the middle of eastern Syria because he couldn’t trust them to fight effectively in the West.
ABM: I’m just trying to think in terms, what sort of coordination, partnership quote unquote between Russia and the United States, given that what President Trump have already said, together we can defeat ISIS, so, we’re going to have to find a formula, I’m not sure what kind of formula—
FH: Well I think probably there’s a division of labor. The United States takes the lead in killing ISIS in eastern Syria, the Russians take the lead in stabilizing the cease-fire, protecting civilians in the west, and the United States and Russia together will regenerate the Geneva peace talks.
ABM: Well, we’ll end up on the most positive note.
FH: Not easy to do with Syria.
ABM: But thank you so much.
FH: Thank you so much, Alon, it’s always a pleasure.