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Syria Conflict Could Escalate In Many Directions

The conflict in Syria has deteriorated further into violence and the U.S. government says there is some evidence that the Assad regime may escalate the conflict by using chemical weapons in its fight against rebel forces. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin speaks with Ambassador Frederic Hof about how the conflict might play out in the coming days. Hof is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and recently served as special advisor for transition in Syria in the State Department.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For more on the conflict in Syria and how the U.S. might respond, we're joined in the studio by Ambassador Fred Hof. He recently served in the State Department as Special Advisor for Transition in Syria. And now he's a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States.

Ambassador Hof, thanks so much for joining us.

FRED HOF: Rachel, it's my pleasure. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: I want to start by playing something that president said last week. This was a speech at the National War College in Washington. And the president addressed his remarks directly to the president of Syria, President Assad.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.

MARTIN: If the Assad regime does unleash its chemical weapons, how do you think the U.S. might respond? What would be the consequences?

HOF: Well, Rachel, obviously there are no cost-free or risk-free options here. I would assume that given the light, the president, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state have shined on this problem that military options are under consideration. One could envision airbases, missile units, command-and-control facilities, and other key regime installations coming under attack.

MARTIN: You've studied Syria for a long time. What do you think the odds are of President Bashar al-Assad actually employing such weapons? Is this just political posturing at this point or is this a genuine fear?

HOF: I'm afraid something more than political posturing. There is genuine fear that these weapons might be used. It could be that the regime is under the impression that the endgame is near. It could be looking for a game-changer here.

MARTIN: The conflict in Syria is now almost two years old.

HOF: Right.

MARTIN: It started in March 2011. Is this a kind of tipping point? I mean it feels like there've been several. Is this different now?

HOF: It's hard to tell. The military balance on the ground has been slowly shifting in the direction of the rebels for months now. Reliable and capable military units at the disposal of the regime are relatively few in number and they're seriously exhausted. Regime forces are under great pressure in the northern city of Aleppo. They may have to give up Aleppo. Rebel forces have all but shut down the international airport that serves Damascus.

So, if the fighting around Damascus that I think is probably unnerving the regime. The days of Bashar al-Assad thinking that he can get this genie back into the bottle clearly are over.

MARTIN: Interesting though, about a year ago you told Congress that the Assad regime was like a dead man walking.

(LAUGHTER)

HOF: I did, indeed.

MARTIN: Has this phrase haunted you?

HOF: I did, indeed.

MARTIN: Which is very, you know, evocative yet here we are, you know? This regime is, if anything, digging in its heels. How much longer can it last? How much longer can it stay in this bubble?

HOF: Oh well, look. I did indeed tell a congressional committee that this regime is a dead man walking, and it's been a long walk and it may well continue for a while. But time is the enemy of us all in Syria because given enough time, the Assad regime can destroy this country for at least a generation.

MARTIN: Let's talk about what the U.S. response has been. There are reports that members of the Syrian opposition have been upset that the United States is not been more overt in its support of the rebel movement. In your opinion, should the U.S. have responded differently to this crisis?

HOF: I think American assistance has been overt and it has been substantial. I think the focus of the criticism that is leveled at the United States is that we have not gotten into the business of arming Syrian rebels. I think it's almost inevitable that if Assad persists in power that the United States will get there. Because in that case, people with guns are going to determine to a large extent how Syria is going to be governed in the future.

MARTIN: If President Assad does go, what does the future look like for Syria?

HOF: It's very murky, indeed. And much depends on how Assad leaves and when. Now, managed transition, the sort of thing U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is seeking, would involve Assad leaving voluntarily and transferring full executive powers to what's called an interim governing body, a sort of national unity government.

But if Assad stays on, if he continues to poison the well with sectarian slaughter, we could well have a failed state.

MARTIN: I imagine it's also worth underscoring that the United States is interested in a stable Syria. This is an important country in a very volatile part of the world.

HOF: It's an extraordinarily important country, yeah. It's in a neighborhood that's not all that stable to begin with. And what happens inside Syria has obvious heavy consequences for places like Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Israel. So Syria as a failed state is something really to be avoided at all costs.

MARTIN: That's Ambassador Fred Hof. He recently left a position in the State Department as the Special Advisor for Transition in Syria. He's now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council here in Washington.

Ambassador Hof, thanks so much for talking with us.

HOF: It's been my pleasure, Rachel. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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