Event Extra: The Untold Story of a U.S. Attempt to Forge Israel-Syria Peace
In a new USIP book, Ambassador Frederic Hof tells the story of a secret U.S. effort to broker peace between Israel and Syria between 2009-2011. Just as that effort seemed to be making important progress, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime began to violently suppress Syrian protesters, scuttling the chance for peace. Hof discusses what the foundation of Israel-Syria peace would have looked like, the pre-2011 perceptions of Assad as a "reformer," President Biden's trip to the Middle East and how the international community should deal with the Syrian dictator today.
The Event Extra podcast offers one-on-one interviews with some of the policymakers, practitioners and leaders who spoke at U.S. Institute of Peace events. Each episode highlights their ideas on areas of conflict and how to achieve peace.
Adam Gallagher: Hi, Fred. Let me introduce us. I'm Adam Gallagher, managing editor at usip.org. You're Ambassador Frederic Hof, the chief mediator and architect of the 2009 through 2011 U.S. effort to broker Israel-Syria peace, a former State Department official, and currently Bard College's Diplomat in Residence. Fred is the author of a fascinating new USIP book, which tells the untold story of the secret U.S. effort to reach peace between Israel and Syria. Thanks for joining us today, Fred.
Frederic Hof: Adam, it's a great pleasure to be with you. And I look forward to your questions.
Adam Gallagher: In the last chapter of your book, you write that at the beginning of March 2011, the foundation for Israel-Syria peace had been set. By the end of the month, it would be cratered. Can you tell us what that foundation looked like and how you got there? And how the events of the Arab Spring scuttled those efforts?
Frederic Hof: Sure, Adam, I'll I'll do my best to describe that. By the by the fall of 2010. I had, I had reached agreement with the Israelis and Syrians on a methodology for moving this mediation forward. That methodology would involve a draft treaty of peace, something drafted by me, a document that I owned. A non paper, if you will, something that I would shuttle back and forth, back and forth between Damascus and Jerusalem. And this methodology was working, blanks were being filled in on this piece of paper, we were moving in the direction of a mutually agreed treaty of peace. There were still details to be worked out, there was still one unresolved territorial issue that needed to be needed to be worked out. At one point, though, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked me, he said, Fred, will you be able to have a very frank one-on-one discussion with Bashar Al-Assad, I want to make sure that he is fully aware, that Assad is fully aware of what Syria must do, if it's going to get its territory returned. Syria must reorient itself strategically, entirely, it must, it must break military relations with Iran, with Hezbollah, with Hamas, et cetera, et cetera. That resulted in a one-on-one meeting with Assad, in which the Syrian president, very explicitly accepted in considerable detail, all of the all of the requirements that would be placed on Syria in order to implement a treaty of peace. from Damascus, I went to Jerusalem to brief Prime Minister Netanyahu. That briefing went well. At the end, he said, Fred, this is very serious. What's next? And we began to speak about proximity negotiations in an Eastern European country, probably the Czech, the Czech Republic, within two weeks. So things began to unravel, as Syrian forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrators who were protesting police brutality, and things went downhill from there in Syria. And that's, that's what I refer to as a process that was, you know, on the one hand, very promising, but certainly by the by the end of April 2011 was, was entirely cratered.
Adam Gallagher: You know, along these lines about the conversation about Assad. You know, there was a lot of perception that he would be a moderniser for Syria, that he could help bring the country out of its isolation and integrate it into the international community. What do you think that U.S. officials who had this perception got wrong about Assad? And how did this perception impact your efforts, if at all?
Frederic Hof: There was at the time, there was a lot of discussion, particularly in academic circles among serious specialists on the question of whether Assad was a reformer or not, whether he whether he intended eventually to make some fundamental changes to Syrian politics, to the way a government operated. There was no doubt that Assad was a moderniser in the sense of implanting in Syria, something that looked like a modern banking system, for example. But there was a there was a bit of a debate, particularly in academia, and in journalistic circles about whether he was a moderniser. Eventually, this this debate would would have, I think, a major impact on on my efforts to save the mediation. In late March of 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on one of the Sunday talk shows, and when asked about the violence in Syria was, you know, responded to the effect of well, you know, it's possible this could be this could be turned around. There are those who consider President Bashar Al-Assad to be a reformer. She came under immediate attack from Republican circles mainly in the Congress. People who mischaracterized her comments as as having endorsed the idea that Assad was a reformer. And I think her experience, I think the firestorm that was kicked up over her comments was probably one of the things that persuaded President Obama, who was already beginning to think about the 2012 reelection campaign, not to reach out to Assad, to try to stop the violence and save the mediation. I'm told by by people who say they they had access to decision making in the White House during that time, that the president and his and his advisers were afraid that if, if such a if such a connection, if such a phone call were leaked, the president would would be on the receiving end of the same kind of criticism that was being directed at Secretary of State Clinton. And he really, he really wanted to avoid any negative domestic political implications stemming from outreach to Assad. So I think, you know, I think the word the word reformer, and people who used it, and the way that the way the debate was characterized politically, probably had a very, very negative, negative impact on my on my efforts to keep this mediation alive.
Adam Gallagher: In your book, you go into great detail about the diplomatic efforts you undertook with Syrian and Israeli leaders, including a face-to-face meeting with Assad himself. As President Biden heads to the region this week, what are the big lessons you'd like to impart on U.S. diplomats looking to forge peace in the Middle East?
Frederic Hof: You know, I don't think I would be so presumptuous, Adam, as to prescribe huge lessons learned to be used by the President of the United States, when he visits the region. I think what President Biden is trying to do is, at the very least, symbolically, very important. It's become almost an article of faith in the region, among Israelis, among Arabs, Iranians, Turks, you name it, an article of faith that the United States is looking for ways to liquidate its presence in the Middle East. Totally, this impression, can have very, very bad effects in terms of regional peace and stability. And I think I think, I think going there, I think doing it, which is something that, you know, President Biden is probably not looking forward to, I think he would equate a visit, at this time, to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with extensive dental surgery. But it's his job, he has to do it, he has to he has to counter this impression, which is now several administrations old, that the United States intends to jettison its position in the region. And I think if he I think if he keeps that, if he keeps that in mind, if he keeps that at the center of his focus of his message, the visit will be successful, even even if some specifics, you know, having to do with with Saudi oil production and so forth don't work out necessarily 100 percent to the president's liking.
Adam Gallagher: Fred, I want to thank you so much for your insights, I really encourage our audience to check out the book. You can find the book on usip.org, as well as more about President Biden's trip to the Middle East.
Frederic Hof: Adam, thank you very much. It's been a pleasure to be with you. And thank you for your questions, which are challenging as always.
Adam Gallagher: Thanks, Fred.
Watch the original event Brokering Peace in the Middle East and Beyond.