'Perilous Moment' for US policy in Syria Says Former Obama Point Man

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. President Obama pressed his case again today on Syria at a press conference in Russia. He said he understands taking military action is unpopular, but Obama stressed the need for a strong response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and he compared Syria today to London during WWII.

Barack Obama: When London was getting bombed it was profoundly unpopular, both in congress and around the country, to help the British. Doesn't mean it wasn't the right thing to do.

Werman: The president says he plans to address the American public on Syria next Tuesday. Obama's former point man on Syria is Ambassador Frederic Hof. He is now senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Hof says this is a perilous moment for US policy on Syria.

Frederic Hof: I think at this point it's probably the only thing that can make the difference. I think what the president needs to do is to make a case that would enable in particular, democrats in the House of Representatives to vote yes, notwithstanding the reservations of their constituents.

Werman: What about the concerns of a slippery slope here. I mean could the Obama administration just be kidding itself about being able to conduct a limited military action without getting into some kind of quagmire in the Middle East?

Hof: I think in this case a quagmire is easily avoidable. What the administration has in mind is quite limited. Now, obviously, others have a vote here, but I am not at all persuaded that it's in the interest of any of the other powers involved here to respond in such a way that would draw us into sort of an unending back and forth.

Werman: I mean easily avoidable. Are you saying just a few strikes would avoid a quagmire? I mean a lot of people are saying there's so many unpredictable scenarios here.

Hof: There are undoubtedly unpredictable scenarios and that's a fair analysis. There are unpredictable scenarios as well if your course of action is basically one of inaction. And I think we've seen a lot of that come to pass over the last couple of years. I think what the president is aiming for here is a military operation that would address the problems of deterrents and use in the context of chemical weapons. Going after stocks of chemical weapons in Syria I'm told is extraordinarily problematical from an operational standpoint.

Werman: Why is that?

Hof: It's just very, very, very tough to do. There are lots of unknowns about the implications of bombing these sites, and I think the president wants to avoid putting kinds of boots on the ground that would be necessary to secure them physically. So I suspect what would happen instead would be an effort to try and neutralize delivery systems.

Werman: I don't want to Monday morning quarterback, but I think it's worth going back and finding out what went wrong with the White House's policy on Syria. Why is it so perilous right now?

Hof: I think the president for reasons that are understandable, but for reasons with which I disagree, has tried very, very hard to hold the Syria problem at arm's length. There's no doubt that the United States, the American taxpayers have really stepped up to the plate in areas such as humanitarian assistance. But I think in failing to support, for example, the mainstream Syrian armed opposition, the door has been opened to various radicals coming into Syria. The events of Aug. 21, the chemical attack really brought the president full circle on this. I think if he could do a do-over on the decision in July 2012 not to support the mainstream armed opposition, he would take that do-over, but we are where we are right now and the challenge to US credibility on August 21 really has obliged the president to take a different point of view on this problem.

Werman: Frederic Hof, the former special envoy to Syria in the Obama administration, speaking with us from Washington. Fred, thanks very much.

Hof: Yeah, it's been my pleasure.