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Former Ambassador: It's Not Too Late To Arm Syrian Rebels

WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

There are, of course, many who are not opposed to the president's plan for military intervention. Ambassador Frederic Hof is one of them. He's a former special advisor for transition in Syria and has been making the case for some of the points in the president's plan for a long time now. He told me was mostly pleased with what he heard on Wednesday night.

FRED HOF: I think the president, in the course of 14 minutes, made a very effective case for a counterterrorism strategy against the Islamic State. I'm not so sure that counterterrorism will address the entirety of the problem, but he certainly said the right things about aiding the Syrian opposition and about refraining from any kind of cooperation or collaboration with the Assad regime.

GOODWYN: You, of course, know that the argument against arming the Syrian rebels is that their day has passed. It's too late for them. They're marginalized and weak. Arm them now and those arms will eventually fall into the hands of ISIS. You disagree?

HOF: I disagree with that. And look, this is going to be incredibly difficult, undoubtedly much more difficult than it would've been two years ago had a different decision been made. But if you are going to engage these Islamic State forces militarily, it will not be enough simply to do so with airstrikes. There has to be a ground component. There is a ground component of sorts on the Iraqi side with the Iraqi Army, such as it is, with the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces. You need something on the Syrian side.

GOODWYN: Do you have evidence that there's enough there there when it comes to the Syrian rebels left?

HOF: I think the view of people in the United States government who have the actual responsibility is that yes, there is some there there. It's not as good as it was two years ago. In the time that's expired over the past two years, these Islamic State people, these Nusra Front people, all of these descendants of al-Qaida in Iraq have had enormous resources. They've had a lot of money. They've been able to pull young Syrian rebels away from these more nationalist - some people use the phrase moderate - forces. They've had a magnetic effect. They've pulled people away. We need to try, even at this late date, to reverse that magnetic flow.

GOODWYN: Do you think the president's words on Bashar al-Assad were strong enough?

HOF: My sense is that what the president had to say about Bashar al-Assad was quite welcome. I mean, he really put the spike into the idea that there could be some form of collaboration or cooperation between Assad and the United States. Personally, I would've preferred had the president gone a bit farther - had he taken note of the huge portfolio of war crimes and crimes against humanity that Assad has committed. I would have welcomed the president of the United States saying that if the sidelining of Nouri al-Maliki, the former prime minister in Iraq, was essential to getting on the path to defeating the Islamic State in Iraq, you could multiply that by 1,000. And there you would have a description of the role of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. As long as he is in power, he will be a major obstacle to the accomplishment of American and coalition objectives in Syria and in Iraq, for that matter. Bashar al-Assad's dream from the beginning of this crisis has been for all of his opposition to be basically terrorist in nature so that he could make the case that he should be admitted, that he should be returned to polite society politically. But this is just - this is just not going to happen. It can't happen.

GOODWYN: Ambassador Fred Hof is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States. He joined us in our Washington studios. Thanks so much.

HOF: It's been my great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.