The Case For and Against a "Realist" Strategy in Syria

The Trump Administration has inherited Syria as a land of lost options, and as a country where U.S. policy is broadly seen as a failure and a sign of growing American weakness in the Middle East. It is not clear that the United States ever had good options, but if there were chances to act decisively to remove Assad and still create a moderate and effective government, they are long gone.

U.S. diplomacy has failed to counter or balance Russian influence and has become a side show to efforts to negotiate a cease fire. The U.S. does play a military role in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh) in Syria, but the U.S. has not created effective, unified, or moderate Arab rebel forces. It has avoided committing large ground forces to Syria, or becoming involved in a serious air war with pro-Assad forces. This has come at the cost of far more decisive Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah military intervention, and seeing Turkey intervene as much against America's Syrian Kurdish allies as they have against ISIL.

The resulting tragedy is that Syria, which is one of the least strategically important countries in the Middle East to the United States, has become a symbol of American indecisiveness and retreat. The fact that the United States has continued to build up its military strength in the Gulf, has become the key player in rebuilding Iraq's military strength and fight against ISIL, has created a powerful deterrent to Iran's threat to Gulf shipping and the Arab Gulf states, and has continued to ship massive arms transfers to its Arab strategic partners is broadly ignored or caught up in debates over issues like burden sharing and Yemen.

Syria: The Land of No Good Options

There does not seem to be any option left where credible levels of additional U.S. diplomatic and military effort in Syria can correct this situation. Whatever options may have existed in the past, the more the United States tries to intervene at this point in time, the more it is likely to be seen as continuing to fail. A "realist" approach to U.S. strategy in Syria should now consist of minimizing the U.S. role in trying to resolve Syria's internal differences and focusing on countering the combined effects of Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah, and Turkish intervention.

The United States cannot and should not try to solve every problem regardless of its strategic importance to the U.S., and the probability and cost of successful action. For the United States, the best way to shape the "great game" in Syria is to become as much of a spectator in that game as possible. The United States should continue to try to defeat ISIL, break up all the elements of the so-called “Caliphate,” end the group’s control over the local population, and secure Iraq's Western border. However, it will also have to let the broader civil war in Syria play out in ways that make it clear that Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, the Arab Gulf states and Syria's warring factions have no answers to the country's security problems or how to establish political and economic stability.

From a realist perspective, the United States should wait out the situation at least until it is clear to the key warring factions and outside forces that remain that no stable form of victory by one side is likely, and that the only practical outcomes are sheer exhaustion or continued conflicts and/or instability. The United States should focus on rebuilding confidence and trust in its strategic partnerships with Arab states and Israel, on deterring and containing Iran, on defeating and containing violent Islamist extremist threats, and on creating a stable and secure Iraq.

The problem with such a realist approach, and the case against it, is twofold: the first part is the sheer scale of the human tragedy in Syria, and the cost of letting current conflicts and tensions play out. The second part is the uncertainty as to whether the conflicts in Syria can be contained, and whether they will ever achieve any kind of peace of exhaustion that the region and the world can live with.

Diplomacy Has Failed, Syria is Deeply Divided, and Syria’s Neighbors Present Further Critical Challenges

"Might have beens" are studies in irrelevance. Today's Syria is a divided mess with no clear options for security and stability. Diplomacy shows no real signs of producing a lasting ceasefire, much less anything approaching a viable political and economic solution. Nor does it show signs of producing a stable basis for recovery and reconstruction, much less development.

Syria also presents extraordinarily difficult security problems. Policymakers dislike chaos and complexity for good reasons, but a denial of key underlying realities and a narrow focus on ceasefires is a recipe for failure. Figure One draws on unclassified sources and oversimplifies the number of factions involved in Western and Eastern Syria, as well as the divisions between Arab and Kurd, moderate Arab rebels, Islamic extremist rebels, and ISIL fighters. It does, however, give a broad idea of the number of different factions on each side in both Eastern and Western Syria.

Aleppo has fallen, and pro-Assad or Syrian Arab Republic forces dominate the populated areas of Western Syria with varying degrees of Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah influence. While the Syrian Arab Republic forces preserve the image of unity, there are serious divisions within them, and significant numbers of the current population are internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have moved to obtain security and not because of any loyalty to the regime. Regime and allied forces have been responsible for the overwhelming majority of atrocities, civilian casualties, and collateral damage. At best, they can control and repress, but cannot bring lasting stability and unity.

Eastern Syria is divided into competing and sometimes warring rebel, sectarian, and ethnic factions: The more secular and moderate Arab rebel factions in the Free Syrian Army; relatively more moderate Arab Islamist factions; and the largely Arab Islamist extremist factions in the Army of Conquest. There are also largely Kurdish forces in the Rojava region of northern Syria, along with the so-called Syrian Defense Forces (SDF). These forces predominantly consist of personnel from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Estimates of their size range from 40,000 to 70,000 fighters. While largely Kurdish, some estimates put the number of Arabs, Turkmens, Armenians, Assyrians and other minorities as high as 40% of the fighters.

For all the talk of a "unified" Free Syrian Army, the Arab rebel movements are now deeply divided, and include large Islamic extremist elements like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Fatah al-Islam and Jordanian Salafi-jihadists. Many experts believe such extremist groups dominate the number of Arab fighters.

At the same time, the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters purse their own ethnic goals and territorial ambitions, have ties to the PKK in Turkey, and ties to the Kurds in Iraq. The key element in the Syrian Kurdish rebel force—the Kurdish People’s Protection Units or YPG—has proven to be the only effective rebel element in fighting ISIL, and is the key U.S.-backed element in Syria—albeit with a strangely dysfunctional libertarian ideology that attempts to combine socialism with the views of anarchists like Murray Bookchin.

This has complicated U.S. coordination with Turkey and the Erdogan government, which sees the YPG as an ally to the PKK, and a threat to Turkey. As Syria continued to deteriorate, Turkey became steadily more involved on a military level because of its own civil war with the Kurds within its own borders, a desire to create a security zone in Syria on its southern border, and to keep Syria's Kurds in the West divided from the Kurds in the East. However, Ankara has been forced to temper its ambitions in the face of stiff resistance from ISIL fighters near al-Bab, and from entrenched Kurdish forces in Manbij—two towns that are critical both to the control of Aleppo province, and to any future group operations against Raqqa, ISIL’s de facto capital.

Meanwhile, Syria’s other neighbors are forced to focus on their own security and stability. Israel must shape its own security and guard against a sweep of threats from under-governed or destabilized spaces, which include ISIL-linked Salafi-Jihadi threats in Egypt’s Sinai, potential instability tied to Hezbollah along the UN Blue Line with Lebanon, and threats on the Golan Heights from both Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Force on the one hand, and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups on the other.

Lebanon and Jordan face similar challenges from potentially ungoverned and under-governed spaces along their borders with Syria, and both—with U.S. and Western support—have responded by significantly expanding and reshaping their military’s border security and deterrence forces. Given their limited topography, smaller populations and relatively weaker economies, Lebanon and Jordan also bear a disproportionately larger burden tied to the number of Syrian refugees.

Iraq has an open and vulnerable border with Syria, has its own Kurdish problems, and has deep division between its Sunnis and Shi’ites. Last but certainly not least, while the Arab Gulf states may provide money and arms to various Sunni Arab rebel movements, none have emerged as strong enough to bring any unity or stability to Arab rebels in eastern Syria, let alone coherent plan to stabilize Syria’s shattered national politics and socio-economics.

While each country in the region matters, the worst case—and the one with more strategic importance to the United States than Syria—is Turkey. As previously mentioned, Erdogan's ambitions, and Turkey's civil-war with its Kurds, are now playing out in Syria as well as in Turkey, and Turkey’s future stability is becoming steadily more uncertain.

At the same time, it is important to restate that all of Syria's neighboring states except Israel have a major Syrian refugee problem. There are no precise estimates, but a UNHCR estimate for 2017-2018 indicates that,

Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country – some 2.76 million, accounting for around 3.5 per cent of the population of Turkey. In Lebanon, the one million registered Syrian refugees are equivalent to over 20 per cent of the population, and the 655,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan are equivalent to nearly 9 per cent of the population. Iraq hosts nearly 230,000 Syrian refugees, as well as 3.2 million internally displaced Iraqis. Egypt hosts around 115,000 Syrian refugees along with refugees from many other countries.

The United States has only limited leverage over any of these Syrian and foreign players. U.S. diplomacy in dealing with Syria has failed to the point that the United States has become more of an observer than a player, and its attempts to create moderate Arab rebel forces have only been successful in creating Syrian Kurdish forces that may be useful in fighting ISIL, but help divide the country. The United States can scarcely hope to negotiate some form of rebel unity—before, after, or if the ISIL caliphate is defeated and dispersed—or even be certain the United States can avoid serious future clashes between Syrian Kurdish fighters and the Turks.

While there have been repeated attempts to operationalize a nationwide ceasefire, it remains unclear that any combination of other outside powers can create a stable ceasefire acceptable to all the key players. It is equally unclear that key powers like Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah want a serious pause in the fighting, or can occur until the Assad regime can at least consolidate control over most of the populated areas in western Syria.

Given where events currently stand, with one critical exception—which will be discussed further below—the more the United States disengages from Syria, lets other powers clearly take the blame, and strengthens its other partners and allies to contain Syria and focuses on key threats like Iran and Islamic extremism, the better it will serve its interests until— and if—the situation in Syria plays out to point where the United States can achieve decisive realities with a high probability and a minimal cost.

ISIL and the Iraqi/Syrian Border

The exception in question—and it is truly critical—is the need to both defeat ISIL's physical "Caliphate," and to ensure that no combination of other violent Islamist extremists that replace it can successfully challenge other neighboring states, or export terrorism. The United States cannot achieve this simply with an Iraq first strategy, or through victory in Mosul. It has to have a strategy for both Eastern Syria, and the border area with Iraq and Jordan, a strategy that ensures that ISIL is defeated in Syria as well as in Iraq, and that the liberation of Eastern Syria and Western Iraq does not create a bloc of Sunni Arabs hostile to Syrian and Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi central government.

This presents immediate challenges because the Obama Administration seemed to have estimated that ISIL could be defeated far more easily than has proven to be the case, and never planned on Russian intervention shifting the position of the pro-Assad forces from near defeat to seeming victory. The Trump Administration has come to office at a time when the United States has already shifted from a strategy of creeping incrementalism, to a strategy of providing the arms, forward advisors, and U.S. combat support necessary to help Iraqi forces win in Mosul and Iraq.

The United States has not, however, developed effective Arab rebel forces to defeat ISIL in Syria, and has not given the Rojava/Syrian Defense Forces (SDF)/Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) the same mix of weapons, forward advisors, or combat support necessary to defeat ISIL in its Syrian capital in Raqqa. The Obama Administration also never made any unclassified statement of its strategy for dealing with Eastern Syria when—and if—ISIL is defeated, and left office without resolving any of the tension between Turkey and Syria's Kurds.

The United States can solve part of this problem by sustaining the present levels of aid to Iraq, and by ensuring that Jordan and Lebanon can secure their borders with Syria. It must, however, work actively with the Iraqi central government to persuade it to provide the aid, support, political equity, and security to Iraqi Sunnis that will give them reason to be loyal to the Iraqi central government. It may well have to broker some form of Syrian Kurdish security zone in Northeastern Syria that will give its Kurds and allied minorities the resources they need to preserve near autonomy, and broker an arrangement with Turkey where it can accept that the Syrian Kurds will not actively back the PKK in the ongoing Turkish civil war. It may also have to work with Jordan and the Arab Gulf states to provide aid and resources to Arab Sunnis in the far east of Syria to limit Islamist extremist influence.

This is far easier to propose than to implement, however, and it is a general warning about any realist approach to U.S. strategy in Syria. Today's Syria is an exercise in chaos theory, and the least bad U.S. options are inherently unstable, even if one disregards outside states. The United States cannot, however, go on pretending that defeating ISIL is the key challenge in the MENA region, or that defeating the group on the battlefield will have grand strategic effects. ISIL is almost certain to transform from a physical to a "virtual" Caliphate and/or be absorbed into the other movements shaping the threat of Islamist extremism in Syria and the region.

A "realist" U.S. strategy in Syria needs to accept the fact that Islamist extremist threats will continue indefinitely into the future. ISIL has already survived the Obama Administration, and the Trump Administration must now decide how fully to support the SDF/YPG in defeating ISIL in Syria, and how to give the same priority to whatever organization comes after ISIL. It is also clear that no U.S. strategy in Syria can work if the United States fails in Iraq, fails in Jordan, allows Lebanon to become less stable, or allows Turkey's civil conflicts and tensions with the Kurds to deepen without limit.

Stability, Recovery, and Reconstruction

There is another key challenge to a "realist" or any other U.S. strategy in dealing with Syria. As long as the fighting and large-scale instability persist, Syria will continue to deteriorate, and the suffering of the Syrian people will increase. Here again, it is critical to understand that short-term goals do not solve any key problems.

A ceasefire is not a substitute for peace, nor a base for recovery and reconstruction. This will be true even if the Assad regime and rebels can agree on halting the fighting; if the Assad government, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and key factions including Hezbollah can agree on their respective roles in Western Syria; and if the different Arab rebel factions and Kurds can agree on areas of control, some form of federation, or some form of independence in eastern Syria. None of these options necessarily creates an effective structure of governance or economy, deals with the refugee and IDP problem, or offers any clear path to recovery and a return to development.

The humanitarian challenges are bad enough: 4.9 million registered Syrian refugees outside the country worldwide, and a total of registered and unregistered that is well over 5 million. While the United States and Europe face problems in dealing with their limited share of these numbers—and their resulting impact on terrorism—the previous data have made it clear that the real challenge falls on Syria’s neighbors: The UN has registered 2 million Syrians in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. 2.8 million Syrians have been registered by the Government of Turkey, and more than 29,000 Syrian refugees have been registered in North Africa.

The situation inside Syria is already critical, and growing steadily worse. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated at the end of 2016 that:

13.5 million people (inside Syria) require humanitarian assistance, including 4.9 million people in need trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, where they are exposed to grave protection threats…Over half of the population has been forced from their homes, and many people have been displaced multiple times. Children and youth comprise more than half of the displaced, as well as half of those in need of humanitarian assistance. Parties to the conflict act with impunity, committing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

… Over one million displaced people live in collective shelters, camps or makeshift settlements as the option of last resort. Among conflict-affected communities, life-threatening needs continue to grow. Neighboring countries have restricted the admission of people fleeing Syria, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded in deplorable conditions on their borders. In some cases, these populations are beyond the reach of humanitarian actors.

Civilians living in 16 besieged locations, 974,080 people in need of humanitarian assistance, including 411,000 children, are denied their basic rights, including freedom of movement and access to adequate food, water, and health care. Frequent denial of entry of humanitarian assistance into these areas and blockage of urgent medical evacuations result in civilian deaths and suffering. 3.9 million people in need live in hard-to-reach areas that humanitarian actors are unable to reach in a sustained manner through available modalities.

No one has a reliable estimate of the casualties in the fighting, but the number of dead may now well exceed 500,000, and the number of seriously wounded may well be equal to that or larger. Each casualty adds lasting anger and hatred to the massive problems that are: displaced persons and refugees; rebuilding the country and dealing with massive population shifts inside Syria; and dealing with the critical issue of repatriation. And yet, the war goes on. Serious reconstruction and future development require a lasting end to the fighting, effective governance, and massive amounts of aid sustained over time.

Estimates of the cost of reconstruction are equally uncertain, but estimates by World Vision and Frontier Economics have risen to over $275 billion today, and indicate that the total could be over $1 trillion if the civil wars drag on to 2020. To put these kinds of figures in additional perspective, the CIA estimates that Syria’s GDP dropped by 70% between 2010 and 2016, was only $24.6 billion in 2014 at the official exchange rate, and was only $55.8 billion in 2015 even in purchasing power parity terms. And, no one can begin to estimate what it will take to deal with what may well be a deeply divided country, to reduce corruption and misgovernment to workable levels, and to establish any stable pattern of income distribution and reconstruction efforts.

Horrifying as these figures are, they also present a massive potential drain on international aid by a country with otherwise limited strategic importance to the United States. To some degree, this is a key reason to adopt a "realist" approach to U.S. strategy in Syria. A clear U.S. position that Russian, Iranian, and Turkish military interventions in Syria create responsibility by these countries for taking the lead in aid, recovery, and reconstruction, reflects real-world U.S. strategic priorities. This position also reflects the reality that the de facto division of the country and survival of the Assad regime—whose past record for governance, development, and corruption led to the upheavals that began in 2011—make effective reform and reconstruction dubious prospects at best.

From a humanitarian viewpoint, however, the crisis in Syria is so great that there is a strong moral and ethical case for intervention regardless of America's strategic priorities. From a practical or "realist" view point, however, that argument only applies if some form of intervention can clearly work, if there is enough governance and stability to ensure that aid is used effectively, and if intervention and aid help all of Syria’s people—not some faction or sectarian and ethnic group. Throwing good money at bad leaders does not serve either strategic or humanitarian interests, and aiding some factions or excluding other does not lay the groundwork for stability and lasting peace.

As a result, the United States may be able to serve both interests by concentrating solely on the more limited kinds of humanitarian aid that pass through international hands and help ordinary Syrians regardless of their location, faction, sect, or ethnic background. USAID reports that the United States had provided some $5.6 billion in such aid as of August 2016. Providing aid through bodies like the UN's OCHA, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) Humanitarian Assistance Task Force, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) bypass governments and factions and achieve these goals.

Such aid does not meet more lasting needs like recovery and development, but it is far from clear that there is a credible humanitarian option for such action. There are many different totals being reported for direct aid to Syria and to Syrian refugees outside Syria, but Figure Two makes it clear that the U.S. share of such aid is relatively large, and that any contributions by Russia and Iran are either minimal, or are being routed through given sides and factions.

Implementing a "Realist" Strategy

Implementing a U.S. "realist" strategy must be conditional. Syria's future, and that of the states around it, and involved in it are simply too uncertain to ignore the fact that the future is highly unstable and conditions can change with amazing speed. In broad terms, however, the United States should take the following course:

  • Decouple from direct efforts to shape a ceasefire, or to shape some form of peace settlement. Let a key ally like France take the lead and only consider direct intervention and taking a lead role if a ceasefire holds and there is a real prospect for a lasting settlement and peace.

  •  Focus on containing the crisis in Syria by continuing aid to Iraq in achieving security and stability, security aid to Lebanon's security forces, and civil and security aid to Jordan.

  • Develop a clear strategy for fighting the overall threat of terrorism and violent Islamic extremism on a regional basis, taking into account the probable defeat of the physical ISIL caliphate in 2017, and the emergence of a different kind of ISIL threat combined with that posed by many other extremist, sectarian, and ethnic threats.

  • Give the SDF and YPG the resources needed to defeat ISIL in Syria, and to secure their own ethnic region, but limit the U.S. military role in Syria to the action necessary to complete the destruction of ISIL's physical caliphate, and to help secure the Syrian border with Iraq and Jordan.

  • Recognize the fact the United States may face a decade or more of competition with Iran in U.S. efforts to create an Iraq that is strong, stable, and reaches working solutions to its sectarian and ethnic divisions, and that this is a key U.S. national security interest.

  • Work with Turkey and the Syrian Kurds to try to create some stable arrangement to protect the Syrian Kurds, but only if they accept their current territory, work with moderate Arab partners, and do not back the PKK. Make it clear to Turkey that the United States will not back any Turkish efforts to maintain military forces in Syria or Iraq.

  • Accept the reality that instability in Turkey, Erdogan's authoritarianism, and Turkey's fight with its Kurds are all becoming part of a major U.S. security challenge, and that U.S. interests require a full review of U.S. strategy and relations with Turkey.

  • Concentrate on rebuilding trust and confidence with key security partners like Egypt, the Arab Gulf states, and Israel, and by aiding the Arab Gulf states to contain and deter Iran.

  • Limit U.S. aid to Syria to humanitarian aid that passes through the UN and the SARC. Make it clear that it will not contribute to any program managed by, or passing through the Assad regime, any rebel group involving Islamic extremist movements, or that discriminate against a given sect or ethnic group.

  • Make it clear that the United States will not support any recovery, reconstruction, or development aid program to Syria so long as the current Assad regime remains in power, or to any entity in eastern Syria that is led by any rebel group involving Islamic extremist movements, or that discriminates against a given sect or ethnic group.

  • Help develop an option equivalent to a modern and international Marshall Plan. Support the creation of an international loan and aid program led by the World Bank or IMF that would offer aid and loans to Syria and other MENA states that create and implement economic and governance reforms, and implement economic recovery and development programs that benefit all of their citizens, are effectively managed to minimize waste and corruption, and enhance regional stability. Make such programs and the size of aid and loans contingent on effectiveness and not potential need; on unified international management; on proper financial audits and measures of effectiveness and public transparency; and on halting aid in the event of a renewal of conflict, excessive repression, and excessive corruption.

  • Avoid any illusions that Putin's Russia or Khamenei's Iran will be meaningful partners in solving the problems raised by Syria.

Such a strategy does not solve the inherent contradiction between realism and humanitarian concerns, but it does focus on two realities: There is no present credible prospect of ending the fighting on terms that allow the implementation of a broader humanitarian option, and the United States has many higher strategic priorities in the MENA region that offer a greater chance of success at less military and civil cost.

Related Burke Chair Studies and Reports

Figure One: The Competing Forces in the Syrian Civil War

Source: Excerpted from "Syrian Civil War," Wikipedia,, Accessed 18.1.17
Figure Two: Humanitarian Aid to Syria by Donor in 2016

USAID Estimate

Source: USAID, July 13,2016,

OCHA-Financial Tracking Service: Aid to Organizations in the UN OHCA Plan

Note: Does not include Other Humanitarian Funding to Syrian Arab Republic outstanding pledges not in the plan. OCHA reports these totaled $ 6,540,592 for Australia,$10,928962 for Austria, $522,000 for Belarus, $557.414 for Belgium, $4,166,749 for Canada, $1,606,475 for Czech Republic, $19,987,473 for Denmark, $430,547 for Estonia, $700,421,060 for European Commission, $4,703,947 for Finland, $8,907,892 for France, $150,163,001 for Germany, $3,282,276 for Hungary, $5,868,633 for Ireland,$5,957,833 for Italy, $19,795,455 for Japan, $750,325 for Jersey, $62,102,444 for Kuwait,$150,263 for Liechtenstein, $6,177,034 for Luxembourg, $302,527 for New Zealand, $74,804,122 for Norway, $3,783,769 for Poland, $48,862,610 for Qatar, $72,464 for Romania, $7,459,516 for Saudi Arabia, $71,182 for Slovenia, $1,220, 866 for Spain, $13,537,380 for Sweden, $29,293,101 for Switzerland, $132,030,024 for UAE, $145,043,633 for United Kingdom, and $394,391,920 for United States Source: OCHA-FTS,, as of 17.1.2017.