Syria and the Least Bad Option: Dealing with Governance, Economics, and the Human Dimension

Read the full report online here.

There is no realistic way to approach the tragedy in Syria without choosing the least bad options among the uncertain and unfavorable approaches available. The time has passed to debate whether there was point when moderate rebel factions could have won with limited outside U.S. intervention. One cannot debate that situation now. As the situation stands now, the rebels are too divided and have too many extremist elements, “the center cannot hold,” and the rebels face an Assad regime that has too much outside support from Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, and has recovered its ability to use to force.

There are no “good” options in Syria at the present time, and the best we can hope for is finding a “least bad” option to accept. Much of the focus on finding the least bad option now centers on either peace negotiations or finding a way for rebel factions to win at the military level that will be moderate enough to win some form of international acceptance. This may still be a hope, but it is not a short-term probability. Even if it was possible, Syria would then face years of reconstruction.

Barring some sudden massive divisions within the Assad regime, Syria faces a truly grim future. Syria is divided between an Assad controlled west where the regime has control over the ports and urban areas in the northeast, most of Damascus, and fighting to gain control of Aleppo and other urban areas. This is a campaign based on starvation, economic intimidation, and terror weapons including barrels bombs. No suspect or rebel area is safe, and the Assad regime seems to feel it is on the path to victory – if not over all of Syria, over the East and developed urban center.

Divided rebel forces – whose most extremist Jihadist factions have spent more time fighting each other and moderate elements than Assad – control a fragmented East and Syria’s oil fields. So far, it is questionable whether they can either hold or govern their most critical and populated gains – although some kind of de facto separation of Syria into two armed areas still seems likely. Some kind of demarcation line and ceasefire may or may not be possible, and may or may not be honored, but all sides seem likely to keep building up their forces and importing arms for another round – or rounds of fighting.

Every effort must still be made to find some form of solution that will end the fighting and unify the country around a regime Syria’s people feel they can trust, but it is far from clear that this is a real world possibility. This makes it equally important to consider what will happen in the country remains split between West and East for at least several more years, and the impact of prolonged fighting and/or division of the country on Syria’s people and its future.

The civil war has disrupted every element of Syrian society in a state that suffered from poor governance, a weak economic base, and intense population pressures even before the civil war began. It is now projected to have displaced a third of its population or driven it out of the country by the end of 2014. Massive numbers of people have lost their homes, businesses, and jobs. About one third of Syria’s population are children, many of whom have lost access to education or normal social development for the past three years, and with no end in sight. These problems will have serious implications going forward.

Even if the country united tomorrow, it might well take at least a decade to overcome the impact of the civil war, and then only if Syria had effective plans to rebuild its structure of governance and its economy and actually meet the needs of its people. If the civil war continues to divide the country, a different kind of relief and aid effort will be needed to deal with the split of the nation into East and West, and what may become lasting or permanent refugee colonies outside its borders.

These issues are explored in depth in a new study by the Burke Chair at CSIS which examines the weak pre-civil war foundation that Syria must build upon; the projected size if its growing numbers of internally displaced persons; and the estimated growth of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. It examines the practical problems created by attempting to divide the country along East-west lines on any lasting basis and the impact of the civil war in virtually ending Syria’s petroleum exports. It then poses options for developing post-conflict aid plans and reconstruction as well as realistic planning for what may well be a prolonged civil war.

This study is entitled Syria and the Least Bad Option: Dealing with Governance, Economics, and the Human Dimension, and is available on the CSIS web site here.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy