What options do we have in Syria?

As President-elect Trump assumes office in January, Syria will be among the most urgent foreign policy challenges he and his new team will have to tackle. Syria’s civil war has raged for five years, beginning as peaceful protests against the brutality of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and descending into a deadly spiral, with over five hundred thousand killed, millions of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), and thousands besieged by regime and Russian attacks. The United States and the international community have struggled to effectively address the crisis in Syria. There truly are no good policy options at this point, as all choices entail significant risks. The U.S. public wants a strong America but does not want to become embroiled in another conflict on the scale of the post–9/11 interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the current limited approach in Syria has been quite costly to U.S., allied, and partner interests and arguably has diminished U.S. leadership credibility across the globe. A Trump administration will have the opportunity to change the course of U.S. Syria policy. This essay, based in part on a scenario-based workshop CSIS hosted in November 2016 on Syria, lays out the range of options on the table on Day One.

Current State-of-Play

The grinding Syrian civil war has grown increasingly intense and sectarian over the past three years. It has pit Syrian government forces and their foreign allies, including Russia and Iran, against a range of antigovernment insurgents. These opposition fighters include the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaida affiliate Jubhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, formerly Jubhat al-Nusra), as well as a constellation of Syrian Kurdish and Arab rebels, who are supported by the United States, other Arab countries, and Turkey. U.S. and coalition strikes on ISIS and JFS have reduced their numbers to approximately 17,000 and 7,000, respectively, in the region comprising Syria and Iraq. The United States reportedly has 300 special operations forces in Syria and has conducted over 1,900 air strikes since May 2016 with anti-ISIS coalition members.

Syria today stands at the epicenter of a regional conflict with global consequences for U.S. interests and objectives.

Russia currently has 4,000 troops in Syria. Its intervention in 2015 has since enabled the Syrian government to reinforce its positions, retake some territory from Syrian rebels, and regain Aleppo, using brutal tactics against Syrian civilians and civilian targets including the targeting of hospitals and schools. Assad’s Syrian Armed Forces currently fields somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 troops. Further buttressing Assad’s forces, Iran has mobilized up to 115,000 fighters in Syria, comprised of Lebanese Hezbollah, Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani recruits. Taken together, there is a significant fighting force with active supply lines from external allies backing Assad.

The Syrian Democratic Forces and other Syrian groups supported by the United States and its coalition partners number approximately 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers. They successfully pushed ISIS out of areas in northern Syria in 2016. Substantial governance and security challenges, however, remain in the recovered areas. For one, Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria has complicated U.S. and partnered security efforts, as U.S. and Turkish objectives clash with regard to the role and reach of Syrian Kurdish forces. Additionally, Arab-Kurd tensions present a specter of a civil war to come.

U.S. Interests and Objectives in Syria

Historically, Syria itself has not held great strategic importance for the United States, even though it has long been viewed in the region as a geographic prize located between the two great river systems of the Nile and Euphrates. Syria today stands at the epicenter of a regional conflict with global consequences for U.S. interests and objectives. This is a multifaceted conflict destabilizing the region and Europe and raising the possibility of a broader war. Achieving U.S. objectives in Syria may require inherent tradeoffs in the policy choices the new U.S. administration might pursue. These interests and objectives could include: countering terrorism (not just terrorists, but also the roots of terrorism); strengthening relations with regional allies and partners, with particular emphasis on Turkey; preventing military confrontation with Russia and Iran, while limiting the long-term, subversive influence they might have in Syria; demonstrating cohesion and effectiveness of U.S. allies and partners; preventing conflict from further destabilizing neighboring states and Europe; limiting human suffering; and working toward the eventual goal of improved governance in Syria. It is likely that only some of these goals could be achieved, and possibly at the expense of others. Inherent in resolving the tensions among these interests will be determining the priority afforded to Syria as an issue to tackle within the Trump administration and how they see its importance relative to other global interests.

Possible Policy Choices

The next administration will choose a Syria policy from a range of known options, most of which are not mutually exclusive and several of which have been attempted at least in part by the Obama administration. All options in Syria entail risks and tradeoffs—including choices of inaction or tacit acceptance of the status quo. This requires the Trump administration to determine what is most important to U.S. short- and long-term interests. The four basic choices are as follows:

1) Allow Russia and Iran to back Assad in consolidating the Aleppo-to-Damascus corridor. This could be an intentional policy choice or simply the outcome of events on the ground continuing on their current course. If the new administration drags its heels on making a decision on Syria, this may well be the result regardless of intent. Assad and Russia have nearly secured Aleppo and will likely press on to Idlib next, where JFS and other opposition groups have embedded among civilians. Under this option, the United States could abandon its insistence that Assad must go and make a deal with the Russians to ensure continued counterterrorism efforts against ISIS and JFS. Washington could also reduce support to local Syrian rebels in order to deescalate tensions with Russia, Assad, and Turkey. The United States could still maintain support for international humanitarian operations in Syria, the neighboring region, and in Europe, but Washington would cease to try to curb Assad’s or Russian targeting of civilian populations.

The risks to this approach begin inside Syria. A deep-seated Sunni insurgency would likely continue to challenge Assad throughout much of the country, providing fertile ground for terrorist recruitment and providing safe haven for terrorist groups. Even if the United States stands down on its efforts to train and equip resistance groups, regional partners may still support local Syrian groups to combat Assad and Iranian influence. Refugee and IDP flows will worsen with Assad’s consolidation, putting additional pressure on Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Europe. A Russian- and Iranian-protected Assad enclave in the Middle East, ringed by Iranian-backed militias, could serve as a beachhead for attacks against Israel, Turkey, and other allies, or even U.S. interests at points in the not-so-distant future. It is also unclear whether Russia would be satisfied with this foothold in the Middle East or if it would harbor grander ambitions to reclaim all of Syria or even to look beyond its borders. Beyond Syria, U.S. strategic and moral credibility and resolve would be questioned if we were to walk away from a long-standing policy to contest Assad, even if it were to come with a change of administration. Certainly America’s moral suasion would suffer.

2) Strengthen the counterterrorism approach to defeat ISIS and al-Qaida. The president-elect made it clear in his campaign that he wants to more robustly counter ISIS. A strengthened counterterrorism approach would likely include targeting JFS, enhancing intelligence collection, reinforcing U.S. and regional strategic forces presence and force enablers in Syria, and increasing air strikes on ISIS and JFS targets. A counterterrorism policy “on steroids” could also tie together the campaigns against ISIS in Raqqa, Syria, and in Mosul, Iraq, to more effectively squeeze ISIS with greater operational synchronization. The United States might choose to cooperate with Russia and Assad (and thus also Iran) to degrade ISIS and JFS, as these countries might provide ground forces and intelligence.

This approach may reduce immediate terrorist threats and accomplish a major policy goal of the incoming administration. The potential downside is that it does not address underlying challenges or grievances that are rooted in the political, economic, identity, and social dynamics that produce terrorists. In other words, for every terrorist we capture or kill, three could take their place, particularly if there is no attempt to hold territory or invest in a political solution or improved governance. Such a policy would undoubtedly worsen humanitarian conditions, as Assad would be able to indiscriminately target civilians with impunity under the guise of countering terrorism. The United States would be seen as complicit in these activities and as a partner to Assad, Russia, and Iran, further inflaming longer-term Sunni terrorist movements against the West. As such, it would risk significant blowback from regional Arab partners on other priorities such as Israeli and Gulf security and efforts to pressure Iran into normalizing and moving away from its pursuit of nuclear weapons. This approach also fails to contain spillover effects, including the possibility that the conflict moves across borders, extremist group exfiltration, and refugee flows into neighboring countries and Europe.

3) Conduct a larger-scale military intervention to pressure Assad . This choice involves the greatest departure from the status quo and would require heavy resourcing and commitment and likely a vote of affirmation from Congress. A U.S. intervention could take the form of implementing no-fly zones, safe zones, enhanced support for Syrian rebels, and/or coercive measures and direct strikes on Assad regime targets. Almost all of these types of interventions require a larger ground force commitment to enforce a change in the military balance, pressure Assad, and create a safe area for humanitarian response efforts. On the high end of ground force requirements under these options, up to 30,000 ground forces could be required to secure a safe zone. This number would include local Syrian, regional, and U.S. and Coalition troops.

The major downside to pursuing this option is that it heightens the potential for miscalculation or escalation with Russia and Iran. Turkey is also likely to resist an intervention if the United States relies upon Syrian Kurdish forces to secure areas, which we undoubtedly would. Syrian rebels with ISIS or JFS sympathies could infiltrate safe zones and conduct attacks or gather intelligence for ISIS and JFS. As Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated, large concentrations of U.S. troops can never be perfectly secured. U.S. and coalition ground troops would be magnets for terrorist attacks and a beacon for terrorist recruitment. Such a policy would involve high upfront risks to U.S. and international security and resourcing costs but could accrue gains in local Syrian governance and security over time if part of a greater political strategy for Syria and the region. If the military requirements of the intervention are such that the involvement of U.S. ground troops becomes necessary—a likely reality—then the near-term risk to American lives and treasure could be great.

4) Pursue a negotiated political outcome to remove Assad. The president-elect and his advisers have expressed openness to dealing with Russia but appear to want a hardline tack versus Iran. On Syria, it will be difficult to pursue both goals. Iran will need to be on board with any diplomatic deal involving Syria if such a deal is to endure. It is unlikely that the Russians hold enough leverage over Iran to compel cooperation or that Iran will necessarily see the removal of Assad as in its interests. Washington will likely need to adopt a range of approaches, including carrots and sticks, to persuade Russia and Iran to come to the table. It is unclear exactly what the right mix will be, but it likely will require a more extensive coalition of allies and partners. For example, the United States and Europe could provide sanctions relief to Russia in exchange for Russia pressuring Assad to leave. This could include overt and covert pressure on Assad himself and his inner circle, including enhancing financial pressure, information and cyber operations, or possibly limited airstrikes on Syrian air bases to ground Syrian air attacks. There is certainly no guarantee that the Russians would accept such a course or in accepting would abide by their commitments. Further concessions to Russia might include permitting a sustained Russian military presence in Syria and in the Eastern Mediterranean. Iran will want a pliable replacement to Assad to preserve its influence and access, including Hezbollah’s supply and operational reach in the Levant. It’s no guarantee that Assad’s replacement under such conditions would necessarily yield better results vis-à-vis U.S. interests. The phasing of the negotiations might include starting with creating “no bomb zones,” and instituting a true cessation of hostilities. Negotiations could eventually include Syrian opposition leaders, so that Syrians own the solution and the negotiated outcome is more likely to endure.

Even if the United States stands down on its efforts to train and equip resistance groups, regional partners may still support local Syrian groups to combat Assad and Iranian influence.

This is by far the hardest outcome to achieve, as it must have both multilateral and local buy-in for it to endure, and parties to the conflict have competing agendas and interests. It is likely the only option that will deescalate the overall violence in Syria quickly, but very well could require escalation against Russia, Assad, and Iran to achieve it. This is perhaps a U.S. form of the Russian doctrine of “escalate to deescalate,” and will require a very nuanced approach to avoid miscalculation. Moreover, absent a shift in the local balance of power, the United States would enter such negotiations with limited leverage, as Secretary Kerry’s negotiations with the Russians have already shown. Perhaps the Trump administration can generate its own leverage, but even if successful, the new administration would be seen as complicit in the actions of Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime against the Syrian people, a high cost to pay to U.S. credibility.

Fundamental Steps to Change the Course

Regardless of the Trump administration’s policy preferences on Day One, it would be wise to consider the following six elements in its approach to Syria. First, it should align covert and noncovert approaches into a coherent strategy. Second, it should find ways to increase U.S. leverage against Russia and Iran, including through coercive actions. Third, it should strengthen planning and coordination against ISIS targets across Syria and Iraq, including synchronizing operations for Raqqa and Mosul. Fourth, it should work with regional allies and partners to craft a coordinated political and military approach for dealing with Assad and countering terrorism and its underpinnings. Fifth, even if it seeks to accommodate Russia, Iran, and Assad, it should work with the international community to provide emergency humanitarian assistance to besieged areas, with clear and immediate repercussions in the case of outside interference. Sixth, the United States and whomever it chooses to work with in Syria should set the conditions now for what comes after ISIS and JFS, amplifying support to and knitting connections among local Syrian security forces and governance structures. The complexity and severity of the Syria challenge demands tough choices and committed U.S. leadership. Come January, the next administration has an opportunity to chart a better pathway forward.

Melissa Dalton