Dr. Christopher Bolan has served in Jordan, Tunisia, and Egypt and worked as a Middle East foreign policy advisor to Vice Presidents Gore and Cheney.  He presently teaches and researches national security issues at the U.S. Army War College.  He can be found on Twitter @DrChrisBolan.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 

National Security Situation:  The Syrian Civil War.

Date Originally Written:  December 9, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 22, 2016.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a retired military member whose writings and teaching focus on national security issues related to the Middle East.

Background:  The civil war in Syria was sparked by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal campaign of repression in reaction to what were initially peaceful protests.  The humanitarian costs of this civil war have been staggering: hundreds of thousands dead, over 11 million Syrians internally displaced or living in make-shift refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, and more than 300,000 seeking refuge in Europe.  Islamist terrorist groups including the Islamic State, Al-Qa’ida, and others have seized huge swaths of territory and greatly expanded their resource base and capabilities.  Meanwhile, both Russia and Iran have exploited this opportunity to expand their regional influence by offering extensive military support to Assad.  As of this writing, Syrian forces backed by Russian aircraft appear poised to regain control of Aleppo–potentially a key turning point establishing a military balance of power heavily favorable to Assad and his supporters.

Significance:  From the beginning of this crisis, national security professionals have disagreed over the relative importance of these developments for U.S. interests[1].  However, the most immediate impact on U.S. interests derives from prospects that: (1) ungoverned spaces and chaos in Syria will serve as a continued base for jihadi terrorists willing to attack targets in Europe and the U.S.; and (2) continued refugees flows could destabilize U.S. regional allies in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.  Only an end to the civil war though a negotiated political transition can accomplish both of these objectives.

Option #1:  The first option relies on applying military pressure to create an internal balance of power that incentivizes Assad to negotiate a transition of power.  U.S. actions thus far have attempted to accomplish this by training and equipping Syrian opposition groups.  This project has been an abject failure as one program costing nearly half a billion dollars only yielded a few dozen trained fighters who were quickly routed once they entered Syria[2].  Several additional military options include the establishment of no-fly zones or safe areas as advocated by former Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defense Panetta, and Director of Central Intelligence General Petraeus which would provide safe-havens for these groups to be supplied, trained, and equipped.  Still others have suggested that an American air campaign targeting Syrian military forces could sufficiently weaken Assad to help restore a balance of power more conducive to negotiations.

Risk:  These military options have been repeatedly debated and dismissed by the Obama administration because of the risks inherent in these approaches.  Then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Dempsey in a 2013 letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee estimated that these operations would cost billions of dollars per month, pose a significant threat to U.S. aircraft and pilots threatened by Syria’s extensive air defense system, require the commitment of “thousands of U.S. ground troops”, and “could inadvertently empower extremists” in the event state institutions collapsed[3].  This approach also inherently raises the specter of direct confrontation between U.S. and Russian or Iranian forces.  Even if direct confrontation were to be avoided, Russia and Iran would almost certainly seek to match or exceed U.S. commitments, creating pressures toward continual escalation.  Beyond Syria, Moscow and Tehran would almost certainly seek to punish any U.S. successes in Syria by ramping up pressures in Ukraine, Europe, or elsewhere in the Middle East.  Finally, the recent successes of Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces in restoring government control of Aleppo mean that reversing this momentum will require a monumental and sustained U.S. military investment over time with minimal prospects for success.

Gain:  The potential rewards of this high risk approach would be correspondingly rich.  Beyond securing an end to the civil war, the U.S. would earn increased credibility and renewed influence with the Syrian opposition and their Arab Gulf partners.  Globally the U.S. would have demonstrated an ability to reverse the tide of expanding Russian and Iranian influence in the region.

Option #2:  The second option would be to seize the opportunity provided by recent Syrian advances on Aleppo to renew a push for a political settlement ending the civil war as advocated recently by retired U.S. Diplomat Peter Galbraith[4].  This would require that the U.S. use its influence to convince both the opposition groups and the Arab Gulf states supporting them to abandon an immediate insistence that Assad relinquish his power in Damascus.  It would also likely require the participation of Iran to ensure its support to this deal.

Risk:  Here too prospects for success are not great as the history of the negotiations in Geneva attests.  Moreover, this approach essentially rewards the brutality of the Assad regime and will bolster Russian and Iranian influence in the region.

Gain:  This approach avoids the many risks associated with the military approaches discussed in Option #1.  Additionally, only a political transition in Damascus acceptable to a vast majority of Syrians can address the sense of grievance and discontent fueling the rise of radical terrorist groups.  As terrorism expert Dan Byman recently wrote, “As long as these wars rage, the problems they generate will not stay confined to the Middle East[5].”

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  For a wonderful example, see this debate between two foreign policy heavyweights:  Zbigniew Brzezenki, “Syria:  Intervention Will Only Make It Worse,” Time, May 8, 2013 and John McCain, “Syria: Intervention Is In Our Interest,” Time, May 8, 2013.

[2]  Michael D. Shear, Helene Cooper, and Eric Schmitt, “Obama Administration Ends Efforts to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS,” The New York Times, October 9, 2015.

[3]  General Martin E. Dempsey, Letter to Senator Levin on the U.S. Military and the Syrian Conflict, July 19, 2013.  Available at:  http://www.cfr.org/syria/general-dempseys-letter-senator-levin-us-military-syrian-conflict-july-2013/p31198.

[4]  Peter W. Galbraith, “How the War Ends in Syria,” The New York Times, December 6, 2016.

[5]  Daniel L. Byman, “How War Drives Terrorism,” The Brookings Institution, June 23, 2016.  Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2016/06/23/how-war-drives-terrorism/.