Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked for the United States Navy, United States Marine Corps, and United States Army. In addition to Divergent Options, he has been published in the Center for Maritime Strategy, the Center for International Maritime Security, the Washington MonthlyMerion WestWisdom of CrowdsBraver Angels, and more. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki, on Medium at https://mdpurzycki.medium.com/, and on Substack at The Non-Progressive Democrat.  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.

Title:  Options for the United States to Arm Anti-Assad Factions in Syria with Defensive Weapons

Date Originally Written:  February 27, 2023.

Date Originally Published:  March 6, 2023.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author fears that political reconciliation between Turkey and Syria, undertaken with the goal of returning refugees displaced during the Syrian Civil War from Turkey back to Syria, could precipitate massive, destabilizing refugee flows, and could vastly increase the level of violence inflicted on Syrian civilians by Syrian regime and Russian forces. The author believes the United States could consider providing defensive weapons, such as surface-to-air missiles[1], to Syrians who continue to resist the regime of Bashar al-Assad, to help them protect themselves against future attacks. 

Background:  Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Turkey, led by President Recep Erdogan, has sought the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has supported armed groups resisting Assad’s rule[2]. Recently, however, Erdogan and Assad have explored possible reconciliation, to the degree that their respective defense ministers met in person on December 28, 2022, for the first time since the war began[3]. Erdogan has explored this fence-mending with a view to returning Syrian refugees in Turkey to Syria, as Turkish public opinion toward the refugees is largely negative[4]. However, many refugees are unwilling to return to Syria, fearing persecution and violence from the Assad regime if they do[5]. The earthquake that struck both Syria and Turkey on February 6, 2023, has made refugees’ lives even more difficult, and their prospects more daunting[6].

In 2015, Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian Civil War on the side of the Assad regime. Since then, Syrian regime and Russian forces have repeatedly launched air and artillery strikes against civilian targets in regions of Syria controlled by opponents of the regime[7][8][9][10][11]. The 2015 refugee crisis, in which millions of people (many of them Syrian) arrived in Europe fleeing war and persecution[12], occurred in part due to the deliberate uses of force against civilians[13]. The refugees’ arrival was deeply controversial in many European countries, producing widespread political backlash[14][15][16]. Approximately 3.6 million Syrians are refugees in Turkey[17], while approximately 6.9 million are displaced within Syria[18].

Significance:  If a Turkey-Syria reconciliation precipitates another massive flow of Syrian refugees into Europe, it could weaken European solidarity in arming Ukraine against Russia’s invasion[19]. Russian President Vladimir Putin benefited politically from the difficulties Europe experienced due to refugee flows in 2015[20], and would likely experience similar benefits from a new Syrian refugee crisis. Such events could occur in tandem with massacres of Syrian civilians by Syrian regime and Russian forces on a scale larger than is currently ongoing.

Option #1: The United States removes the terrorist designation from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and provides them defensive weapons.

Risk:  HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, a designation stemming from the group’s predecessor, Jabhat al-Nusra, being previously affiliated with al-Qaeda[21][22]. Removing that designation, let alone providing HTS with weapons of any kind, would be extremely controversial within the U.S. political context. Furthermore, HTS has been accused of extensive human rights violations in the portion of northwestern Syria it controls [23].

Gain:  Arming HTS with defensive weapons could provide at least a limited shield to civilians in Idlib province, the portion of Syria currently most frequently targeted by the Syrian military and its Russian ally[24][25]. Furthermore, HTS is a well-structured organization with approximately 10,000 fighters[26], obviating the need for the U.S. to engage in creating a fighting force from scratch.

Option #2: The United States provides defensive weapons to factions within the Syrian National Army (SNA).

Risk:  The SNA is supported by the government of Turkey[27], and many of its factions may not be amenable to aligning with U.S. interests, particularly if U.S. and Turkish interests conflict. Also, the portions of northern Syria controlled by the SNA do not include Idlib province[28], the region facing the most frequent strikes by regime and Russian forces. Furthermore, some SNA factions have been accused of various forms of brutality against civilians[29].

Gain:  Arming factions of the SNA would take advantage of the fact that well-organized, armed groups opposed to the Assad regime already exist within Syria[30], saving the U.S. the time and effort of trying to create such groups from scratch. Furthermore, if some SNA factions refuse to support Turkey-Syria political reconciliation, providing them with defensive weapons could improve their chances of surviving as an anti-Assad force in a period of renewed, expanded conflict – a force that would likely be grateful to the U.S. for helping them defend themselves. 

Option #3: The United States organizes new groups of anti-Assad Syrians and provides them with defensive weapons.

Risk:   U.S. attempts in 2014-2015 to organize new armed groups in Syria to fight the Islamic State fared poorly, yielding far fewer fighters than hoped for[31]. It is unclear whether any attempt to organize similar groups to defend against the Assad regime and Russia would be any more successful.

Gain:  Creating new groups, if successful, would allow the U.S. to defend Syrian civilians against attacks without the moral complications that might arise from arming HTS or portions of the SNA.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Purzycki, Michael D. “SAMs to Syria: Can the Marines Weaken Putin on Another Front?” Center for Maritime Strategy, October 5, 2022. https://centerformaritimestrategy.org/publications/sams-to-syria-can-the-marines-weaken-putin-on-another-front/

[2] Siccardi, Francesco. “How Syria Changed Turkey’s Foreign Policy.” Carnegie Europe, September 14, 2021. https://carnegieeurope.eu/2021/09/14/how-syria-changed-turkey-s-foreign-policy-pub-85301

[3] France 24. “Russian, Syrian, Turkish defence ministers meet in Moscow for first talks since 2011.” December 28, 2022. https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20221228-russian-syrian-turkish-defence-ministers-meet-in-moscow-for-first-talks-since-2011

[4] Khoury, Nabeel A. “Erdoğan’s Rapprochement with Assad Spells Trouble for Syrian Refugees.” Arab Center Washington DC, February 1, 2023. https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/erdogans-rapprochement-with-assad-spells-trouble-for-syrian-refugees/

[5] Levkowitz, Joshua. “Syrian refugees in Turkey watch uneasily as Erdogan warms to Assad.” Al-Monitor, January 15, 2023. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/01/syrian-refugees-turkey-watch-uneasily-erdogan-warms-assad

[6] Dawi, Akmal. “After Earthquake, Some Syrian War Refugees Look Beyond Turkey.” Voice of America, February 22, 2023. https://www.voanews.com/a/after-earthquake-some-syrian-war-refugees-look-beyond-turkey-/6974321.html.

[7] Hill, Evan, Christiaan Triebert, Malachy Browne, Dmitriy Khavin, Drew Jordan and Whitney Hurst. “Russia Bombed Four Syrian Hospitals. We Have Proof.” New York Times, October 13, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/middleeast/100000005697485/russia-bombed-syrian-hospitals.html

[8] Breslow, Jason. “Russia showed its playbook in Syria. Here’s what it may mean for civilians in Ukraine.” NPR, March 1, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/03/01/1083686606/ukraine-russia-civilian-casualties-syria

[9] “Syria: Deadly attacks affecting IDP camps.” United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, November 8, 2022. https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/11/syria-deadly-attacks-affecting-idp-camps

[10] “Syria/Russia: 12 Civilians Dead in Idlib Artillery Attacks.” ReliefWeb, December 8, 2021. https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/syriarussia-12-civilians-dead-idlib-artillery-attacks-enar

[11] “Ten Killed in Syria Regime Rocket Strikes: Monitor.” Defense Post, November 7, 2022. https://www.thedefensepost.com/2022/11/07/syria-regime-rocket-strikes/

[12] “Is this humanitarian migration crisis different?” OECD Migration Policy Debates, September 2015. https://www.oecd.org/migration/Is-this-refugee-crisis-different.pdf

[13] “Russian bombing in Syria ‘fuels refugee crisis’ says US official as airstrike kills 39.” Guardian, January 9, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/09/imprecise-russian-bombing-syria-fuelling-refugee-crisis-us-official

[14] Garrett, Amanda. “The Refugee Crisis, Brexit, and the Reframing of Immigration in Britain.” EuropeNow, August 1, 2019. https://www.europenowjournal.org/2019/09/09/the-refugee-crisis-brexit-and-the-reframing-of-immigration-in-britain/

[15] Karnitschnig, Matthew. “Backlash grows against Merkel over refugees.” Politico, September 11, 2015. https://www.politico.eu/article/backlash-merkel-refugees-migration-germany-coalition-pressure/

[16] Cienski, Jan. “Why Poland doesn’t want refugees.” Politico, May 21, 2017. https://www.politico.eu/article/politics-nationalism-and-religion-explain-why-poland-doesnt-want-refugees/

[17] Ridgwell, Henry. “Facing Poverty and Hostility, Refugees in Turkey Mull Return to War-Torn Syria.” Voice of America, December 9, 2022. https://www.voanews.com/a/facing-poverty-and-hostility-refugees-in-turkey-mull-return-to-war-torn-syria/6869601.html

[18] “Syria Refugee Crisis Explained.” USA for UNHCR, July 8, 2022. https://www.unrefugees.org/news/syria-refugee-crisis-explained/

[19] Fix, Liana, and Jeffrey Mankoff. “Europe Has to Step Up on Ukraine to Keep the U.S. From Stepping Back.” Council on Foreign Relations, December 9, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/article/europe-has-step-ukraine-keep-us-stepping-back

[20] Ellyatt, Holly. “Putin ‘weaponizing’ migrant crisis to hurt Europe.” CNBC, March 2, 2016. https://www.cnbc.com/2016/03/02/putin-weaponizing-migrant-crisis-to-hurt-europe.html

[21] “Foreign Terrorist Organizations: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.” National Counterterrorism Center, October 2022. https://www.dni.gov/nctc/ftos/hts_fto.html

[22] Solomon, Christopher. “HTS: Evolution of a Jihadi Group.” Wilson Center, July 13, 2022. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/hts-evolution-jihadist-group

[23] “The Most Notable Hay’at Tahrir al Sham Violations Since the Establishment of Jabhat al Nusra to Date.” Syrian Network for Human Rights, January 31, 2022. https://snhr.org/blog/2022/01/31/57274/

[24] Ben Hamad, Fatma. “‘We’ve gotten used to air strikes’: A Syrian documents Russian attacks in Idlib.” France 24, August 16, 2022. https://observers.france24.com/en/middle-east/20220816-syrie-idlib-frappes-doubles-raids-russe-crimes-de-guerre

[25] Waters, Gregory. “Idlib is under siege.” Middle East Institute, February 22, 2023. https://www.mei.edu/blog/idlib-under-siege

[26] Solomon.

[27] Kasapoglu, Can. “The Syrian National Army and the Future of Turkey’s Frontier Land Force.” Jamestown Foundation, March 12, 2021. https://jamestown.org/program/the-syrian-national-army-and-the-future-of-turkeys-frontier-land-force/

[28] Balanche, Fabrice. “The Assad Regime Has Failed to Restore Full Sovereignty Over Syria.” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 10, 2021. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/assad-regime-has-failed-restore-full-sovereignty-over-syria

[29] Tsurkov, Elizabeth. “The Gangs of Northern Syria: Life Under Turkey’s Proxies.” December 7, 2022. https://newlinesinstitute.org/syria/the-gangs-of-northern-syria-life-under-turkeys-proxies/

[30] Özkizilcik, Ömer. “The Syrian National Army (SNA): Structure, Functions, and Three Scenarios for its Relationship with Damascus.” Geneva Centre for Security Policy, October 2020. https://dam.gcsp.ch/files/doc/sna-structure-function-damascus

[31] Ackerman, Spencer. “US has trained only ‘four or five’ Syrian fighters against Isis, top general testifies.” Guardian, September 16, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/sep/16/us-military-syrian-isis-fighters