U.S. Options for Regime Change in Syria

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 Strategic Studies Institute 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:  Regime change in Syria.

Date Originally Written:  December 9, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  April 13, 2017.

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

Background:  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent chemical weapons attack on April 4, 2017 that killed scores of innocent civilians prompted U.S. cruise missile strikes targeting a Syrian airfield from which the attacks were launched.  U.S. President Donald Trump said these strikes were designed primarily to “prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons[1].”  While the decision to strike has been widely supported by leaders of both political parties in Washington D.C., international reaction has been predictably mixed.  Traditional U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East have been broadly supportive, while supporters of the Assad regime including Russia and Iran have condemned the strikes as a “violation of international law[2].”

Significance:  Beyond the narrow justification of these strikes as being necessary to reinforce an eroding international norm against the use of chemical weapons, this U.S. military intervention has resurfaced questions concerning the ultimate strategy that the Trump Administration is pursuing in Syria.  Before the strikes, senior administration officials including Secretary of State (SecState) Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Halley suggested that U.S. policy would abandon even the pretense of President Barack Obama’s objective of ousting Assad from power in Damascus[3].  However, in the aftermath of the strikes, the Trump Administration signaled an apparent about-face as National Security Advisor (NSA) Herbert Raymond “H. R.” McMaster declared that U.S. policy in Syria would “simultaneously” pursue the twin goals of destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and removing Assad[4].  While the fight against ISIS is making significant progress, the administration has not yet articulated a detailed strategy for pursuing the ouster of Assad.  There are two broad options available:

Option #1:  Coercive Diplomacy.  This option seeks to capitalize on the demonstration of U.S. resolve in the wake of the chemical attacks and missile strikes to push all parties to a negotiated solution that would ultimately result in the removal of Assad.  NSA McMaster and SecState Tillerson have suggested that this might indeed be the Trump Administration’s preferred course of action[5].  Additionally, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz is emblematic of this approach and has made the case that “peace is impossible with Mr. Assad in power” and also called on President Trump to lead a “broad diplomatic effort to end the country’s bloodshed[6].”

Risk:  This diplomatic approach is essentially a reprise of President Obama’s strategy to engage Russia to use its substantial influence in Damascus to coerce Assad into relinquishing his position.  Years of a failed Geneva process along these lines are a strong indication that prospects for success are minimal.  Moreover, Russia is either complicit or has been turning a blind eye to Assad’s brutal repression and flagrant attacks on civilians that undoubtedly constitute war crimes.  This blind eye poses a moral hazard to any negotiated agreement involving Moscow.  The real risks and costs for the U.S. will only manifest themselves when prospects for success are greatest.  Presently, there is simply no viable political opposition able to assume power in a deeply divided Syrian society.  As the tragic histories of Iraq and Afghanistan suggest, a strong international presence underpinned by U.S. combat forces and bolstered by U.S. intelligence and logistics support will be required to avoid the eruption of civil war until broader political reconciliation takes hold.  Finally, the reconstruction costs for Syria alone exceed $200 billion[7] – a portion of which will likely be borne by the U.S. Treasury.

Gain:  Option #1 seeks to make maximum diplomatic advantage of a limited U.S. military strike.  It requires little investment beyond organizing a broad diplomatic effort to press all parties to arrive at a negotiated solution.  It is possible that Assad’s use of chemical weapons will serve as an affront to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was a primary party along with President Obama to the agreement that removed tons of chemical weapons from Syria and avoided a U.S. military strike in 2013.  SecState Tillerson’s long experience negotiating with Russia could equip him to successfully exploit this opportunity to leverage Russian support for ousting Assad.

Option #2:  Limited Military Escalation.  Long-time advocates of deeper U.S. military engagement have been trumpeting the recent U.S. missile attacks as an opportunity to escalate a U.S. military campaign to unseat Assad.  Options here range from resurrecting an earlier Central Intelligence Agency / Department of Defense program to arm-and-equip carefully vetted Syrian opposition groups, to establishing no-fly zones or safe areas for the protection of civilians, to conducting an air campaign to destroy Assad’s air force.

Risk:  These military options have been repeatedly debated and dismissed by senior U.S. officials because of the risks inherent in these approaches.  The previous program to arm-and-equip Syrian opposition groups ended in abject failure.  A program designed to raise a force of 15,000 fighters at a cost of $500 million netted only a handful of recruits that were quickly captured by Al-Qa’ida-linked elements as soon as they crossed into Syria[8].  Former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey noted that no-fly zones and safe areas would require the commitment of “thousands of U.S. ground troops” and would cost billions each month to maintain[9].  Finally, a military campaign taking out Assad’s air force would expose U.S. pilots to an advanced and integrated Syrian air defense system that has recently been upgraded by Russia.   Any such military campaign would almost inevitably result in Russian and Iranian casualties, risking escalation and retaliation against U.S. interests regionally and globally.

Gain:  The potential rewards for this high risk approach would be correspondingly rich if this increased military pressure ultimately yielded a negotiated resolution removing Assad from power.  The successful application of American military power would reassure U.S. allies and potentially bolster U.S. deterrence against potential adversaries including Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by President Trump on Syria,” Washington, DC: The White House, April 6, 2017, available from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/04/06/statement-president-trump-syria.

[2]  Gregor Aisch, Yonette Joseph, and Anjali Singhvi, “Which Countries Support and Which Oppose the U.S. Missile Strikes in Syria,” The New York Times, April 9, 2011.

[3]  Steve Holland, “White House backs Haley, Tillerson on Syria’s Assad,” Reuters, March 31, 2017, available from www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-usa-idUSKBN1722US

[4]  Mahita Gajanan, “National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster:  U.S. Wants to Eliminate ‘Murderous Regime’ in Syria,” Time, April 10, 2017.

[5]  Ibid and Josh Lederman, “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Issues Warning About Syria:  ‘We Cannot Let This Happen Again’,” Time, April 11, 2017.

[6]  Paul Wolfowitz, “What Comes After the Syria Strikes: With American credibility restored, Trump should lead a diplomatic effort to replace Assad,” The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2017.

[7]  David W. Lesch and James Gelvin, “Assad Has Won in Syria.  But Syria Hardly Exists,” The New York Times, January 11, 2017.

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

[9]  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.

 

Civil War Dr. Christopher Bolan Leadership Change Option Papers Syria United States Weapons of Mass Destruction

Syria Options: Refugee Preparation & Resettlement

Chelsea Daymon is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the Department of Communication and is a Presidential Fellow in the Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative (TCV) at Georgia State University.  She is also the Executive Producer of The Loopcast, a weekly show that focuses on issues facing national security, international affairs, and information security.  She holds an M.A. in Near and Middle Eastern studies from University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), an honorary M.A. from Cambridge University (UK), and a B.A. in Oriental Studies from Cambridge University (UK).  She can be found on Twitter @cldaymon.  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 refugee crisis.

Date Originally Written:  December 18, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  January 12, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is an active security researcher and academic.

Background:  The Syrian Civil War has devastated millions of lives, families, and the infrastructure of the country.  The world has witnessed countless atrocities, death, destruction, and a refugee crisis of mammoth proportions.  As of December 4, 2016, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates over 4.8 million Syrians have sought refuge outside of the country[1].  When considering the horrendous reports coming out of Aleppo on December 13, 2016, deliberating on strategies for when peace returns to the country may seem ridiculous[2].  Yet, there will be a time when the conflict ends and some will want to return home. Those who arrive will find a country in complete devastation where, more than likely, their previous occupational skills will not be required until reconstruction is complete.

Significance:  Historically, civil wars coupled with insurgencies have created an unfavorable mix when considering resettlement.  Syria’s porous borders allow transnational actors, who are not members of the local populace, the ability to easily enter and leave while organizing and committing attacks, adding to already unstable conditions[3].  Additionally, individuals returning to a region recently involved in a bloody conflict will arrive with deep emotional scars in need of healing.  Finally, a country with a potential lack of options can likewise produce unrest and discontent in its population.  Syria will benefit in the long-run and stability in the region will improve if Syrian citizens and the international community form a reconstruction plan that breeds healing, stability, and security.

Option 1:  Education and training should be provided to refugees, promoting skill development in engineering, security, urban development, governance, healthcare (this should include not only physical health but mental health services to deal with traumatic stress), and education, which are all fields necessary to revitalize, sustain, heal, and cultivate a country’s future.  As UNICEF notes, “education has crucial linkages to a society’s social, economic and political spheres” not only for children but adults as well[4].  This education and training should be conducted in nations that offer first-class educational systems, providing quality teaching and imparting sound skill advancements to refugees.

Risk:  The risks of Option #1 are economic and uncertain.  Countries must allocate funds to enable such training, which could prove burdensome.  However, the international community could work together to facilitate this. On the other hand, the future of Syria could rest in the hands of the Assad regime, or an even worse dictator, meaning that the international community would be sending highly skilled individuals to an adversarial government, presenting both a security risk and a humanitarian conundrum.

Gain:  The gains would be multifaceted.  Firstly, there is the potential for a positive outcome for a country that has undergone complete devastation.  These skills would enable progress towards creating infrastructure, rebuilding the country, maintaining security, the promotion of individual well-being, as well as educating the next generation of Syrians.  In time, this would foster economic growth.

During the Cold War, Pakistani military personnel obtained training and education in the United States (U.S.), which encouraged favorable collaboration and views of the West during a pivotal time in a battle against Communism[5].  Similarly, providing education to Syrian refugees, particularly in Western countries, could advance positive sentiments and potential cooperation between a new Syrian government and Western nations.  These are crucial elements needed for U.S. and international interests, as well as security in a region which has proven unstable.

Option 2:  Provide greater opportunities for Syrian refugees to seek asylum in stable nations, especially the U.S.

Risk:  The risk of Option #2 is security-related as some fear a scenario whereby a Syrian refugee commits or facilitates an act of violence in the country in which they obtain asylum.  However, when considering the U.S. vetting process for refugees, including multiple interviews, biometric security checks by the intelligence community, medical checks, and cultural orientation, all of which take on average 24 months to undergo; the likelihood of security issues arising from refugees diminishes[6].  However, there is always the possibility of some risk, as with all national security decisions.

Gain:  The gains of Option #2 would be receiving individuals from a country which had a decent education system before the war, with a 95% literacy rate for 15-24-year-olds and compulsory education to the age of 15[7].   If granted asylum in the U.S., Syrian refugees would foster a continuity of diversity which breeds economic growth and is a foundation of American values.  Despite the controversy surrounding the issue, the Manhattan Institute found that both low-skilled and high-skilled immigrants added to increases in U.S. economic growth[8].  Finally, welcoming refugees into the U.S. could advance U.S. strategic interests with the European Union by providing a display of goodwill to countries already inundated with refugees themselves.  Furthermore, it could offer leverage with regional negotiators in regards to the future of Syria[9].

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None


Endnotes:

[1]  Syrian Emergency. (2016, December 4). Retrieved from http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php#_ga=1.176014178.178231959.1481466649

[2]  Shaheen, K. (2016, December 13). Children trapped in building under attack in Aleppo , doctor tells UN. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/13/red-cross-urgent-plea-to-save-civilians-aleppo-syria and Cumming-Bruce, N. & Barnard, A. (2016, December 13). ‘A complete meltdown of humanity’: Civilians die in fight for eastern Aleppo. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/world/middleeast/syria-aleppo-civilians.html

[3]  Staniland, P. (2005-06) Defeating Transnational Insurgencies: The best offense is a good fence. The Washington Quarterly. Winter, 29(1), pp.21-40.

[4]  UNICEF, Education and peacebuilding. (2012, August 2). Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/education/bege_65480.html

[5]  Moyar, M. (2016). Aid for Elites: Building Partner Nations and Ending Poverty Through Human Capital. Cambridge University Press.

[6]  Pope, A. (2015, November 20). Infographic: The screening process for refugee entry into the United States. The White House Blog. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/11/20/infographic-screening-process-refugee-entry-united-states and Altman, A. (2015, November 17). This is how the Syrian refugee screening process works. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4116619/syrian-refugees-screening-process/

[7]  Global Education Cluster (2015, March 16). Retrieved from http://educationcluster.net/syria-4-years/ and Education System Syria. Ep nuffic, The organization for Internationalization in Education. Retrieved from https://www.epnuffic.nl/en/publications/find-a-publication/education-system-syria.pdf

[8]  Furchtgott-Roth, D. (2014) Does immigration increase economic growth? Economic Policies for the 21st Century, No.2. Retriever from http://www.manhattan-institute.org/pdf/e21_02.pdf

[9]  Long, K. (2015, December 16). Why America could ― and should ― admit more Syrian refugees. The Century Foundation. Retrieved from https://tcf.org/content/report/why-america-could-and-should-admit-more-syrian-refugees/

Aid and Development Chelsea Daymon Civil War Option Papers Refugees Syria

Egyptian Syriana: A Gulf-Funded Russian Roulette

Murad A. Al-Asqalani is an open-source intelligence analyst based in Cairo, Egypt.  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:  Political opportunity for the current Egyptian administration in the war in Syria.

Date Originally Written:  December 11, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  January 9, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The article is written from the point of view of the As’Sissi administration (TAA) of Government of Egypt (GoE) towards the war in Syria.

Background:  In 1958, Egypt and Syria formed the first Arab alliance in the region.  Although the United Arab Republic was short-lived, and despite its demise in 1961, political and security relationships between the two countries have continued.  The armies of both countries launched a surprise attack against Israel in 1973 to reclaim the Sinai and Golan Heights, which were occupied after a pre-emptive war launched by Israel in 1967.  However, after the unilateral decision by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to make peace with Israel, Syrian President Hafiz Al-Assad pursued a policy of sustained agitation propaganda against the Sadat and the Mubarak administrations.  This policy was maintained by his son and successor, current Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, then it was followed by a policy of encouraging public opinion subversion through agent provocateurs peddling pro-Syria narratives in Egyptian state media, after the Egyptian uprising of 2011.  On several occasions, Egyptian Intelligence Community officials claimed that several Egyptian Islamist terrorists received support from Syrian and Iranian intelligence services to carry out attacks against Egyptian officials and interests.

Following years of political instability, former Army Field Marshal As’Sissi rose to the helm of power in Egypt, leading an administration that seeks to project ‘soft power’ in the near-abroad.  The war in Syria offers TAA an opportunity to redraw the map of regional alliances and to maneuver around several national security threats that currently have no viable solutions.  These threats include tracking battle-hardened Jihadis returning from Syria, a fragile national economy reliant on tourism, Suez Canal revenues to secure foreign currency, and Iranian aggression.

In the wake of the Egyptian atypical coup of 2013, the GoE turned to Gulf countries for economic aid packages, and turned to Putin’s Russia for military cooperation.  The GoE also strengthened its political and military cooperation with the French government, which openly opposes the Assad regime in Syria.  After the bombing of a Russian commercial airliner over the Sinai by operatives of the so-called Islamic State (IS), and after disagreements with Gulf countries regarding a final solution in Syria, as well as the war in Yemen, TAA supported two conflicting draft resolutions in the security council, and declared its support for a ‘Syrian national army’ (SNA).  TAA stated that SNA was best suited to stabilize war-torn Syria.  TAA envisions SNA as a replacement for the now-defunct and disgraced Syrian Arab Army (SAA) with the SNA being a melting pot to assimilate all ethnicities and all emergent armed groups in Syria after a process of national reconciliation.

Many observers translated this position as ‘support for Assad,’ which perhaps may prove to be wrong.  In other words, since the Government of Syria (GoS) has been undermined by Russian and Iranian meddling, the SAA is in disarray after huge losses coupled with nationwide defection and desertion, and since the social fabric of Syria as a nation-state was torn along ethnic and religious fault lines, TAA is not betting on the survival of Assad per se, but is rather trying to sell a model for nation building.

Significance:  TAA is interested in maintaining a secular GoS, improving security cooperation, maintaining a fragile alliance with Russia, and in engineering a political rapprochement with Iran.  It is also interested in protecting certain Egyptian economic interests, mainly tourism and Suez Canal revenues, as well as newly discovered, deepwater natural gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea.  Given these parameters, the options available to TAA are:

Option #1:  Support a ‘Syrian National Army’

Risk:  By declaring support to an SNA, TAA risks economic divestment by Saudi Arabia, the stigma of supporting Assad and SAA (both accused of committing war crimes), and the ethical predicament of siding with foreign troops and foreign religious militias – Russian special operations forces, Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah, Shiite mercenaries, etc – deployed against the Syrian people.

Gain:  By proposing the SNA narrative, TAA aims to save the failed model of a secular Arab republic in Syria, and to improve cooperation with its security services.  It offers the parties most invested in the conflict, namely Russia and Iran, an exit strategy to stop supporting Assad after the war ends.  In return, it expects a share in post-war reconstruction and military rebuilding contracts, wishes to strengthen its position with Russia, and hopes to use Iranian ambitions for regional hegemony to counter political and economic pressures from Saudi Arabia.  It is also interested in inclusion in any future plans for developing and operating natural gas pipelines, deepwater natural gas fields in the Mediterranean, as well as regional natural gas production and collection hubs.  Blocking access of Gulf countries to a Mediterranean port ensures that tankers will continue to sail through the Suez Canal to ship oil and liquified natural gas (LNG) to Europe.

Option #2:  Support the ‘Syrian Revolution’

Risk:  The ‘Syrian Revolution’ narrative, in which opposition forces fight to topple GoS, is no longer relevant after the dimensions of the proxy war in Syria were revealed.  By supporting this narrative, TAA will undermine itself, and delegitimize its rise to power.  It will upset Russia while siding with Gulf countries against Iran in an almost-lost proxy war.  TAA will also risk becoming a supporter of terrorism, after most of the so-called revolutionary factions in Syria have demonstrated to be mostly Sunni Islamist extremists.  It will risk impact to its economic interests, such as tourism and Suez Canal revenues, as well as investments in the energy sector.  It will risk direct involvement in the conflict, should Gulf countries decide to intervene militarily.  It should be noted that former President Muhammad Morsi’s reference to a possible Egyptian military intervention in Syria was one of the main triggers of the 2013 atypical coup against him, and his Qatar and Turkey-backed Muslim Brotherhood government.

Gain:  By supporting the ‘Syrian Revolution’ narrative, TAA stands to secure more Saudi and perhaps Qatari direct investments and petroleum aid packages.

Other Comments:  TAA’s regional calculus involves Israel, Turkey, and Qatar. Israel’s red line is supplying Hezbollah with advanced weapons, and it maintains a fruitful security cooperation with GoE tackling the IS insurgency in the Sinai.  Therefore, TAA limits Egyptian arms sales to GoS to light weapons and ammunition.  TAA is currently engaged in a media war against Qatar and Turkey for their pan Islamic aspirations, which TAA considers a threat to Egyptian sovereignty.

Recommendation:  None.

Endnotes:

None.

Civil War Egypt Murad A. Al-Asqalani Option Papers Syria

Syria Options: Safe Zone

Carlo Valle has served in United States Marine Corps and the United States Army.  A graduate of History at Concordia University (Montreal) he is presently pursuing a Masters in Geopolitics and International Relations at the Catholic University of Paris.  He can be found on Twitter @cvalle0625.  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:  Civil war, humanitarian, and international crisis in Syria.

Date Originally Written:  December 4, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  January 2, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is a former enlisted member of the United States military and a constructivist who believes that international relations are influenced by more than just power and anarchy but also by the construction of identity.  The article is written from the point of view of the U.S. towards the Syrian Civil War.

Background:  The Syrian Civil War has moved into its fifth year.  A combination of intertwined and conflicting interests has created a stalemate for all sides thus prolonging human suffering.  Attempting to break the stalemate, Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air forces are bombing civilian targets in rebel-controlled areas, despite claims of targeting only the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Nusra-held areas.

Significance:  The conflict has sparked a mass exodus of refugees fleeing the fighting.  This mass exodus has overwhelmed neighboring countries and Europe.  To ease this refugee burden and human suffering, some have proposed establishing safe zones.

Option #1:  Establish a safe zone.  A safe zone is a de-militarized area intended to provide safety to non-combatants.

Risk:  For Syria and Russia to respect a safe zone it must protect non-combatants and remain neutral.  If Syrian opposition forces use the safe zone as a place from which to mount operations Syria and Russia could then justify attacking the safe zone [1].  If the safe zone is attacked by Syria and Russia, and U.S. and Coalition troops protecting the safe zone are killed or wounded, the U.S. risks war with Syria or Russia [2].  Additionally, if U.S. and Coalition troops discover Syrian opposition forces in the safe zone hostilities could erupt.  These hostilities could be used by ISIL or Al-Nusra to recruit new fighters and be a political embarrassment for the U.S. and the Coalition.

Establishing a safe zone will require a sizable neutral military presence that can deter attack and dissuade the Syrian opposition attempting to occupy the safe zone [3].  The military personnel protecting the safe zone must have clear rules of engagement and the overall safe zone mission will require a conditions-based arrival and exit strategy.  Just as important as establishing a safe zone is knowing when and how to extract oneself.  This goes beyond fear of media or political accusations of “being stuck in a quagmire” or “appeasement.”  Instead, the concern is based in judging whether the safe zone is becoming an obstacle to peace or worsening the situation.

Gain:  Establishing a safe zone will protect non-combatants thereby reducing the number of refugees overwhelming Syria’s Mid-East neighbors and Europe.  In the long-term, refugees that are unable to return to their homeland may destabilize the region by being unable to integrate into their host-nation’s society or by falling into the trap of radicalism[4].  Similar situations have happened in the 20th century with the Palestinian refugee crisis and Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Option #2:  Forgoing a safe zone.

Risk:  Not establishing a safe zone runs the long-term risks of regional instability or a new wave of radicalism that could be a problem for decades.  According to Stephen Walt, the U.S. has no interests in Syria to justify any involvement[5].  However, the Syrian Civil War has brought social and economic strain upon Syria’s neighbors and Europe.  In the Middle East, U.S. regional partners could turn their backs on the U.S. if they feel that the U.S. is not acting in their interests i.e. taking actions to stem the flow of refugees.  U.S. relationships in the Middle East are already strained due to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.  In Europe, refugee migration has ushered a wave of anti-European Union populism that questions the very international system of cooperation the U.S. has benefitted from since the end of World War II.  Were this questioning of the international system to fracture Europe, it would not be able to counter Russian aggression.

Gain:  The biggest advantage to forgoing the safe zone is the ability to keep other options open. U.S. and Coalition forces could be better used elsewhere, likely focusing on near-peer competitors such as Russia or China.  U.S. and Coalition forces could be employed in the Baltic States, or in the Pacific Rim to counter Russian aggression and China’s rise.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Joseph, E. P., & Stacey, J. A. (2016). A Safe Zone for Syria: Kerry’s Last Chance. Foreign Affairs. Accessed from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2016-10-05/safe-zone-syria

[2]  Bier, D. J. (2016). Safe Zones Won’t Save Syrians. National Interest. Accessed from http://nationalinterest.org/feature/safe-zones-wont-save-syrians-17979

[3]  Stout, M. (2015). [W]Archives: When “Safe Zones” Fail. War on the Rocks. Accessed from http://warontherocks.com/2015/07/warchives-when-safe-zones-fail/

[4]  Kristoff, N. (2016). Obama’s Worst Mistake [Op-Ed]. The New York Times. Accessed from http://nyti.ms/2aCJ54F

[5]  Walt, S. M. (2016). The Great Myth About U.S. Intervention in Syria. Foreign Policy. Accessed from http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/10/24/the-great-myth-about-u-s-intervention-in-syria-iraq-afghanistan-rwanda/

Carlo Valle Civil War Islamic State Variants No-Fly or Safe Zone Option Papers Russia Syria United States

Syria Options: Involving China as a Major Broker in Syria Peace Talks

Evanna Hu is a countering violent extremism expert and technologist, having lived and worked in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan.  She is presently a partner at Omelas, a US and EU firm at the intersection of technology and CVE/CT and has consulted and facilitated for various U.S. government agencies.  She can be found at evannahu.com and occasionally tweets @evannahu.  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:  Since the start of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, Russia, Iran, and the anti-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) coalition led by the U.S. are viewed as the most prominent external powerbrokers, backing either the Bashar al-Assad regime or the many rebel coalitions on the ground.  Indeed, Syria has become the proxy battleground for the powers of the world who are caught in between ambitions of regional hegemony and balance of power.  China’s role in the country, however, has been murky and underreported.  Yet, due to China’s escalating presence in Syria, its seat on the UN Security Council, and most importantly, the definitive shift Syria represents in China’s foreign policy, it is worth paying close attention to its rising influence and its broader significance.

Date Originally Written:  December 9, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 29, 2016.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  As a technologist in countering-violent extremism working in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, the author took China’s role in Syria much more seriously in spring 2014, when a sudden surge in jihadist propaganda on the plight of the Uighurs flooded websites and social media[1].  A year later, ISIL named China as a part of the enemy coalition and ramped up its recruitment of Chinese Muslims[2][3].  The author, from her facilitation background, believes that inclusivity of actors is the first critical step to solving a complex issue.  This article is written from the perspective of U.S. national security.

Background:  China’s involvement in Syria can be broken down into three phases.  From the five decades leading up to 2013, China’s foreign policy was guided by “the principle of non-interference in internal affairs” of other countries[4].  China made profits selling weapons, including biological, to the Assad government, but China firmly believed that the Syrian Civil War was a Syrian problem.  Based on this belief, China vetoed every Western resolution relating to Syria in the UN Security Council[5].  However, between 2013-2015, China began reconsidering its hands-off political policy.  Thousands of Uighurs joined Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly the al-Nusra Front, and at least 113 joined ISIL[6][7].  China started to see an increase in violence in Xinjiang, a result, it claims, of returnee fighters[8].  Moreover, as China became more concerned with the “U.S. hegemony in the region,” it coordinated military operations in Syria with Russia and continued to sell weapons to Assad. 

In December 2015, China passed a groundbreaking antiterrorism law.  For the first time, the national military can be stationed in other countries, beginning with a permanent base in Djibouti, leading to a break with China’s traditional non-interference principle[9].  The new policy centers around a counterbalance “for a fair and just world order,” according to the state-run news agency, Xinhua[10].  In Syria, the new principle has manifested itself in further cooperation with Russian military operations, expansion of the security delegation at the Chinese Embassy in Damascus, and high-level military-political discussions with Assad rather than going through Russian counterparts[11].  More telling of China’s involvement is the fact that starting in August 2016, it is sending military advisors to Assad to “improve personnel training and training Syrian soldiers how to use Chinese made weapons[12].  In the long-run, an Eastern-facing Syria is a key component to China’s grand strategy of the new Silk Road Initiative, history’s largest infrastructure project.  The terminus hub of the ancient Silk Road, Damascus, serves as both symbolic and literal representation of China’s ambition to be, once again, a world leader[13].

Significance:  Historically, Syria is the turning point and is setting the precedent for China’s future involvement in global affairs beyond the first island chain.  China’s decision-making process leading to the reversal of its foreign policy should be further examined, while its future movements need to be examined as clues to its (re)actions and policies not only about Syria and the Middle East, but also elsewhere in the world.  China’s “proactive diplomacy” (zhudong shi waijiao) is in direct competition with U.S. interests in the Middle East and globally.

Option #1:  Increase China’s role in the peace talks taking place to end the Syrian Civil War.  While China has been a participant in peace talks including the Vienna talks, it has not been given a considerable voice on Syria-related matters.

Risk:  Option #1 validates and formalizes China’s role on the world stage, which the U.S. needs to be careful about, as this could be seen as a U.S. admission that China is a superpower.

Gain:  With China’s increased role in the peace talks taking place to end the Syrian Civil War,  a potential compromise is easier, as China, much like the U.S., still wants a political solution rather than an extensive military campaign.  As a significant seller of weapons to Assad,  China has Assad’s ears, but at the same time, the short-term profit China gains from these weapons sales is outweighed by the grand strategy of the Silk Road initiative.  Presently, China has the leverage to push Assad towards a political compromise.  In the sense that China can help catalyze the process to a peaceful end, giving China a voice at the table has a relatively low opportunity cost.  Furthermore, by keeping China close, the U.S. can reap insights as to how it would act in the future in various foreign policy scenarios.

Option #2:  Maintain China’s current passive participation in the peace talks taking place to end the Syrian Civil War.

Risk:  Refusing China to be a main player in the Syrian peace talks can have disastrous consequences. Firstly, it confirms to China, along with Russia and Iran, that the U.S. wants hegemony in the region, leading to a potential confrontation not unlike the Cold War.  This potential confrontation could spur China to further arm Assad.  Not only would the further arming of Assad discredit the U.S. as more civilians die and the humanitarian disaster further deteriorates, but it also lengthens the Syrian Civil War for much longer than the U.S. public will tolerate.  The longer the U.S. is involved in the Syrian Civil War, the more resources are drawn away from other foreign and domestic issues.

Gain:  Option #2 shows the rest of the world that China is in fact not a force beyond the first island chain nor a superpower.  Option #2 leaves China the burden to demonstrate that its prowess can match its ambition.

Other Comments:  China has made Syria into a proxy dance with the U.S.  With the incoming administration, it will be interesting to watch how the carefully choreographed dance of the past will pass the test of time.  But make no mistake, China has embraced a new era of proactive diplomacy.  It has the domestic stability and monetary resources to carry out its wishes, against U.S. national interests.

Recommendations:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Philipp, Josh. “Al-Qaeda Calls for Caliphate in China’s Xinjiang”. October 26, 2014. The Epoch Times. http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/1043863-al-qaeda-calls-for-caliphate-in-chinas-xinjiang/

[2]  ISIS/ Daesh. Al-Hayat Media Center. Dabiq. Issue No. 4.

[3]  Wong, Edward & Wu, Adam. “ISIS Extends Recruitment Efforts to China with New Chant”. December 8, 2016. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com/2015/12/09/world/asia/isis-china-recruitment-chant-mandarin.html

[4]  The Chinese Embassy in Nigeria. “Two Stories of Confucius: an Eye into China’s Principle of ‘Non-interference in Internal Affairs’”. August 7, 2012. Daily Trust. http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/zflt/eng/zfgx/rwjl/t958839.htm

[5]  Volodzko, David. “China’s Role in the Syria Crisis Revisited”. September 28, 2015. The Diplomat. http://thediplomat.com/2015/09/chinas-role-in-the-syria-crisis-revisited/

[6]  Ali, Mohanad Hage. “China’s Proxy War in Syria: Revealing the Role of Uighur Fighters”. March 2, 2016. Al- Arabiya. https://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2016/03/02/China-s-proxy-war-in-Syria-Revealing-the-role-of-Uighur-fighters-.html

[7]  Rosenblatt, Nate. All Jihad is Local: What ISIS’ Files Tell Us about Its Fighters. New America Foundation. July 2016. https://na-production.s3.amazonaws.com/documents/ISIS-Files.pdf

[8]  Xinhua News Agency. “Syria’ FM Highlights Relations with China”. December 8, 2016. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-12/08/c_135888529.htm

[9]  Blanchard, Ben. “China Passes Controversial Counter-terrorism Law”. December 28, 2015. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-security-idUSKBN0UA07220151228

[10]  Xinhua News Agency. “Interview: Russia-China Partnership Crucial in Helping Maintain World Order: Russian Analyst”. November 5, 2016. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-11/05/c_135808251.htm

[11]  Xinhua News Agency. “Syria’ FM Highlights Relations with China”. December 8, 2016. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-12/08/c_135888529.htm

[12]  The Telegraph. “China Steps Up Military Cooperation with Assad”. August 11, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/18/china-steps-up-military-cooperation-with-assad-as-top-admiral-vi/

[13]  Lin, Christina. “Syria in China’s New Silk Road Initiative”. China Brief. The Jamestown Foundation. Vol.10; issue 8. April 16, 2010. https://jamestown.org/program/syria-in-chinas-new-silk-road-strategy/

China (People's Republic of China) Civil War Evanna Hu Option Papers Syria

Syria Options: No Fly Zone & Syrians Rebuilding Syria Program

Abu Sisu and Seshat are intelligence analysts currently working in the field of homeland security.  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:  Civil war, humanitarian, and international crisis in Syria.

Date Originally Written:  November 30, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 26, 2016.

Authors and / or Article Point of View:  Abu Sisu has more than 20 years of experience as a military and homeland security intelligence analyst.  Seshat is an intelligence analyst with over six years of experience living in the Middle East and focuses on local solutions to local problems.   

Background:  The complex and protracted nature of the conflict in Syria has continued for almost six years with no side achieving a definitive political or military victory.  While estimates vary, between 250,000 to 500,000 Syrians have died since 2011 and around eleven million were displaced from their homes, with almost five million having fled Syria[1].  The Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) has intentionally targeted civilians since the civil war began.  In September 2015 the Russian military began assisting Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime through airstrikes against rebel held territory which inflicted thousands of civilian casualties.

Significance:  The widespread targeting of civilians violates international law and has fueled the largest refugee and displacement crisis since World War II, further destabilizing the region[2].

Option #1:  A U.S.-led Coalition imposes a no-fly zone in Syria.  A no-fly zone is airspace designated as off limits to flight-related activities[3].  The SyAAF depopulates territory as a way to eliminate support for opposition groups.  A U.S.-led Coalition could restrict SyAAF movement thus protecting critical areas in Syria.  As with earlier no-fly zones in Iraq (Operation Southern Watch/Focus) and Bosnia (Operation Deny Flight), U.S. and Coalition forces would likely be authorized to attack other targets—anti-aircraft assets for example—that threaten the mission.  On October 24th, 2016 Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Deborah Lee James said she was confident that it would be possible to impose a no-fly zone in Syria[4].  Mike Pence, the U.S. Vice President-Elect, announced his support for a no-fly zone during the Vice-Presidential debate on October 4th, 2016[5].

Risk:  Russian government activity supports the Assad regime and a no-fly zone may be interpreted as an attempt to undermine Russian national security goals.  If the U.S. cannot reach an agreement with the Russians on the implementation of a no-fly zone, the U.S. can expect the Russians to respond in one or more of the following ways:

Rejecting cooperation on Middle East issues.  Russian support is important for maintaining the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—and for concluding a peace agreement to the Syrian Civil War.  If Russia withdrew or chose to undermine efforts related to the Iran nuclear deal or the Syrian Civil War, it is likely that neither situation would achieve an acceptable resolution.

Escalating pressure on North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Members or U.S. Allies and Partners.  Russia has threatened to cut off natural gas supplies to Europe in the past and made aggressive military moves in the Baltics as a warning to Finland and Sweden to reject NATO membership[6][7].

Direct military confrontation between Russian forces currently supporting the Assad regime and U.S.-led Coalition forces in the region.  With both Russian and U.S.-led Coalition aircraft flying in Syrian airspace, the possibility exists for conflict between the two, either accidentally or when attempting to evade or enforce the no-fly zone.  Additionally, Russian forces deployed anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and, as of October 6th, 2016 declared that any Coalition airstrikes against territory held by the Syrian government would be interpreted as a “clear threat” to Russian forces[8].

Gain:  A no-fly zone could eliminate the threat to civilians from the SyAAF.  Displaced persons would have more options to relocate within Syria rather than making a perilous journey to other countries.  A no-fly zone would reduce the capabilities of the Assad regime which has relied on airpower to counter attacks by opposition forces.  A reduction in Syria’s ability to use airpower may serve as another incentive for the Assad regime to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

Option #2:  A pilot program that provides Syrian refugees with the training and skills to rebuild Syria in the aftermath of the conflict—Syrians Rebuilding Syria (SRS).  SRS will solicit the assistance of volunteer engineers and architects—specifically those involved with the post-conflict reconstruction and development in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Lebanon—to train refugees.  The aim is to equip teams of refugees with the appropriate vocational training in architecture, city planning and development, brick laying, constructing roads, installing or repairing electrical grids, operating heavy construction machinery, and implementing sewage and drainage systems among other things.

Risk:  As the intensity of the Syrian Civil War increases the refugee flow the SRS will require increased funding to train them.  The accumulated costs of the SRS program in the short-term are unlikely to yield a tangible return on investment (ROI) and success will be difficult to measure.  Without a way to demonstrate ROI, the U.S. Congress may hesitate to appropriate continued funding for SRS.  Additionally, the success of the program depends on the outcome of the Syrian Civil War.  If Assad is not defeated, graduates of SRS may be viewed as American-trained spies, whose goal is to infiltrate and undermine the regime. Further, without a specific plan as to where the SRS-trained refugees will return to in Syria, or who they will meet once they arrive, the trainees will likely face unpredictable conditions with no guarantee of success.

Gain:  A militarily agnostic option that trains refugees to rebuild Syria could prove to be a strategically effective tool of U.S. soft power.  SRS would not burden the U.S. with nation building, but instead provide Syrians with the necessary tools to rebuild their own country.  These factors would likely assist in countering anti-Americanism, particularly among Syrians, and serve as a model for effective non-military assistance in future conflicts. Additionally, as the conflict is prolonged, graduates of SRS will likely become more attractive refugees to other countries in the region due to their employability.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  CNN, L. S.-S., Jomana Karadsheh and Euan McKirdy. (n.d.). Activists count civilian toll of Russian airstrikes in Syria. Retrieved November 10, 2016, from http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/30/middleeast/un-aleppo-condemnation/index.html

[2]  United Nations. (2016, March 15). Syria conflict at 5 years: The biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time demands a huge surge in solidarity. Retrieved December 02, 2016, from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/press/2016/3/56e6e3249/syria-conflict-5-years-biggest-refugee-displacement-crisis-time-demands.html

[3]  Hinote, C. (2015, May 05). How No-Fly Zones Work. Retrieved November 23, 2016, from http://blogs.cfr.org/davidson/2015/05/05/how-no-fly-zones-work/

[4]  OMelveny, S. (n.d.). SecAF: US Could Create Syria No-Fly Zone While Fighting ISIS [Text]. Retrieved November 10, 2016, from http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/10/24/secaf-us-could-create-syria-no-fly-zone-while-fighting-isis.html

[5]  Syria Draws a Rare Source of Accord in Debate Between Kaine and Pence – The New York Times. (n.d.). Retrieved November 10, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/06/us/syria-vice-presidential-debate.html?_r=1

[6]  Russia Gazprom risks another gas standoff with Ukraine – Business Insider. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2016, from http://www.businessinsider.com/russia-gazprom-risks-another-gas-standoff-with-ukraine-2015-2?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+businessinsider+(Business+Insider)

[7]  Russia Issues Fresh Threats Against Unaligned Nordic States. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2016, from http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/international/2016/05/05/russia-issues-fresh-threats-against-unaligned-nordic-states/83959852/

[8]  Oliphant, R. (2016, October 06). Russia warns it will shoot down alliance jets over Syria if US launches air strikes against Assad. Retrieved December 04, 2016, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/06/russian-air-defence-missiles-would-respond-if-us-launches-air-st/

Abu Sisu Aid and Development Civil War No-Fly or Safe Zone Option Papers Refugees Russia Seshat Syria

Syria Options: Military & Political Pressure

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:  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.


Endnotes:

[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/.

Civil War Dr. Christopher Bolan Option Papers Syria United States

Syria Options: No Fly Zone & Remove Assad

Barefoot Boomer is a U.S. Army officer and has served in both the Infantry and Armor.  He is currently a Strategic Planner serving in Texas.  He can be found on Twitter at @BarefootBoomer.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, organization, or group.


National Security Situation:  Civil war, humanitarian, and international crisis in Syria.

Date Originally Written:  November 23, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 19, 2016.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Barefoot Boomer is a Strategic Planner with the U.S. Army and has previously served in the Operation Inherent Resolve Coalition Headquarters which leads the U.S. effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Background:  Since the civil war in Syria began in 2011 there has been no limit to the suffering of the Syrian civilian population.  Not only has the violence caused regional instability and the largest refugee crisis in recent history, but the cost in civilian lives has grown exponentially, the siege of Aleppo being a prime example.  Thousands of civilians have been under siege in Aleppo for over two years, victims of Syrian and Russian aerial attacks.  Civilian targets, including hospitals and neighborhoods, have been bombed killing many.  Aid convoys attempting to relieve the siege have also been attacked by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian supporters.

Significance:  Nature abhors a vacuum.  So does U.S. foreign policy, hence the reason why the U.S. seeming inaction in Syria is mind-boggling to some.  Disturbing images of dead civilians, including heartbreaking pictures of young children, have provoked calls for the international community to “do something.”  The lawlessness and indiscriminate targeting of civilians as well as the huge flood of refugees streaming out of Syria has turned a civil war into an international crisis.  As the U.S. is the leader of the anti-ISIS Coalition, and would be the main executor of, and bear the brunt of any operation, it is prudent to understand the U.S. position as well as implications.  Any intervention by the U.S. and her allies is also significant to regional neighbors and actors, such as Syria and Russia.

Option #1:  Establish a no-fly zone in part of Syria.  A no-fly zone is airspace designated as off-limits to flight-related activities[1].

Risk:  There are numerous risks involved in establishing a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians and refugees fleeing the ongoing fighting.  Militarily, attempting to set up a no-fly zone that could reasonably protect civilians would be a tremendous task.  The U.S. and her allies would have to use air power to establish air superiority to protect the area from Syrian and Russian air attacks.  This would mean conducting actions to suppress air defenses and destroy Syrian and Russian aircraft, either in the air or possibly on the ground.  It would also have to include hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. ground troops to support air operations.  The logistics involved would also be incredibly complex.  The political risks are just as daunting.  Seizing sovereign Syrian territory in order to establish a no-fly zone with U.S. troops would be a de facto invasion, which would anger Assad’s main ally, Russia.  The threat of U.S. and Russia confronting each other would rise exponentially, just as the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, United States Marine Corps General Joseph F. Dunford Jr has insinuated[2].

Gain:  There would be little gain from establishing a no-fly zone in Syria.  Not only would the immediate risks outweigh any perceived gains in the long-term but it would not necessarily help those people still trapped inside Aleppo or other population centers.

Option #2:  Remove Assad.

Risk:  Ultimately, the underlying cause of civilian deaths and suffering in Syria is the Syrian regime itself, led by President Bashar al-Assad.  If the U.S. and its’ Coalition of willing allies decided, under the auspices of a Responsibility to Protect[3] Syrian civilians, to attempt to address the underlying cause, they would become directly involved in the civil war and remove Assad from power.  The risks in doing so are enormous, not only to the U.S. and the Coalition, but to the Syrian people they would be attempting to help.  It would take hundreds of thousands of Coalition troops to do regime change similar to what the U.S. did in Iraq in 2003.  The U.S. public has little stomach for another Middle East regime changing war or the spending of blood and treasure that comes with it.

Gain:  Removing Assad would most assuredly lift the siege of Aleppo and relieve the horror civilians are experiencing on the ground but it would not necessarily stop the sectarian strife and political upheaval that are at the heart of the civil war.  If nothing else U.S. involvement would increase tensions with not only Russia and other regional actors but would embroil U.S. forces in another possibly decade-long occupation and stability operation.  More civilians, not less, may be caught up in the post-Assad violence that would certainly hamper efforts at rebuilding.

Other Comments:  Any decision made regarding involvement in Syria must come down to risk.  How much risk are the U.S. and her allies willing to take to ensure the safety of the Syrian people, and how much is there to gain from that risk.  Also, with a new U.S. President assuming office in January 2017, there is uncertainty about whether U.S. Syrian policy will stay the same or radically change.  Ultimately, weighing the spending of blood and treasure to establish a no-fly zone in Syria must be bounded within the confines of U.S. national security interests.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Hinote, C. (2015, May 05). How No-Fly Zones Work. Retrieved November 23, 2016, from http://blogs.cfr.org/davidson/2015/05/05/how-no-fly-zones-work/

[2]  Dunford tells Wicker controlling airspace in Syria means war with Russia. (2016, September 25). Retrieved November 19, 2016, from https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4621738/dunford-tells-wicker-controlling-airspace-syria-means-war-russia-mccain-throws-tantrum-dunford

[3]  Office of The Special Adviser on The Prevention of Genocide. (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2016, from http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/responsibility.shtml

Barefoot Boomer Civil War Islamic State Variants Leadership Change No-Fly or Safe Zone Option Papers Russia Syria United States

Options for Turkey in Syria

0383a3a3-3bf1-43e7-9545-7e3061b1e1b5-719-00000076c421e606_tmp

Chris Townsend is an active duty U.S. Army officer with 20 years of service.  He is a Middle East and North Africa Foreign Area Officer.  He can be found on Twitter @FAO_Chris and has written for the Journal of Defense Resources Management, Small Wars Journal, Armchair General, and the Strategy Bridge.  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:  Turkey’s options regarding the civil war, humanitarian, and international crisis in Syria.

Date Originally Written:  November 23, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 12, 2016.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is an active duty military officer currently focused on Multinational Logistics for a Geographic Combatant Command.  This article explores Turkey’s options in the Syrian Conflict.  The author’s opinions of Turkey’s options in Syria have been informed by his experiences as a Foreign Area Officer and benefitted from articles published by World Politics Review, Politico, The Middle East Institute, The Atlantic Council, and Stratfor.

Background:  Following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, protests in Syria resulted in a security crackdown that devolved into outright civil war between Alawi leaders and loyalists and the largely Sunni resistance.  Refugee flows from conflict areas have created problems for all neighboring countries.  Al-Qaida and the Islamic State have been actively involved in the resistance, while Lebanese Hezbollah has supported the Syrian ruling regime.  Russia has intervened on behalf of the Syrian government, while the United States has provided training and equipment to resistance fighters.  Kurdish militias in Northern Syria have largely supported opposition forces.  The complex and dynamic array of forces presents significant challenges politically and militarily for Turkey.

Significance:  The ongoing sectarian struggle in Syria presents significant security challenges for Turkey.  The presence of international and indigenous military forces in Syria as well as heavy refugee flows fleeing the fighting all represent a threat to the security and stability of the Turkish state.

Option #1:  Containment.  Turkey can close its border and protect its airspace until the situation in Syria is resolved.

Risk:  Refugee flows will create problems at the border and a potential humanitarian crisis that would draw condemnation from the global community.  Kurdish militias will be able to link up and may represent a perceived threat to Turkish security.

Gain:  Refugees are kept out of Turkey.  Turkish military involvement is limited to border security and airspace defense.  Turkey provides a neutral space for negotiations between belligerents and reaps potential diplomatic gains.

Option #2:  Syrian Buffer Zone.  Turkey pushes ground and air forces south to secure Northern Syria from Azaz in the West to Jarabulus in the East.

screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-3-23-10-pm

Risk:  Turkish troops exposed to increased conflict from Syrian Forces.  Potential clashes with Kurdish and Russian military elements could escalate conflict.  Actions could be seen as the invasion of a sovereign nation and will likely be met with condemnation and potential sanctions.  No-fly zone activities to support the buffer zone may be challenged by Russia or Syria with ramifications for interdiction.  Turkish resources are insufficient to sustain such an effort and would require external support for extended operations.

Gain:  Provides a safe space for refugees without allowing them into Turkey.  Prevents Kurdish elements in the East and West from linking up.  Provides a learning opportunity to Turkish Forces by deploying troops and equipment into combat with a minimal logistics tail.

Option #3:  Support to Syrian proxy Jaysh Halab (Army of Aleppo).  Turkey provides training and equipment with support from Saudi Arabia to its proxy in Syria to maintain a Turkish footprint without Turkish presence and prevent Kurdish elements from combining into a larger force on Turkey’s southern border.

Risk:  Exposure to culpability for actions of the proxy force if war crimes are committed against Syrian or Kurdish soldiers or civilians.  Lack of vetting capability exposes the proxy to infiltration by other elements.  Little clarity of intent as forces are engaging both Kurdish and Syrian forces.

Gain:  Proxy inhibits Kurdish momentum towards unification of forces.  Increased relations with Saudi Arabia help to further offset Iranian influence in the region.  Turkey poised to establish proxy as peacekeeping force if hostilities cease, maintaining influence in Syria and positive control of border interests.

Other Comments:  Turkey seems to be currently pursuing all three options simultaneously.  A border wall is under construction.  Turkish forces are operating in Syria. Jaysh Halab is receiving support but its early activities seem to be anti-Kurd instead of anti-Syrian Government.  The Turkish presence in Northern Iraq serves as a hedge that will largely funnel retreating Islamic State forces west into Raqqah, Syria.  The Turkish or proxy forces to the North of Raqqah provide pressure and limit options for the Islamic State as threats emerge from the East and South.  Turkey represents a potential spoiler for U.S. efforts to clear Raqqah as their involvement creates political hazards by limiting U.S. options and increasing the risk of rejection by Kurdish partners.

Recommendation:  None


Endnotes:

None.

Chris Townsend Civil War Islamic State Variants Option Papers Syria Turkey