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

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

Capacity / Capability Enhancement Civil War Michael D. Purzycki Option Papers Refugees Syria Turkey United States

Blurred lines: Options for Security & Immigration in Europe

Katja Theodorakis is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, where she is focusing on Jihadi ideology, radicalization and foreign fighters.  She publishes and regularly presents at seminars and conferences on the topics of national security/terrorism, jihadism and Middle East politics.  Katja holds a First-Class Honours degree in International Development from the Australian National University and has previously lived in the Middle East, where she was engaged in educational projects and NGO work in Syria.  She can be found on twitter @KatjaTheo.  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:  Islamic State (IS) inspired terror attacks have highlighted weaknesses in the European Union’s (EU) collective response to such security challenges.  Note:  This article does not conflate increased security concerns with the arrival of refugees.  Rather, border security and immigration control is linked here specifically to undetected criminal activity, unauthorized overstays, and the easy proliferation of existing terrorist networks.

Date Originally Written:  February 7, 2017

Date Originally Published:  February 23, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is an academic terrorism researcher, objectively assessing contemporary security challenges and the threats emanating from militant jihadism.  As an Australian citizen and resident, the author’s research is supported by an Australian Government Scholarship, but this article is not written from a particular political or national security perspective.  Having lived and studied in a number of European countries as well as the U.S., the author seeks to analyze security issues, which are often highly politicized, from a wider, comparative point of view.

Background:  The security situation in Europe is at a crossroads after a string of IS-inspired terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016.  The events witnessed in Paris, Brussels, Nice, and Berlin, as well as various smaller-scale attacks and foiled plots, have highlighted systemic weaknesses in the EU’s security architecture.  While the backgrounds and radicalization journeys of the individual attackers vary – including ‘homegrown’ jihadists as well as recent migrant arrivals – the common denominator is that they were able to take advantage of existing vulnerabilities in the EU’s approach to security, border control and immigration.

Security cooperation within the EU is reflected in the ‘Schengen’ zone, which allows for free travel as its member states surrendered some of their national powers to the supranational ‘Frontex’ border agency.  Likewise, under the Dublin Regulation, the European Asylum Support Office is supposed to coordinate the registration and processing of asylum seekers within the zone in a fair manner, and relevant security information is to be shared under the Schengen Information System (ISI).  Yet, the arrival of more than one million refugees and migrants in 2015 alone has plunged this already strained system into severe crisis[1].

The dangerous confluence of security failures, both at the national and the supranational level, became especially evident in the case of Anis Amri, the perpetrator of the Berlin Christmas market attack.  The rejected asylum-seeker and self-proclaimed jihadist from Tunisia escaped deportation after being found guilty of criminal activity in several European countries, avoided surveillance by security agencies, and managed to cross numerous European borders undetected.  Such security gaps, visible also in some of the other attacks, have cast doubt on Europe’s collective ability to protect itself from these emerging security threats through a coordinated response.

Significance:  Due to such attacks, the very survival of the Schengen project is now in question as national border controls have been partly reinstated across the zone.  This temporary return to nationalized border protection raises the question of what the options are for European leaders and policy makers to enhance security and border control across the continent?

This issue is particularly pressing in light of the continued disintegration of Syria and the security challenges for the wider Middle East.  Refugee streams will likely continue on top of ongoing migration flows from other areas of instability, such as Africa and Afghanistan.  The inevitable loss of territory for IS could lead to a shift of focus and increase its underground activity, making further terrorist attacks in Europe more likely.

Option #1:  EU countries return to national sovereignty over matters of border control, surveillance and immigration.

Individual member states can opt for more national self-determination and less cooperation with the EU on security issues.  This renationalization of migration and border protection policies could include a number of different scenarios; these range from  1) the permanent re-introduction of internal borders within the entire Schengen area, as temporarily implemented by six member states at present; 2)  a tighter, more controllable core Schengen area excluding countries such as Greece that have external borders;  to  3) even a complete Brexit-style departure from the EU, as for example proposed by France’s far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

Risk:  Full national control of internal borders could pose a financial risk, impede free trade, and slow tourism across Europe, with an estimated annual cost of 5 – 18 billion Euros for Schengen member states[2].  It could also prove inefficient in terms of preventing terrorist attacks committed by ‘homegrown’ jihadis.  Moreover, uncoordinated security measures and migration control by individual states run the risk of creating political divisions and could inhibit more efficient information and intelligence sharing networks across Europe.  Given the increasing nexus between jihadi activity and existing crime networks in Europe, a lack of cooperation could therefore prove detrimental[3].

Gain:  A renationalization of border controls could provide more efficient security as it can avoid the lack of coordination and consistency inherent in EU-wide measures and allows for tighter surveillance.  The permanent closure of open internal borders would directly restrict the secondary movement of refugees, irregular migrants, and returning foreign fighters (at least those known to security agencies) within the zone.  This could have a positive effect on the overall security situation as asylum-seekers without documentation would remain in their country of arrival, thereby preventing those engaging in illegal activities to ‘fall through the cracks’ and evade deportation.

Option #2:  An EU-wide overhaul and harmonization of existing border management and immigration schemes.

This option would be part of a streamlined new agenda, a ‘21st Century European Security Pact’, as proposed by EU leaders at recent summits in Bratislava (2016) and Malta (2017).  Based on more unification and burden-sharing, this envisioned security agenda is to include increased military and security cooperation in the form of a European Border and Coast Guard, as well as increased Defense spending and a new ‘entry-exit’ system for non-EU arrivals to the Schengen zone where personal details are registered in a database[4][5].

Risk:  Harmonization depends on the willingness of member states to cooperate and make concessions, which could prove difficult to achieve.  If the project remains largely visionary and common institutions backing new mechanism are not sufficiently overhauled, not much would change and the challenges to Europe’s security could still not be countered efficiently.  This would further undermine the credibility of the EU as a political project.

Gain:  If successfully implemented, measures such as greater intelligence cooperation and a strengthened EU border force could be very beneficial to improving the continent’s security situation in the long run.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendations:  None.


[1]  Pinja Lehton & Pali Alto [2017], “ Smart and secure borders through automated border control systems in the EU? The views of political stakeholders in the Member States”, European Security, January 2017, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09662839.2016.1276057

[2]  Peter, Laurence [2017] “ Berlin truck attack: Can the EU stop another Amri?”, BBC News, 6 January 2017. Retrieved January 22, 2017: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-38517768

[3]  Basra, R., Neumann, P. R., & Brunner, C. (2016). Criminal Pasts, Terrorist Futures: European Jihadists and the New Crime-Terror Nexus. Retrieved February 16, 2017, from http://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/ICSR-Report-Criminal-Pasts-Terrorist-Futures-European-Jihadists-and-the-New-Crime-Terror-Nexus.pdf

[4]  Federal Foreign Office, Germany [2016] “The Future of Security in Europe” – Keynote by Markus Ederer, Secretary of State, at the Workshop “Lessons from the Ukraine Conflict: Fix the European Security Order, or Overhaul it?” DGAP and Center for the US and Europe at Brookings. Retrieved 5 February 2017: https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Infoservice/Presse/Reden/2016/160920StS_E_Future_Security_Europe.html

[5]  Hammond, Andrew [2017],  “ Europe’s Leaders Are Finally Getting Serious About Security and Immigration – Will It Be Too Late?”, The Telegraph, 2 February 2017. Retrieved 7 February 2017: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/02/europes-leaders-finally-getting-serious-security-immigration/


European Union Katja Theodorakis Migrants Refugees Violent Extremism

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


[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 / Development / Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Relief Chelsea Daymon Civil War Option Papers Refugees 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.


[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 / Development / Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Relief Civil War No-Fly or Safe Zone Option Papers Refugees Russia Seshat Syria