Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?  Options for the U.S. Presence 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:  U.S. Force Posture in Syria following the strategic defeat of the Islamic State (IS).

Date Originally Written:  February 23, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  February 26, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author writes from the perspective of a seasoned regional analyst focusing on the Middle East.

Background:  The U.S. military battle against IS is nearing completion in both Iraq and Syria.  An intensified U.S. air campaign in support of local ground forces has effectively (and literally) destroyed the physical infrastructure of the so-called IS “caliphate” that at its peak occupied a territorial expanse roughly equivalent to that of Great Britain, extended its brutal authority over 11 million people, and gave it access to annual economic resources estimated at $1 billion[1].  In Iraq, a combination of U.S.-equipped and trained Iraqi security forces fighting alongside a variety of Shi’ia militia groups (some backed by Iran) allowed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to declare victory over IS in early December 2017.  In Syria, Kurdish and Syrian Arab forces enabled by U.S. special operations forces and an aggressive coalition bombing campaign liberated the IS caliphate’s self-proclaimed capital at Raqqa last fall and IS is now largely restricted to the Idlib province.

Significance:  The combined coalition military advances in both Iraq and Syria represent the strategic defeat of IS as a terrorist organization capable of holding territory in the Middle East.  These visible defeats strike at the heart of IS’s claim to leadership of the global jihadist movement.  The destruction of the ‘caliphate’ leaves IS a much diminished and impoverished organization.  Nonetheless, these significant battlefield victories do not entirely eliminate the IS threat as it remains capable of inspiring (if not planning) attacks that threaten regional instability and target Western interests.  In Iraq, a continued U.S. military presence codified through traditional security assistance programs in coordination with the central Iraqi government in Baghdad is virtually a foregone conclusion.  However, Syria presents a different strategic calculus for U.S. policymakers as they weigh options at a time when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to be consolidating his control with the active support of his allies in Moscow and Tehran.

Option #1:  Establish a long-term U.S. military presence in Syria.  U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced in mid-January 2018 that the U.S. “will maintain a military presence in Syria” for an indefinite period of time[2].  In doing so, Tillerson committed the U.S. to achieving an expansive set of strategic objectives that include: ensuring the defeat of IS and al-Qa’ida; diminishing the influence of Iran; facilitating the return of Syrian refugees; advancing a United Nations (UN)-led political resolution to the crisis; and guaranteeing that Syria is free of weapons of mass destruction.

Risk:  The continued presence of the U.S. military in Syria is opposed to one extent or another by virtually every other important actor in Syria including the internationally recognized government of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran, and even North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey.  The proximate defeat of IS and the failure of the U.S. Congress to explicitly authorize U.S. military operations in Syria seriously erodes the international and domestic legal basis for this presence.  More importantly, the actual risk of direct military conflict between the U.S. and any one of these outside actors or their local proxies is real and growing.  In early February 2018, the U.S. conducted defensive strikes killing hundreds of Syrian troops and dozens of Russian contractors.  Meanwhile, the U.S. announcement that it was creating a Kurdish security border force in northern Syria prompted the ongoing Turkish incursion into Afrin that is now threatening a direct military confrontation between a NATO ally and both the Syrian Army and U.S-backed Kurdish militias.  Lastly, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has directly threatened the U.S. with a punitive ‘Ottoman slap’ if the U.S. doesn’t end its support for Kurdish elements or abandon its positions further east in Manbij[3].

Gain:  Russian and Iranian military support to Assad have given him the decisive advantage in the civil war restoring his control over the majority of Syria’s population and key economic centers.  Given this existing reality, an indefinite U.S. military presence in eastern Syria may well be the only concrete leverage that the U.S. has to influence the behavior of the other actors in this crisis.  To accomplish the wide-ranging goals of U.S. strategy as articulated by Tillerson, however, this presence will likely need to maintained or even expanded for the foreseeable future.

Option #2:  Withdraw U.S. military forces from Syria.  The U.S. could use the recent battlefield victories against IS as a justification to declare ‘mission accomplished’ and begin a phased and conditions-based withdrawal of forces from Syria.

Risk:  As Tillerson himself argued, a U.S. withdrawal from Syria could create a security vacuum which IS and other Islamist terrorist groups would exploit to regain a foothold in eastern Syria.  Moreover, with the UN Geneva peace process moribund, the absence of a physical U.S. presence on the ground will leave policymakers with precious little direct leverage to influence the ultimate political or military outcomes in Syria.  This approach also feeds the perception of declining U.S. regional influence and could bolster the reputation of Russia and Iran as reliable partners.

Gain:  U.S. policymakers could use a phased withdrawal as diplomatic leverage to press for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria to include Russia, Iran, and their paramilitary proxies (e.g., Hizbollah, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps).  The scale and timing of the U.S. withdrawal could be explicitly tied to the departure of these other foreign forces, as well as to progress in defeating the remnants of IS.  This would accomplish the two most critical U.S. strategic objectives outlined by Tillerson:  the defeat of IS; and reducing the influence of Iran.  Additionally, such a phased withdrawal would relieve the U.S. of the substantial costs of reconstruction in Syria which is estimated to easily exceed $250 billion[4].  Finally, the prospect of an imminent U.S. military withdrawal would increase pressure on Kurdish elements to come to a workable compromise with both Damascus and Ankara and thereby bolster prospects for a durable political outcome in Syria that enhances regional stability.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] John Feffer, “The Fall of the House of ISIS,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 25, 2017.  Available at: http://fpif.org/fall-house-isis/.

[2] Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, “Remarks on the Way Forward for the United States Regarding Syria,” Hoover Institute at Stanford University, January 17, 2018.

[3] Bethan McKernan, “Turkish President Erdogan offers US ‘Ottoman Slap’ ahead of Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey,” The Independent, February 15, 2018.

[4] UN estimate quoted by Somini Sengupta, “Help Assad or Leave Cities in Ruins?  The Politics of Rebuilding Syria,” The New York Times, December 3, 2017.

Dr. Christopher Bolan Islamic State Variants Option Papers Syria U.S. Army War College Violent Extremism

The Impact of Extremists in Civil War: Syria’s Shabbiha

Estelle J. Townshend-Denton is a post-graduate student at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.  She is currently working on a Phd on religion and foreign policy.  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:  The Impact of Extremists in Civil War: Syria’s Shabbiha

Date Originally Written:  December 9, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  February 12, 2018.

Summary:  Violent extremists frequently emerge when state authority breaks down within civil wars.  Escalatory dynamics are particularly hard to avoid when extremist groups emerge that are embedded in the existing social framework of their identity group.  In Syria the Shabbiha has grown from a trans-border criminal network to sectarian militias fighting for the regime.  The Shabbiha are a significant impediment to the resolution of the Syrian civil war.

Text:  Extremist groups in Syria such as the Shabbiha often emerge from existing social phenomenon.  For instance, prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the Shabbiha were Allawite smugglers and racketeers that primarily operated out of the Allawite heartland in coastal Latakia.  Given the poverty of the Allawite community opportunities were scarce, and Allawite young men saw a way to purchase highly sought after, but banned, Western items in Lebanon, and smuggle them back across the border into Syria.  This smuggling was largely overlooked by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in return for Shabihha loyalty to the Assads[1].

In order to understand the Shabbiha, their place in Syrian society, and their role within the civil war, it is necessary to look into the history of the Allawite sect to which they belong.  The Allawites are a Shia sect whose religion incorporates aspects of Islam, Christianity, Paganism and Zoroastrianism.  The Allawites have been persecuted and marginalised throughout their history.  A Syrian analyst concluded that this persecution has become built into the Allawite identity.  As a result Allawites are highly security conscious[2].

The embattled Assad regime is primarily, but not exclusively, Allawite.  The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1 provided an opportunity for the Allawites to climb out of their position at the bottom most rung of Syrian society to control the state and it’s military.  The Ottoman territory had been divided up between the French and the British.  The French received the mandate for the territory that was to become the state of Syria.  The ruling elite in Syria had been Sunni and they were resistant to French rule.  In order to subdue the Sunni resistors, the French employed a strategy of divide and rule.  Thus the French created a military that consisted of minorities, including the Allawites[3].  Soon, joining the military emerged as the key means for Allawites to climb up the social and economic ladder, and over time they came to dominate the officer class.  Eventually the military emerged as what Horowitz identifies as a “significant symbol of ethnic domination[4].”  Later, Druze and Allawite military leaders staged a coup which ultimately led to the Allawite dominated Assad regime.

Syria was relatively stable under the Assads until the “Arab Spring” of 2011, when the protests sweeping the region spread to Syria.  The regimes of Tunisia and Egypt had already toppled, and most of the world predicted that the Syrian regime would be next.  However, unlike the Tunisian officer class which contributed to the toppling of the Tunisian Government, the Syrian military leadership was heavily invested in the Assad regime.  Furthermore the Assad regime took a lesson from the Egyptian experience and dealt decisively with the protests.  As such, the Assads used the military against the protesters, working to turn the peaceful protests into an armed rebellion.  The regime then developed a narrative that denied the unrest was part of the “Arab Spring” but alternatively asserted it was spawned by external actors and led by Islamist extremists.

Soon the Assad regime faced another problem.  Whilst the Syrian army’s officer class was mostly Allawite, the rank and file was predominantly Sunni.  Sunni were more reluctant to fire on what was emerging as a largely Sunni protest movement.  The regime had Allawite crack units, but they needed to expand the loyal Allawite base of their military capacity through encouraging Allawite civilian participation in the fighting.  One of the ways the Assad regime did this was through the Shabbiha, whose networks were developed and expanded into civilian militias who fought for the Assad regime[5].  Since then, the links between the Assads and the Shabbiha have become increasingly apparent.  The European Union imposed sanctions in 2011 on two of Bashar al Assad’s cousins, Fawwar and Munzir, for their involvement in the “repression against the civilian population as members of the Shabbiha[6].”  According to a relation of the President’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, the expansion of the Shabbiha from a regime linked Allawite criminal network into an extremist paramilitary force loyal to the regime, doing the regime’s dirty work within the civil war, was planned by Makhlouf and the President’s brother Maher al Assad[1].  The presence or absence of gangs of violent fanatics such as the  Shabbiha is described by Ethnic Conflict and International Relations theorist Barry Posen as “a key determinant of the ability of groups to avoid war as central political authority erodes[7].”  Thus the Shabbiha were a significant escalatory dynamic within the Syrian civil war.

Rhetoric from the Shabbiha accessed via the internet is sectarian, brutal, and very loyal to Bashar al Assad with mottos like “Bashar, don’t to be sad: you have men who drink blood[8].”  With a corresponding brutality and sectarianism emerging amongst Sunni Islamist fanatics within the rebellion, the violence and rhetoric of extremists on both sides escalated the civil war.  This brutality and sectarianism worked to strengthen the regime’s legitimacy as protectors of Syria’s minority religious groups against repression from the Sunni majority.  The regime’s reliance on extremist sectarian militias such as the Shabbiha to support the security forces was not only responding to sectarian tension within the unrest but also heightening it[9].

Posen identified that extremists on both sides escalate retaliatory violence and drive up insecurity.  He stated that fanatics “produce disproportionate political results among the opposing group – magnifying initial fears by confirming them….the rapid emergence of organized bands of particularly violent individuals is a sure sign of trouble[7].”  The initial fears resulting from the historical persecution of Allawites under Sunni elites, coupled with fears of revenge on the sect as a whole for the violence of both the Shabbiha and the regime within the civil war, has mobilised the sect in defense of the Assad regime.  What began as a grass-roots protest movement for the removal of the autocratic regime has escalated into a sectarian driven civil war intensified by the violent acts of both the Shabbiha and the Sunni Islamist extremists, to the advantage of the Assads.


Endnotes:

[1] Amor, Salwa and Sherlock, Ruth. How Bashar al-Assad created the feared shabiha militia: an insider speaks. The Telegraph. [Online] March 23, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10716289/How-Bashar-al-Assad-created-the-feared-shabiha-militia-an-insider-speaks.html

[2] Worren, Torstein Schiotz. Fear and Resistance: The Construction of Allawite Identity in Syria. Oslo : University of Oslo, 2007.

[3] Whitman, Elizabeth. The Awakening of the Syrian Army: General Husni al-Za’am’s Coup and Rein, 1949: Origins of the Syrain Army’s Enduring Roel in Syrian Politics. Columbia University. [Online] April 4, 2011.

[4] Horowitz, D.L. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. London : University of California Press, 1985.

[5] Salih, Y. The Syrian Shabbiha and their State. Heinrich Boll Stiftung. [Online] December 21, 2012. http://www.lb.boell.org/web/52-801.html

[6] Flamand, H.M. Syria: Brutally Violent Militaia Member tell it like it is. Global Post. [Online] June 15, 2012. http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/syria/120614/syria-shabbiha-thug-assad-mafia-guns-smuggling-violence-houla

[7] The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict. Posen, Barry R. 1993, Survival, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 27-47.

[8] Sherlock, H. A. The Shabiha: Inside Assad’s Death Squads. The Telegraph. [Online] June 2, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9307411/The-Shabiha-Inside-Assads-death-squads.html

[9] Abdulhamid, A. The Shredded Tapestry. Syrian Revolution Digest. [Online] November 9, 2012. https://ammar.world/2012/09/11/the-shredded-tapestry-the-state-of-syria-today/

Assessment Papers Estelle J. Townshend-Denton Illicit Trafficking Activities Syria Violent Extremism

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: U.S. Grand Strategy

Mark Safranski is a Senior Analyst for Wikistrat, LLC.  His writing on strategy and national security have appeared in Small Wars Journal, Pragati, War on the Rocks  as well as in recent books like Warlords, inc., Blood Sacrifices:Violent Non-State Actors and Dark Magico-Religious Activities and The Clausewitz Roundtable.  He is the founder and publisher of zenpundit.com.


National Security Situation:  The Syrian Civil War.

Date Originally Written:  December 23, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  January 16, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  An analyst considering U.S.  national interest in terms of grand strategy.

Background:  Aleppo has fallen and with it the last shreds of credibility of President Obama’s policy on Syria.  None of Obama’s policy goals for Syria since the Arab Spring revolt were achieved.  In Syria, the Assad regime has crushed western-backed opposition fighters with direct Russian and Iranian military ground support; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) still controls swaths of Syrian territory[1] and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey has conspired with Iran and Russia to exclude the U.S. and UN[2] from Syrian settlement talks.

Significance:  While Syria itself is of little strategic value to the U.S. beyond secondary implications for Israeli security, the utter failure of the Obama administration has brought U.S. diplomatic prestige to a nadir reminiscent of the Iranian hostage crisis or the fall of Saigon.  Worse, defeat in Syria occurred in a broader context of successful Russian aggression in Ukraine, uncontested Russian meddling in an U.S. presidential election, and perceptions of U.S. strategic concessions to Tehran in the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA[3]).  Should the next administration want to accomplish more than Obama, it is vital that they  1) address Syria within the context of increased Russian-U.S. competition and 2) seize the initiative in restoring the influence of U.S. leadership with substantive and symbolic policy changes in regard to Syria and Russia.

Option #1:  Salvage Syria primarily in terms of a comprehensive re-ordering of U.S.-Russian relations to reduce threats to international stability from inter- and intra- state conflict.  Henry Kissinger’s concept of “linkage[4]” should be revived as a guiding principle rather than treating all points of international conflict or cooperation with Moscow as unrelated and occupying separate boxes.  Russian misbehavior needs to be met with appropriate countermeasures.  If U.S.  diplomats are assaulted by Federal Security Service (FSB) thugs, Russian diplomats in the U.S. are restricted to their embassies.  If U.S.  elections are hacked, Russia’s large number of intelligence officers under diplomatic cover in the U.S. are promptly expelled.  If “little green men” appear in friendly states, the U.S. instigates tough banking, economic or security aid pressure on Moscow.  Likewise, instead of trading public insults, the U.S. under Option #1 should negotiate frankly over Russian concerns and be prepared to build on points of cooperation and make concessions on a reciprocal basis.  If the U.S. could strike deals with Brezhnev we can do so with Putin.

Risk:  The U.S. begins from a position of weakness in regional conflicts, having little direct leverage over events on the ground in Syria or eastern Ukraine, which is why U.S. policy must shift to focus on systemic and strategic levels.  U.S. bureaucratic and political stakeholders have simultaneously pursued incompatible goals (i.e. overthrow Assad, stop ISIS, keep Syria intact, support rebels, fight terrorism, non-intervention) and will strongly resist a genuine strategy that forces choices.  Demonstrations of political will may be required by the new administration to convince partners and adversaries now skeptical of U.S. resolve or capability.

Gain:  Russian-U.S. relations could eventually shift to a “new detente” that replaces a high level of friction and peripheral aggression to if not friendly, at least business-like engagement.  Regional conflicts and attendant humanitarian crises could be moderated or settled in a stable diplomatic framework.  Progress on issues of mutual security concern such as Islamist terrorism could be made.  Trust in U.S. leadership could be regained.

Option #2:  A second strategy would be to address Syria narrowly with the objective of a settlement that cuts U.S. losses and attempts to return to as much of the status quo ante as possible – a weak state governed by Assad with minimal ability to threaten neighbors, guarantees for minorities, no ISIS or Islamist terror group in control of territory, and a removal of foreign military forces.

Risk:  While preferential to the current situation, Option #2 could be perceived as a U.S. retreat due to dropping longstanding unrealistic policy goals (i.e. regime change, Syria becoming a liberal democracy) in return for real increases in regional security and stability.  Domestic opposition in the U.S. from neoconservative and liberal interventionists is apt to be fierce.  The effort may fail and Syria could see a large-scale military build-up of Russian and Iranian military forces, threatening Israel.

Gain:  A diplomatic end to the conflict in Syria would have multiple benefits, not least for Syrian civilians who bear the brunt of the costs of civil war.  Preventing permanent state failure in Syria would be a strategic win against the spread of ISIS and similar radical Islamist Sunni terror groups.  The flow of refugees to Europe would markedly decline and those abroad in states like Turkey or Jordan could begin to return to Syria.  Finally, Syria would not become a major military outpost for Russia or Iran.

Other Comments:  It is most important that the new administration not begin by leaping into any particular foreign policy problem, including Syria, but start with a grand strategic end of improving U.S. global position and capacity, which in turn increases U.S. ability to uphold a stable, rules-based, international order. 

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Euan McKirdy and Angela Dewan, “Reports: ISIS retakes ancient Syrian city of Palmyra”, CNN, December 12, 2016.  http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/12/middleeast/palmyra-syria-isis-russia/index.html

[2]  Ben Hubbard and David E. Sanger, “Russia, Iran and Turkey Meet for Syria Talks, Excluding U.S.” New York Times, December 20 2016.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/20/world/middleeast/russia-iran-and-turkey-meet-for-syria-talks-excluding-us.html

[3]  United States Department of State, “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” January 17, 2016.  https://www.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/iran/jcpoa/ 

[4] Makinda, S. M., “The Role of Linkage Diplomacy in US‐Soviet Relations,” December, 1987.  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8497.1987.tb00148.x/abstract

 

Mark Safranski Option Papers Russia Strategy Syria United States

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: Russian Naval Activity in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea

Captain Robert N. Hein is a career Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy.  He previously commanded the USS Gettysburg (CG-64) and the USS Nitze (DDG-94).  He can be found on Twitter @the_sailor_dog.  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:  A resurgent Russia is operating extensively in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea in support of Syria, undermining U.S. efforts to protect the people of Aleppo, and U.S. efforts against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Date Originally Written:  December 9, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  January 5, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Bob Hein, a career Naval Officer, believes a resurgent Russia may be at a tipping point in its ability to continue operations on a global scale.  However, Russia’s current actions continue to affect world order.  His views in no way reflect those of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Navy.  He also likes to play blackjack, smoke cigars, and drink scotch.

Background:  In a show of strategic nostalgia, and in an attempt to reassert itself on the global stage, Russia has stationed its fleet, to include the carrier Kuznetsov, in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.  The Kuznetsov is present under the auspices of supporting a faltering Syrian Regime, while thwarting U.S. efforts against both ISIS and U.S. support to anti-Assad forces.  Russia has turned the Eastern Mediterranean Sea into “a dangerous place[1].”

Significance:  If we are indeed in a return to great power competition, then a resurgent Russia operating off the coast of Syria, at best, undermines U.S. influence from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea through the Middle East, to include key maritime choke points such as the Suez Canal and the Strait of Gibraltar.  At worst Russia’s activities at sea provide an opportunity for a miscalculation that could lead to war.

Option #1:  The U.S. Navy provides a force to serve in the Mediterranean Sea as a credible deterrent to Russian expansionism.  Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the  U.S. maintained a credible deterrent force in the Mediterranean Sea.  In addition to large numbers of ground forces based in Germany, the U.S. Navy provided a near continuous Aircraft Carrier Strike Group (CSG) presence.  That presence deterred Soviet aggression through its ability to deny the Soviets their objectives, and if necessary, provide a level of punishment that would make Soviet expansionism futile.  This strategy resulted in an undeniable victory for the U.S. in the Cold War.

Risk:  The risk is medium for Option #1 as it is primarily resource driven, both in hardware and dollars.  The U.S. Navy of the Cold War consisted of almost 600 ships and one major threat.  In the decades since, more threats have emerged in addition to a resurgent Russia.  These emerging threats include a rising China, a nuclear North Korea, a volatile Iran, and violent extremist organizations that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa.  Placing a CSG in the Mediterranean Sea would require either moving ships away from other priority missions such as strikes on ISIS or an aggressive build rate of ships which could not be supported by either current industrial capacity or the current U.S. Navy budget.  There is also an increased risk of miscalculation.  Russia is not the Soviet Union and memories of the Soviet fall will continue to ferment for the foreseeable future.

Gain:  Medium.  If Option #1 is successfully undertaken, the results would be a reassurance of our allies globally, an affirmation of U.S. global power and influence, and the ability to influence events in Syria that fully support U.S. interest and intent.

Option #2:  Ignore the Russians.  Like a high school baseball all-star seeking out prior glory, the Russians are mortgaging their future to bring back the glory days.  The deployment of their carrier the Kuznetzov did little more than gain derision as it steamed trailing a thick black cloud across to the Mediterranean Sea[2].  The Kuznetzov ultimately did little more than demonstrate the ailing Russian fleet and the two aircraft crashes[3] did little to demonstrate Russian ability to project power from the sea.  Furthermore, Russia is draining its reserve fund to fund government operations to include its military expansionism.  Additionally, Russia has been bleeding economically due to Western sanctions and the low-cost of oil[4].  Once Russia’s reserve fund runs out their options are limited.  Russia can choose to either operate and stop modernization their military, or modernize their military and stop operating.  History has shown that Russia will attempt to keep operating and slow its rate of modernization and this will push maintenance costs up.  Russia’s last foray into deploying vessels on the cheap resulted in the loss of a ballistic missile submarine Kursk.

Risk:  High.  If the U.S. were to ignore the Russians and miscalculate their ability to operate in an austere environment then the U.S. runs the risk of demonstrating an inability to operate on the global stage.   U.S. inaction and miscalculation will solidify that Russia has the influence and ability they claim thus bolstering Russian credibility globally.  The political risk is high and the risk to the people of Syria is high.

Gain:  High.  Similar to holding on 17 in blackjack and waiting for the dealer to bust, the U.S. takes minimal risk while Russia busts.  The U.S., with minimal effort and minimal cost, watches while Russia overextends itself, wipes out its cash reserves, and struggles to maintain its ability to even minimally influence its neighbors.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  British warship docks in Israel amid rising tensions in Mediterranean Audrey Horowitz-Eric Cortellessa-Nina Lamparski-Elie Leshem-Avi Issacharoff-JTA Ahren-Ralf ISERMANN-Times staff-Cathryn Prince-Rich Tenorio-Rebecca Stoil-Nicholas Riccardi-Steve North-Sue Surkes – http://www.timesofisrael.com/british-warship-docks-in-israel-at-time-of-rising-tensions-in-mediterranean/

[2]  Farmer, B. (2016)  Belching smoke through the Channel, Russian aircraft carrier so unreliable it sails with its own breakdown tug. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/21/russian-carrier-plagued-by-technical-problems/

[3]  Lockie A. (2016)  Russia has just given up on trying to launch strikes from its rickety aircraft carrier – http://www.businessinsider.com/russia-gave-up-airstrikes-kuznetsov-aircraft-carrier-2016-12

[4]  Readhead, H. (2016). Russia is rapidly running out of cash. http://metro.co.uk/2016/09/08/russia-could-run-out-of-money-by-the-end-of-this-year-economists-predict-6115802/

Bob Hein Maritime Option Papers Russia Syria United States

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

Red Team Options for Syria: The Fall of Raqqa, Syria from an Islamic State Perspective

Vincent Dueñas is a Master of International Public Policy candidate and Strategic Studies concentrator at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a U.S. Army Major.  The views reflected are his own and do not represent the opinion of the United States Government or any of its agencies.  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. 


isw-map-20161208

Source: Institute for the Study of War

National Security Situation:  Fall of Raqqa, Syria.

Date Originally Written:  December 9, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 15, 2016.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The article is a red team exercise, written from the point of view of a senior planner in the Islamic State who is tasked with recommending strategy options, assuming that Mosul, Iraq will fall and that Raqqa will be next.

Background:  The ultimate goal is and remains the establishment of a powerful caliphate that can govern and impose Shari’a.  This will be done by reinforcing the legitimacy and authenticity of the Caliphate.  The likely fall of Mosul in Iraq necessitates a reexamination of the core tenets of our current campaign plan in order to ensure the Caliphate’s continued existence in Syria.  We are experiencing significant losses in personnel and manpower in Mosul, Raqqa, and al-Bab, as the enemy fighters push aggressively into our territory [1] (See Map Above).  To date we are estimated to have lost over 15% of our land holdings since 2015[2].  We initially did three things well to establish the Caliphate: 1. Tapped into Sunni Muslim grievances, 2. Established functioning local governance that benefited true faith Sunni Muslims and 3. Launched spectacular terror campaigns against Western targets, using sophisticated media campaigns.

Significance:  We are now at a critical point on the battlefield where we must decide on how best to consolidate and reorganize in order to prevent total annihilation and be able to continue waging jihad and protect the Caliphate.

Option #1:  Maintain a primarily conventional warfare strategy with a widespread harsh punishment strategy against civilians in our controlled territories.

Risk:  The primary risk in Option #1 stems from maintaining a conventional warfare strategy that would lead to a siege of Raqqa and a potentially catastrophic military defeat of our forces.  This would discredit our claim to the Caliphate and potentially risk the life of our leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A secondary risk stemming from the continued use of widespread harsh punishment against the civilian population in our territories is the potential for local populations to turn against the Caliphate and provide information and support to the invading enemy.

A tertiary risk is encouraging the continued support of the great powers, Russia and the U.S., because of their perceived progress.  Currently the great powers are only committed to air power and very few ground forces because their populations only tacitly support military action.

Maintaining our current conventional and punishment strategy almost ensures a direct confrontation against all of our forces, which could potentially overwhelm us.

Gain:  The greatest gain to undertaking Option #1 is that if we were to begin defeating the enemy forces, backed by the great powers, we would fulfill the legitimacy that we initially claimed when we overwhelmed eastern Syria and western Iraq.  Success in conventional warfare would increase the belief in al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate worldwide and a continued widespread harsh punishment strategy would fulfill the implementation of Shari’a without concession.

Option #2:  Transition to an insurgency warfare strategy with a targeted punishment strategy against civilians in our controlled territories.

Risk:  The primary risk in Option #2 stems from the transition to an insurgency, which jeopardizes the legitimacy of al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate by disappearing into the shadows when the stated goal was to spread Shari’a actively.  Our current gains in international messaging and reach could be greatly diminished if it is believed that the Islamic State had been defeated and dissolved.

Gain:  The most obvious gain in Option #2 would be the continued existence of the Islamic State.  Al-Baghdadi and the Caliphate would be preserved and could reorganize to continue the jihad.  The first prerequisite for a successful insurgency is the ability to identify totally with the cause and the population attracted to it[3].  The Islamic State and the Caliphate identify completely with the cause of Shari’a and the entire majority of the population that seeks Sunni Muslim rule, thus stands most poised to overtake groups like al-Qaida and convert all Muslims sects to our path.

The likely fall of Raqqa would still occur, but would not wipe out the majority of our forces as we blend into the populations of cities like Palmyra and the border regions between Abu Kamal, Syria and Al Qu’im, Iraq.  These areas can remain under our firm grip as a weak Syrian government would be unable to extend governance effectively.

Shifting to an insurgency strategy would mean expanded guerrilla tactics against Syrian government forces and rebel forces in order to ensure a disruption of any sense of control, with the possibility of exhausting great power support.  Even more beneficial would be the increased ability for the Islamic State to act subversively to pit Russia against the U.S. through guerrilla attacks masquerading as either Assad forces or anti-Assad forces. An insurgency would sow continued instability throughout the country and prevent any direct confrontational military engagements.

The transition to a targeted punishment strategy would begin to spare Sunni Muslims thus removing a strong distaste that has emerged over our tactics.  Among other Muslims and non-believers, a more judicious use of punishment would encourage compliance and submission to Shari’a and more easily allow us to collect resources through taxes.

An insurgency would also allow us to successfully exploit the historic grievances of our targeted areas.  These Sunni Muslims have witnessed the indiscriminate killing of Sunnis at the hands of Hezbollah and the Assad government who are Shia.  The Islamic State offers the retribution that they seek and through a more judicial hand we can attract broader support.

Other Comments:  An important capability that has not been discussed, but which we have perfected, is our unique capacity to operate on the internet.  Our continued existence can be supported and expanded by using more sophisticated internet-protocol masking software that will allow us to continue publishing propaganda and maintain social media presence to actively recruit foreign fighters and encourage lone wolf attacks.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Gutowski, Alexandra. (2016, December 8). ISIS Sanctuary: December 8, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/isis-sanctuary-map-december-8-2016.

[2]  Islamic State and the crisis in Iraq and Syria. (2016, November 2). Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27838034.

[3]  Galula, David. (1964). Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. New York: Praeger.

 

Islamic State Variants Option Papers Red Team Syria Vincent Dueñas Violent Extremism

Options for Turkey in Syria

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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.

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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

Call For Papers: Syria

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Source:  Yasin Akgul / AFP

Divergent Options will debut mid-December 2016 with multiple articles focused on options for Syria.

Prospective authors can address any aspect of Syria large or small.

Please write using our article template.

Please send your article to submissions@divergentoptions.org by Friday, December 9, 2016.

If you are not interested in writing on this topic we still welcome individual articles on virtually any national security situation an author is passionate about.  Please do not let our call for papers cause you to hesitate to send us your idea.  We look forward to hearing from you!

 

 

 

Call For Papers Syria