March 09, 2016

CNAS Press Note: Cessation of Hostilities in Syria and U.S. Choices Moving Forward

Washington, March 9 – As today’s deadline for the resumption of talks to end the Syrian civil war arrives, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Middle East Security Program Director Ilan Goldenberg and CNAS Middle East Security Program Research Associate Nicholas Heras have written a new Press Note, “Cessation of Hostilities in Syria and U.S. Choices Moving Forward.”


The full Press Note is below:

Today’s deadline to resume talks to end the Syrian civil war promises to thrust tough choices upon the United States. The cessation of hostilities, which took effect on February 27 and includes all of the warring parties except for Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, is shaky but working. Credible sources assert that the number of war-related deaths has fallen by 80 to 90 percent since February 27, while humanitarian assistance is being delivered to most, although not all, war-besieged communities. And certainly the United States will now do all it can to try to extend the agreement beyond March 9.

But in spite of the humanitarian benefits, the cessation of hostilities leads to some tough choices. The United States is still viewed by many in the opposition as the major impediment to their goal of removing Assad from power. The opposition refuses Assad a role in a potential transition process, even as the Assad regime and its allies are in their strongest position to dictate the terms of the peace since the conflict began. Thus, trying to freeze the outcome at its current state does not seem likely to bring about a sustainable solution.

More importantly, ideological extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham continue to entrench their power within the broader Syrian armed opposition. These realities lead to the genuine question whether at this stage in the war the opposition can build a post-Assad Syria that can prevent areas of the country from being safe havens for trans-national Salafist jihadists groups that target the West. If the cessation of hostilities were translated into a final agreement to end the war, the result would be the long-term entrenchment of extremist safe havens in Syria.

It is hard to see a positive long-term outcome without an increase in U.S. military assistance to the Syrian armed opposition, combined with a policy to more actively unite the moderate Syrian rebels and to improve their capacity to govern and provide acceptable alternatives to both the Assad regime and ideological extremist groups. Yet providing that support at this stage would likely lead to a resumption of violence, resulting in more killing and destruction particularly against civilians. This is the devil’s dilemma for the United States in western Syria. 


Goldenberg and Heras are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at or 202-457-9409.


  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is the former Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expe...

  • Nicholas Heras

    Former Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Nicholas A. Heras is a former Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), working in the Middle East Security Program. His work focused on the analysis of complex...