June 07, 2017

As Raqqa Offensive Begins, CNAS Releases “A Strategy for Ending the Syrian Civil War”

Washington, June 7 – With U.S.-supported forces yesterday announcing the start of the long anticipated offensive on Raqqa, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Middle East Security Program has written a new report, “A Strategy for Ending the Syrian Civil War.” In the report, Ilan Goldenberg, CNAS Middle East Security Program Director; Colin Kahl, associate professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service; and Nicholas Heras, the CNAS Bacevich Fellow lay out a framework for ending the Syrian civil war and provide concrete recommendations for bringing the conflict to an end. Their recommendations include:

  • Forging an agreement between America’s Turkish allies and Kurdish partners.
  • Establishing a counterterrorism-coordination mechanism with Russia.
  • Engaging Iran to get its buy-in on a de-escalation and decentralization framework.
  • Securing support from Israel and America’s Gulf partners to push back against Iran elsewhere in the region.

The full report can be found here:


Executive Summary

A framework to de-escalate and settle the Syrian conflict has eluded the international community for years, but recent developments on the ground have created an opportunity to move toward a viable and sustainable end state. Syria has fragmented into several distinct “zones of control,” each governed by different local players and heavily influenced by various external powers—including a growing U.S. zone of influence in northern and eastern Syria in areas liberated from ISIS. This fragmentation has provided the foundation for a tentative cessation of hostilities brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran that has at least reduced violence in some areas. 

With deft diplomacy, the Trump administration may be able to leverage growing U.S. influence in formerly ISIS-controlled territory to broker a broader national cease-fire and eventually a negotiated political solution. This option would defer the question of Assad’s fate but would avoid the breakup of the Syrian state and de-escalate the conflict through a governing system where most of the power is devolved outside of Damascus. The biggest challenges in negotiating a cease-fire and political agreement based on emerging zones of control include resolving tensions at the seams of these zones, working out a mechanism to coordinate counterterrorism operations against groups not covered by the cease-fire, and gaining international and regional buy-in for a political settlement that decentralizes power but leaves the Assad regime in place. 

This study finds that the Trump administration should pursue four lines of effort in order to achieve U.S. national security objectives in Syria: 

1)   Forge an agreement between America’s Turkish allies and Kurdish partners to continue the momentum against ISIS, while establishing the foundation for long-term peace and stability in northern Syria. 

2)   Establish a counterterrorism-coordination mechanism—beyond current de-confliction efforts— with Russia, while insisting on conditions that alter Moscow’s approach to military operations and restrain Assad and Iranian-backed groups. 

3)   Engage Iran to gain Tehran’s buy-in to a de-escalation and decentralization framework and reduce the prospects of military miscalculation between the United States and Iran. 

4)   Secure support from Israel and America’s Gulf partners through enhanced efforts to push back against Iran elsewhere in the region.


The report’s authors are available for interviews. To arrange one, please contact Neal Urwitz at [email protected] or 202-457-9409.

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) is an independent and nonpartisan research institution that develops strong, pragmatic and principled national security and defense policies. CNAS leads efforts to help inform and prepare the national security leaders of today and tomorrow.


  • Neal Urwitz

    Former Director of External Relations

    Neal Urwitz is the former Director of External Relations at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). In that capacity, Mr. Urwitz was responsible for the organization’s ...