Hope is fleeting in Syria. The civil war has killed approximately 250,000 people, displaced more than 11 million (which is more than half of Syria’s pre-war population), caused hundreds of billions of dollars of destruction to the country’s infrastructure, and has been a beacon for jihadist fighters—Sunni and Shia—from across the Middle East and around the world. While the recently convened Vienna Conference to end the Syrian conflict concluded on a hopeful note—the nations gathered in the Austrian capital agreed to continue their talks over the coming weeks—the reality on the ground indicates that stopping the fighting, and putting Syria back together again, may only be possible over the course of decades.
Further, out of the Syrian conflict has emerged the would-be caliphate of the Islamic State, which controls large areas of eastern Syria and western Iraq; the ongoing development of an al-Qaeda influenced proto-state in northwestern Syria’s Idlib governorate; and a Kurdish-dominated, autonomous canton in northeastern Syria that in its governing structures maintains ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Throughout Syria, where the armed opposition has seized territory from the Assad government, its rule is fragmented. Pro-opposition allies, particularly the Arab Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia, have since 2011 disagreed over the best approach to take to leverage their financial and military influence to build a unified and coordinated opposition force.
Moreover, the Saudi and Emirati-led military campaign in Yemen is further distracting these countries from Syria, and in many ways Yemen has become—for them—a more important venue of competition with Iran.
The Jaysh al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) coalition, which is heavily influenced by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, has lost the initiative in its campaign in northwestern Syria to strike at the demographic core of the Alawi community in Latakia. Jaysh al-Fateh was supposed to serve as a model for how Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia could coordinate an effective—albeit strongly influenced by more extremist Sunni groups—rebel army that could threaten the Assad regime enough to bring it to the negotiating table. Instead, it contributed to Russia’s military escalation in Syria.
Moving forward, if Washington hopes to achieve this influence, it will need to take a region-by-region approach to the Syrian conflict, and work more aggressively to bolster moderate rebel forces on the ground that can provide the US leverage, particularly against the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian patrons.
The emergence of the Islamic State has added a counterterrorism component to this policy. As the reality on the ground stands, the anti-Islamic State and counterterrorism component of US strategy appears to be the most accomplishable. Working toward this goal will require expanding support for an emerging, multiethnic Syrian rebel coalition of moderate Arab militias and the Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria.
Expanding support for the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition promises to provide the US with greater leverage in eastern Syria against the Islamic State, while setting the conditions to displace the group from its rule in northern and eastern Syria.
The announcement on October 30 that the US will send upward of 50 Special Forces to eastern Syria, likely to the country’s northeastern al-Hasakah governorate, to work with local Sunni Arab militias, fits within this strategy. If the United States continues to build out its influence on the ground in eastern Syria, constructing a multiethnic, civil-military coalition in the process, and demonstrates ongoing success in its counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State, it will build a reality on the ground in the conflict that can, over time, be translated into leverage in the Vienna process.