April 29, 2019

Solving the Syrian Rubik’s Cube

An Instruction Guide for Leveraging Syria’s Fragmentation to Achieve U.S. Policy Objectives

By Nicholas Heras and Kaleigh Thomas

Executive Summary

Eight years since the start of the Syrian crisis, the conflict in that country has transitioned from a war between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and its rebel opponents into an interstate competition among different foreign actors that have intervened in the war. The United States is a party to this competition because, through the campaign to counter the Islamic State group known as ISIS, Washington and its coalition partners have assembled a zone of control in northern and eastern Syria that encompasses nearly one-third of the country’s territory. Through this coalition zone, the United States has strong influence over the distribution of several key natural resources—oil, agricultural land, water, and electricity production—that are essential to stabilizing Syria and that are coveted by the Assad regime and its allies. Syria’s fragmentation therefore provides the United States and its partners with significant leverage to influence the end state that emerges as the outcome of the conflict.

This potential leverage would be a powerful complement to the current American strategy to work toward the irreversible progress in the Geneva process through sanctions and maintaining an international consensus to deny Assad’s regime reconstruction assistance. Currently, the United States has committed to retaining a residual military presence in northern and eastern Syria to combat the re-emergence of ISIS or a successor organization, but without the United States investing financially in the rehabilitation and stabilization of those areas. Simultaneously, Washington seeks to force changes in the Assad regime’s behavior, policies, or composition by applying economic pressure via U.S. sanctions and closing off the regime’s access to reconstruction funding.

This study examines how the United States can leverage Syria’s fragmentation to achieve U.S. policy goals through several policy options. The options are based on two key metrics: first, the level of U.S investment in Syria, and second, whether the United States should seek to change Assad’s behavior, remove Assad, or resign itself to the reality that he will stay and to re-engaging with him. Based on these two criteria, the study offers six policy options:

  1. Pressure Assad With Limited Investment in the Coalition Zone: This is current U.S. policy, whereby the United States retains a residual military presence in northern and eastern Syria in order to combat the re-emergence of ISIS or a successor organization, without investing financially in the rehabilitation and stabilization of those areas, while simultaneously using sanctions and the withholding of reconstruction funding to seek to force changes in the Assad regime’s behavior.
  2. Pressure Assad and Expand U.S. Investment in the Coalition Zone: With significantly increased U.S. economic support for rehabilitation of war-ravaged areas of northern and eastern Syria and the stabilization mission in addition to sanctions, this option would also continue to avoid seeking to change the Assad regime by force but change its behavior (and potentially create a post-Assad state) by the leverage of U.S. geopolitical and economic power.
  3. Withdraw from the Coalition Zone and Slowly Re-engage with the Assad Regime: The United States would stop impeding reconstruction funding from entering Syria, to start the process of rebuilding the country, even if Washington and its partners do not actively encourage engagement with Assad’s regime.
  4. Accept Assad but Use the Coalition Zone to Shape an Outcome That Restrains Him: The United States would continue the coalition’s counter-ISIS mission, and hold onto the resources in the coalition zone, while using Russia and the Assad regime’s desire to regain access to these resources in order to re-engage directly in a high-level negotiation with Russia over the future of Syria.
  5. Withdraw but Continue a Maximum Pressure Campaign: The Trump administration would publicly announce that it is returning to a policy of seeking to build a post-Assad order as a major part of the end state after the Syrian conflict. The United States would seek to apply pressure on the Assad regime, and through it on Russia, through peaceful means, namely by maintaining sanctions and an international consensus against normalizing Assad’s regime, to achieve regime change.
  6. Facilitate Active Regime Change: Building on the current U.S. strategy, the United States would provide increasing economic support for rehabilitation of war-ravaged areas of northern and eastern Syria and the stabilization mission coupled with a decision to intervene either militarily or through covert action to overthrow Assad.

Ultimately, the study recommends that the United States continue the Trump administration’s current approach to change Assad’s behavior but also significantly increase the U.S. investment in its zones of control in Syria. The report also warns that while this may be the best approach now, it is still quite likely to fail, at which point the United States will have a looming decision to make: whether to begin re-engaging with Assad’s regime or move more aggressively to remove him.

Syria's Shifting Zones of Control

Syria's zones of control have shifted significantly between 2018 and 2019. Over this year, foreign actors have expanded and consolidated their zones while the Assad regime has made significant gains on the ground. The result is the de facto partition of Syria.

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  • Nicholas Heras

    Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Nicholas A. Heras is a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), working in the Middle East Security Program. He is also a Senior Analyst at the Jamestown Found...

  • Kaleigh Thomas

    Research Associate, Middle East Security Program

    Kaleigh Thomas is the Research Associate for the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, she served as a program coordinato...

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