CNAS Report: 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 - Center for a New American Security
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…