From the Bottom, Up: A Strategy for U.S. Military Support to Syria’s Armed Opposition by Nicholas A. Heras, Center for a New American Security report
As negotiations continue to uphold a teetering ceasefire in Syria, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Middle East Security Program researcher Nicholas Heras has written a new report arguing that the primary U.S. effort in Syria should be a bottom-up strategy to build cohesive, moderate, armed opposition institutions with a regional focus. The report, “From the Bottom, Up: A Strategy for U.S. Military Support to Syria’s Armed Opposition,” examines in-depth the current state of U.S. support for opposition groups in each region and makes a case for scaling up that support.
With the current state of the Syrian civil war, the conditions are not ripe for de-escalation in the conflict. If the United States is seeking a transition from the Assad regime that does not lead to the enduring rule of ideological extremist organizations throughout Syria, it will need to become the decisive influence that shifts the military balance on the ground in rebel-ruled areas in favor of the politically moderate armed opposition. Therefore, the primary U.S. effort should be on a bottom-up strategy for building cohesive, moderate armed opposition institutions with a regional focus that is tailored for each individual region within Syria. This line of effort depends on providing incentives for the already U.S.-vetted moderate armed opposition groups to join together into larger regional coalitions with genuinely unified command.
Over time, as these moderate rebel institutions become the center of gravity in their respective regions and marginalize or defeat ideological extremist organizations, they can be brought together to form larger civil-military structures and govern the predominately Sunni rebel– ruled areas inside of Syria. These regional structures can then interact with the remnants of the Assad regime and its loyalist forces to work toward achieving a long-term political solution to the Syrian civil war, such as a federalized Syria. While this approach may seem complex and difficult to execute, there are already examples inside Syria, especially in the south near the Jordanian border, where American strategy to support the armed opposition has had the most success. Indeed, it is the only approach to arming the Syrian opposition that has shown any success over the course of the civil war.
It is important to acknowledge that the complexity of the Syrian civil war will require this careful, phased approach that focuses on achieving its objectives over a time horizon that could be measured in up to a decade or more. This line of effort will also require sustained U.S. commitment to Syria, working through a “light footprint” approach with regional and local partners. The strategy’s overarching objective is to prevent the large areas of the country that are under opposition control, and largely irreconcilable with the state and security structures of the Assad regime, from becoming safe havens for transnational Salafist jihadist groups that target the West.