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The Conflict in Syria

An Assessment of U.S. Strategic Interests
  • and Radha Iyengar, RAND Corp.
March 19, 2013 |
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This paper concludes that the most likely medium-run end state to the conflict in Syria is de facto partition of the country into a region controlled by the current regime and another region divided among various rebel factions. Of the potential end states analyzed here, de facto partition is not only the most likely, it is also the worst for U.S. interests. The analysis is based on a series of decision matrices that are standard in the Multi-Attribute Decision Making approach, a method of systematically comparing objectives across a range of national interests. Those interests are then weighted to reflect varying policymaker preference structures.

The paper also finds that the United States has no attractive policy options in Syria. The best of a bad set of options is to apply diplomatic and economic pressure on the regime while indirectly providing limited support to rebel groups.

The decision matrices applied in this paper are structured to force policymakers and analysts to confront the contradictions and tensions inherent in American interests in Syria and the potential outcome of the conflict there. Too often policymakers, analysts, and pundits prescribe policy without expressly confronting the risks and costs associated with that course of action. Such thinking is common, feckless, and unacceptable when civilians are being killed and violence is a potential course of action.

The outcomes considered here are (1) the rebel coalition defeats the Assad regime while receiving indirect and covert support from the United States and its allies; (2) de facto partition of Syria into a region governed by Assad and a region governed by various rebel factions; (3) transitional government built from Assad supporters and rebel leaders produced essentially through negotiation; (4) a United Nations-led international peacekeeping effort to enforce a power-sharing agreement among the Syrian combatants; (5) rebel victory facilitated by substantial American support, including major weapons transfers and/or overt military intervention; (6) an Assad victory.

The U.S. interests used to assess the desirability of those end-states are (1) limiting civilian casualties; (2) preventing the development of terrorist safe havens on Syrian territory; (3) limiting Iranian influence; (4) minimizing the risk that chemical or biological weapons will be used; (5) minimizing the risk that chemical or biological weapons will proliferate; and (6) limiting the spread of instability in the region.

Based on the comparison of each end state across these strategic interests, we find that:

  • The best outcome across all policymaker preference systems is a negotiated transition to a power-sharing government. However, given the failure of the United Nations negotiations process to date we assess this is not a likely policy outcome and therefore the United States should focus on more feasible alternatives.
  • The most consistently negative outcome across all policymaker preference systems is a de facto partition of Syria. We assess this to be the most likely outcome given the limited capacity of the opposition groups and the current capabilities of the Assad regime. 
  • Given that the best option is so unlikely, it is necessary to determine the best feasible sub-optimal end state.  In assessing the sub-optimal outcomes, this analysis suggests that no single end state is second best under all policymaker preference systems.
    • For policymakers who do not prioritize any specific U.S. interest or that prioritize regional containment or humanitarian   concerns, an international peacekeeping mission to enforce a ceasefire agreement is second best. Unfortunately, we assess that this option is also quite unlikely considering Russian and Chinese opposition to a United Nations mission.
    • For policymakers who prioritize Iranian containment, on the other hand, the second best outcome is a rebel victory over Assad without overt international intervention.
    • For those who prioritize preventing al-Qaeda or its allies from establishing safe havens in Syria, the second best outcome is a United Nations mission or an Assad victory.
  • Not surprisingly, considering the variance in second-best end states at fulfilling various policy preferences, there is a range of reasonable disagreement over what U.S. policy should intend to achieve in Syria.

Our view is that the three most salient preference structures prioritize limiting regional instability, containing Iran, and safeguarding chemical and biological weapons. As a result, we view the best outcome in Syria as a rebel victory that would only result in part from indirect and clandestine U.S. support. The United States should therefore provide training and assistance to rebel factions, but mitigate the possibility of blowback from jihadist-affiliated rebels by avoiding the temptation to supply poorly vetted rebel groups with a large amount of weapons. This approach and goal is not likely to prevent a protracted conflict in Syria, though that is unlikely to be avoided in any scenario. Regardless of U.S. policy, the situation in Syria is likely to be extremely violent and unstable for the foreseeable future.

These findings leave United States’ policymakers with a range of difficult end states to choose from, each with relative strengths and weaknesses. NATO intervention would offer utility for direct-action counterterrorism missions, but it would be deeply destabilizing regionally. A rebel victory would help limit Iranian influence, but it is likely to worsen the humanitarian crisis and would offer jihadist groups a foothold in Syria.

American interests in Syria are in conflict with one another, which means that policymakers must prioritize interests in order to choose a desired policy outcome. The failure to prioritize U.S. interests in Syria has led to a policy of ad hoc tactical choices rather than a unified strategy with a clear objective. At the same time, a range of policy recommendations fails to adequately confront risks associated with the pursuit of specific end states. Syria demands forceful United States policy, but ending the Assad regime is not an end state; it is an aspiration.

The failure to prioritize U.S. interests in Syria has led to a policy of ad hoc tactical choices rather than a unified strategy with a clear objective.