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  • Author: Will Todman
  • Publication Date: 01-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: When President Trump declared on December 19 that U.S. troops in Syria were “all coming back and coming back now,” it plunged the future of the East of the country into uncertainty.1 Dynamics in Syria were already shifting against the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration (AA) in Northeast Syria, as threats from Turkey and the regime increased. The impending withdrawal of U.S. forces eliminates the AA’s main source of leverage over the Assad regime and increases its vulnerability to the Turkish invasion President Erdogan has threatened. Scrambling to avoid conflict, AA officials have turned to Russia to mediate a political deal with President Assad, hoping to restore regime control to Syria’s eastern borders in exchange for self-administration.2 However, the lack of clarity over the timeline of the withdrawal means the United States maintains important influence in eastern Syria.3 Shaping the outcome of the Kurdish question at this critical juncture and preventing a new conflict in Northeast Syria are among the few remaining positive steps it can take in Syria. Although the Kurdish issue seems tangential to U.S. interests, the United States should invest in its diplomatic and military tools to facilitate a limited autonomy settlement in Northeast Syria when the area is formally reintegrated into Assad’s territory. To do so, the United States should work to discourage potential spoilers to such a deal and then forge an international coalition to act as guarantors to the agreement. Failing to secure an autonomy settlement could sow the seeds of long-lasting instability in Northeast Syria. The experience of autonomy has fanned the flames of Kurdish self-determination, and although the position of Syrian Kurds is now precarious, they are nonetheless stronger and more united than they ever have been. Throughout the conflict, they have won freedoms which Damascus long denied them and built a formidable army: the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) reportedly numbers over 60,000 troops.4 Such self-determination movements do not flare out so easily. A new CSIS edited volume, Independence Movements and Their Aftermath: Self-Determination and the Struggle for Success,” shows that from Bangladesh to East Timor, governments’ attempts to curb a minority’s rights have often accelerated their push for independence.5 A U.S. abandonment of Syrian Kurds without facilitating a negotiated settlement could therefore ignite another bloody, long-term struggle for self-determination in the Middle East, with wide-reaching regional implications.
  • Topic: Diplomacy, Governance, Self Determination, Settlements, Foreign Interference
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria, North America, Kurdistan, United States of America
  • Author: Melissa Dalton, Hijab Shah
  • Publication Date: 03-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: The Syrian conflict has produced humanitarian consequences of harrowing and tragic proportions. With an estimated 500,000 Syrians killed, the war has prompted the world’s greatest refugee flow since World War II.1 There are 6.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Syria and 5.3 million refugees in neighboring countries (a total 13 million people affected—for context, the total population estimate for pre-war Syria was 20 million). From January to December 2018, there were an estimated 1.6 million population movements.2 Civilian protection is the most important focus for international humanitarian efforts given the complexity of the Syrian conflict, myriad state and non-state armed actors involved, and continuing incentives for parties to the conflict to use humanitarian access as a political tool.
  • Topic: Political Violence, Humanitarian Intervention, Conflict, Civilians
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Anthony H. Cordesman
  • Publication Date: 08-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: In fairness, peace almost always consists of a pause in the fighting that becomes a prelude to war. Taking modern Europe as an example, the Napoleonic wars were punctuated by failed peace attempts, and then led to the rise of Germany and a whole new series of wars with Austria, Denmark, and France. The repressive peace settlements following Europe’s upheavals in 1848 set the stage for decades of new rounds of conflict and revolution. World War I led to World War II, and then led to the Cold War and now to the Ukraine. Nevertheless, the current U.S. efforts to support peace negotiations in Afghanistan and the Middle East seem remarkably weak even by historical standards. In the case of Afghanistan, “peace” is being negotiated without even the same cosmetic level of local government participation that occurred in Vietnam. It is being negotiated when there is no political stability to build upon, and no apparent prospect that the coming election can bring real unity or effective leadership.
  • Topic: Diplomacy, Military Strategy, Conflict, Peace
  • Political Geography: Afghanistan, Africa, Iraq, Middle East, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Anthony H. Cordesman, Abdullah Toukan
  • Publication Date: 09-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: The U.S., its European allies, and its Strategic Partners in the Middle East achieved a significant victory in breaking up the ISIS protostate – or “caliphate” – in Syria and Iraq. This break up has sharply reduced the fighting against ISIS in Iraq, and in Eastern Syria. The U.S.-led Coalition did not, however, fully defeat ISIS in either Iraq or Syria or eliminate ISIS and other forms of extremism as serious threats. It did not bring lasting stability to Iraq or end the Syrian civil war, and it did not eliminate the threat from ISIS and other extremist groups in the rest of the MENA area. This analysis covers two important aspects of the crisis in Iraq and Syria since the break of the “caliphate.” First, it summarizes key official reporting on the resurgence of ISIS as a serious threat in both Syria and Iraq. Second, it puts ISIS in perspective – showing that it did not dominate the violence and levels of terrorism in Syria even at its peak, and noting that ISIS is only one of the major threats to stability in Iraq.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Military Strategy, ISIS, Conflict
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Middle East, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Anthony H. Cordesman
  • Publication Date: 01-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: The United States, its allies, and international organizations are just beginning to come to grips with the civil dimensions of "failed state" wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, the Sudans, Syria, and Yemen. In each case, it is clear that the civil dimension of the war will ultimately be as important as the military one. Any meaningful form of "victory" requires far more than defeating the current extremist threat in military terms, and reaching some temporary compromise between the major factions that divide the country. The current insurgent and other security threats exist largely because of the deep divisions within the state, the past and current failures of the government to deal with such internal divisions, and the chronic failure to meet the economic, security, and social needs of much of the nation's population. In practical terms, these failures make a given host government, other contending factions, and competing outside powers as much of a threat to each nation’s stability and future as Islamic extremists and other hostile forces. Regardless of the scale of any defeat of extremists, the other internal tensions and divisions with each country also threaten to make any such “victory” a prelude to new forms of civil war, and/or an enduring failure to cope with security, stability, recovery, and development. Any real form of victory requires a different approach to stability operations and civil-military affairs. In each case, the country the U.S. is seeking to aid failed to make the necessary economic progress and reforms to meet the needs of its people – and sharply growing population – long before the fighting began. The growth of these problems over a period of decades helped trigger the sectarian, ethnic, and other divisions that made such states vulnerable to extremism and civil conflict, and made it impossible for the government to respond effectively to crises and wars.
  • Topic: Security, War, Fragile/Failed State, ISIS, Conflict
  • Political Geography: Afghanistan, Africa, United States, Iraq, Middle East, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sundan
  • Author: Melissa Dalton
  • Publication Date: 02-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: 2017 marked a significant shift in the two wars in Syria. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Coalition forces drove ISIS from its self-proclaimed caliphate capital in Raqqa, across northern Syria, and down the Euphrates River Valley. Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, backed by Russia and Iran, secured key population areas and strategic locations in the center and coast, and stretched to the eastern border to facilitate logistics and communications for Iranian-backed militias. In both wars, Syrian civilians have lost profoundly. They also have shown incredible resilience. Still, the outcome of both wars is inconclusive. Although major areas have been cleared of ISIS, SDF and Coalition forces are fighting the bitter remnants of ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. Enduring security in ISIS-cleared areas now depends on governance and restoration of services. Turkey’s intervention into Syrian Kurdish-controlled Afrin risks pulling the sympathetic Kurdish components of the SDF away from the counterterrorism and stabilization efforts in Syria’s east in order to fight Turkey, a U.S. ally. With a rumbling Sunni insurgency in pockets of Syria’s heartland, Assad and his supporters continue to pummel Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus and threaten Idlib. They are unleashing both conventional and chemical weapons on the remnants of Syrian opposition fighters and indiscriminately targeting civilians. The Trump administration now is attempting to connect the outcome of these two wars. The Obama administration tried similarly but ultimately prioritized the counter-ISIS mission. The drivers of the Syrian civil war and the ISIS war are rooted in the same problem: bad governance. Thus, a sensible resolution of both wars must address Syria’s governance. However, squaring U.S. policy goals with current operations and resources the United States has employed in Syria will require a degree of calibration, stitching together several lines of effort, and committing additional U.S. and international resources. Orchestrating this level of U.S. effort has proven elusive over the last six years.
  • Topic: Civil War, Violent Extremism, ISIS, Civilians
  • Political Geography: United States, Iran, Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Seth G. Jones
  • Publication Date: 04-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: With President Donald Trump threatening to pull out of Syria, the Bashar al-Assad regime ramping up its military campaign against rebels, and the Islamic State in decline, al Qaeda has attempted to resurge and reposition itself at the center of global Salafi-jihadist activity. Syria has been perhaps its most important prize. For some, al Qaeda’s cunning and concerted efforts in Syria and other countries highlight the group’s resilience and indicate its potential to resurge and rejuvenate. Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that al Qaeda has largely failed to take advantage of the Syrian war. Confusion and finger-pointing have been rampant as individuals have clashed over ideology, territorial control, personalities, loyalty to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and command-and-control relationships. Al Qaeda’s struggles in Syria have also highlighted some weaknesses of al-Zawahiri. The al Qaeda leader has had difficulty communicating with local groups in Syria, been slow to respond to debates in the field, and discovered that some Salafi-jihadist fighters have brazenly disobeyed his guidance. As one Salafi-jihadist leader remarked, “The situation in Syria for the jihad is extremely dire.”
  • Topic: Terrorism, Violent Extremism, Al Qaeda
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Seth G. Jones
  • Publication Date: 05-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: The Issue Some U.S. policymakers have argued that the United States should withdraw its military forces from Syria. But the United States has several interests in Syria: Balancing against Iran, including deterring Iranian forces and militias from pushing close to the Israeli border, disrupting Iranian lines of communication through Syria, preventing substantial military escalation between Israel and Iran, and weakening Shia proxy forces. Balancing against Russia, including deterring further Russian expansion in the Middle East from Syrian territory and raising the costs—including political costs—of Russian operations in Syria. Preventing a terrorist resurgence, including targeting Salafi-jihadist groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda that threaten the United States and its allies. Our Recommendations: Based on U.S. interests in Syria, Washington should establish a containment strategy that includes the following components: Retain a small military and intelligence footprint that includes working with—and providing limited training, funding, and equipment to—groups in eastern, northern, and southern Syria, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Coordinate with regional allies such as Jordan and Israel to balance against Iran and Russia and to prevent the resurgence of Salafi-jihadists. Pressure outside states to end support to Salafi-jihadists, including Turkey and several Gulf states. As the war in Syria moves into its seventh year, U.S. policymakers have struggled to agree on a clear Syria strategy. Some U.S. policymakers have argued that the United States needs to withdraw its military forces from Syria. “I want to get out,” President Trump said of the United States’ military engagement in Syria. “I want to bring our troops back home.”1 Others have urged caution, warning that a precipitous withdrawal could contribute to a resurgence of terrorism or allow U.S. competitors like Iran and Russia—along with their proxies—to fill the vacuum.2 In addition, some administration officials have argued that the Islamic State has been decimated in Syria and Iraq. The National Security Strategy notes that “we crushed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.”3 But between 5,000 and 12,000 Islamic State fighters remain in Syria and continue to conduct guerrilla attacks, along with between 40,000 and 70,000 Salafi-jihadist fighters in Syria overall.4
  • Topic: Civil War, Terrorism, Military Strategy, Military Intervention
  • Political Geography: United States, Iran, Middle East, Israel, Syria
  • Author: Seth G. Jones
  • Publication Date: 06-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: The Issue: Hezbollah and Iran have accumulated a substantial amount of weapons and fighters in Syria that pose a threat to the United States and its allies in the region. In response, Israel has conducted a growing number of strikes against Iranian, Hezbollah and other targets in Syria. An escalating war has the potential to cause significant economic damage, lead to high numbers of civilian casualties and internally displaced persons, and involve more countries in the region than did the 2006 Lebanon War. The stakes are high, making it critical for Washington to help prevent such an escalation.
  • Topic: Terrorism, Violent Extremism, Syrian War, Hezbollah
  • Political Geography: United States, Iran, Middle East, Israel, Syria
  • Author: Melissa Dalton
  • Publication Date: 08-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton assemble their own senior Middle East teams, a number of U.S. interests hang in the balance in Syria: the enduring defeat of ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Levant; the vulnerability of neighboring Iraq to extremist disruption; the return of Syrian refugees; the mitigation of Iranian influence; the need to both compete and cooperate with Russia to end the civil war; and the security of regional partners and allies. U.S. values are also at stake: the conflict has precipitated a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions, with over 500,000 civilians dead and 12 million displaced. The U.S. ability to shape high-level outcomes in Syria is limited. Russia and Iran have outmaneuvered the United States there. With their backing, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is extending his control throughout Syrian territory—most recently via an offensive on southwestern Syria, previously the site of a “de-escalation zone” agreed between the United States, Russia, and Jordan, precipitating immense civilian displacement. Assad’s consolidation of extremists in Idlib amongst civilians raises the specter of another slaughter like Aleppo in 2016. The UN-backed Geneva process is moribund, though still worth supporting, while the United States has limited influence in the Astana and Sochi processes, which are also demonstrating limited returns. More broadly, Assad is already also brutally shaping the facts on the ground regarding “reconstruction” through forcible movement of populations, demographic engineering, constricting property rights, and predatory governance that favors loyalists. In his meeting with President Putin, President Trump reportedly discussed Syria, although there was no official joint summary of the summit. The discussion may have included options for drawing down U.S. forces in Syria in exchange for Russia convincing Iran to minimize its presence in Syria. However, Russia lacks the will and leverage over Iran to fulfill such a bargain. The national picture is bleak. Zooming into the Syrian map more closely, one subnational enclave currently outside of Assad’s control has taken some steps towards stability. Eastern Syria still offers leverage to salvage a marginally but meaningfully better outcome for U.S. interests and the Syrian population. In the weeks ahead, the United States should: take stock of the sources of leverage in eastern Syria; articulate its goal for translating these sources of leverage into a defined political endstate; develop this stated goal into a broader stabilization operational framework; and then execute “the art of deal” in developing a burden-sharing plan to support these objectives.
  • Topic: Civil War, Fragile/Failed State, Al Qaeda, Refugees, ISIS, Displacement
  • Political Geography: United States, Iraq, Middle East, Syria