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Research Questions

  1. How have developments in the Syrian civil war through August 2014 and changing dynamics in the insurgencies in Syria and Iraq affected U.S. interests in the outcome of the conflict?
  2. What implications does the survival of the Assad regime in Syria and the dominance of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in the conflict have for the region?

The civil war in Syria poses a thorny problem for U.S. policymakers. The conflict has morphed from a popular uprising against an autocratic regime into a multi-sided battle involving government forces, pro-government militias, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi'ite militias, secular/moderate rebels, Kurdish separatists, traditional Islamist rebels, nationalist Salafi-jihadist rebels, and the transnational Salafi-jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) movement. Most neighboring states and several Persian Gulf states have sent arms and money to one or more of the factions in this war. Iran and Russia have consistently supported the Assad regime, including providing advanced weaponry, since the onset of the conflict. The outcome of the conflict will affect Middle East stability and regional political dynamics for years — perhaps decades — and could exacerbate a wider Shi'a-versus-Sunni sectarian conflict in the region.

Momentum has shifted several times during the course of the conflict. Defections from the Syrian army, rapidly growing rebel ranks, and the regime's loss of key ground convinced many observers early on that the Assad's demise was only a matter of time. The Assad regime has exploited rebel weaknesses and its own superior weaponry and external support to shift the momentum once again in its favor. The lineup of antagonists is complex and confused. While still seeing the Assad regime as an adversary based on its patron-client relationship with Iran and its implacable hostility toward Israel, U.S. decisionmakers are also dealing with the threats caused by the dramatic recent gains made in Iraq by ISIS and the influence it wields within the Syrian rebel movement. To examine these challenges, this perspective draws on a December 2013 RAND workshop to assess four possible future scenarios for the conflict in Syria: prolonged conflict, regime victory, regime collapse, and negotiated settlement. The authors update and reassess these scenarios based on developments in Syria and Iraq through August 2014 and explore the implications that each has for Syria, the region, and the United States.

Key Findings

Workshop participants felt that prolonged conflict was the best descriptor for the situation in Syria as of December 2013, but momentum seemed to be leaning toward regime victory.

  • Negotiated settlement was deemed the least likely of the possible scenarios.
  • Regime collapse, while not considered a likely outcome, was perceived to be the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests.

Developments in Syria and Iraq through August 2014 occurred with unanticipated speed and revealed initial analysis to be overly cautious.

  • Steady gains made by the Assad regime and worsened friction and dysfunction among the opposition groups, but also the shift in ISIS focus from Syria to Iraq, has allowed the regime to make progress against the opposition more rapidly than most of our workshop participants foresaw.
  • It is regime victory that now appears to be most likely in the near to mid-term, due to the confluence of military and political factors favoring pro-Assad forces.
  • However, regime victory would not be as big of a blow to ISIS as was originally believed, because ISIS's advances in Iraq have given the group a new territorial base from which to operate.
  • Similarly, regime victory in Syria will not offer as large a win to Iran as previously thought. ISIS's gains in Iraq worsened Iran's strategic position in the Middle East and established a new threat to Tehran on its western border.

Despite the revised perspective on the plausibility of regime victory in Syria, the situation is still fluid and momentum can shift again.

  • Prolonged conflict could become more likely, for example, if the rebels acquired a new capability that helped counter the regime's advantage in firepower, such as man-portable air defense systems or precision rocket systems and/or mortars.
  • A major increase in ISIS's battlefield effectiveness could also alter current trends. ISIS's capture of a number of the Iraqi army's weapon stockpiles in June 2014 gave the group access to a large amount of modern weaponry. If ISIS is able to develop the maintenance and logistical infrastructure to operate these weapons reliably over the long term, it is conceivable that they could challenge the Syrian army in maneuver warfare in a way that no other rebel group has been able to.

This research was conducted within the Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation perspective series. RAND perspectives present informed perspective on a timely topic that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND perspectives undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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