U.S. Faces Gap Between Objectives and Reality in Syria and Iraq

For Release

September 24, 2015

A substantial gap exists between American national objectives and a realistic appreciation of the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, according to a new analysis from the RAND Corporation.

The analysis examines how the dynamics of the continuing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, which have seen the rise of the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, will shape the future of these countries and the broader region over the coming years, and drive fears beyond their borders.

The conflicts in the two nations appear to be at a stalemate. The insurgents in Syria and Iraq will not be able to overthrow the governments in those two countries, but neither will the Syrian nor Iraqi governments be able to restore their authority throughout the national territories, according to the report.

The analysis details how the continued fighting has seen the diminishing strength of Syria's secular rebels and the ascent of its most-extreme jihadist component represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. "Whether the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant will be able to consolidate its Islamic State and become the primary political expression of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, or instead become a Sunni badlands where warfare between armed rivals continues indefinitely remains to be seen," said Brian Michael Jenkins, author of the analysis and senior adviser to the RAND president.

"The fighting is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The contest has become less political and more existential for its participants," writes Jenkins.

Despite the presumption by U.S. leaders that the sectarian and ethnic divisions can be bridged, and that peace and national unity can be restored, enabling the refugees to return, Jenkins suggests, "For the foreseeable future, de facto partition appears likely."

Foreign fighters continue to head for Syria to join jihadist fronts, mainly ISIL, which advertises the opportunity to build a so-called "authentic" Islamic state and opportunities for unlimited violence, Jenkins says. The threat they pose along with ISIL's continued exhortations to its supporters abroad to carry out terrorist attacks has increased pressure on the United States to deploy American ground combat forces, in addition to the broader bombing campaign by a coalition of Western and Middle Eastern nations.

In addition to the threat of foreign fighters to neighboring states and countries of origin, the conflict in Syria has produced millions of refugees on a scale approaching that of Europe during World War II. They will not be able to return so long as the fighting continues, which appears likely.

Jenkins asserts that U.S. national objectives need to be based upon realistic assessments of the situation, even if those frank appraisals defy Americans' inherent sense of progress.

"There are no easy choices for U.S. policy — no right or wrong answers. Each potential course of action carries with it a unique set of costs and risks," writes Jenkins in the analysis. "Nonetheless, national objectives must be based upon realistic assessments of the situation. Here the distance between aspiration and reality seems great."

The perspective, "How the Current Conflicts are Shaping the Future of Syria and Iraq," can be found on www.rand.org.

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