Get Ready: Syria Will Need Peacekeepers


Apr 11, 2016

People carry belongings they collected from their damaged houses as they walk near Syrian army soldiers in Palmyra, Syria, April 9, 2016

People carry belongings they collected from their damaged houses as they walk near Syrian army soldiers in Palmyra, Syria, April 9, 2016

Photo by Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

By Michael O'Hanlon and Sean M. Zeigler

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on April 11, 2016.

The most recent tragic attacks in Brussels as well as the thousands of Syrian immigrants that continue to arrive in Europe underscore the need for an improved strategy in Syria. Defeating ISIS in Syria is crucial to the broader struggle against this brutal group that still draws many recruits from a vague argument that it is somehow “winning” its broader fight against the West. Relying on Assad and Putin will not, of course, work. The recent success of the Syrian army in Palmyra, while not intrinsically unwelcome, could further inflame passions of Sunnis against a regime that most see as itself virtually genocidal, and wind up doing little net good.

One key to a serious Syria strategy is recognizing that an international peacekeeping force will almost surely be needed someday, in order to uphold any peace deal that eventually emerges. A demonstration of willingness to deploy such a force may, in fact, improve the chances of peace, while making the international community and the parties to the conflict more realistic about what kind of peace is possible—and what kinds of other steps, including greater Western military aid for the moderate opposition, will also be needed to effect peace.

Understanding how civil wars end and the factors that spark their recurrence is one of the bright spots of political science, an academic discipline often derided by policy practitioners as too arcane and abstract to be of much practical use. Happily, that is not the case for this subject. Employing a blend of methods—sophisticated statistical analyses of many past wars, case studies informed by field research, interaction with policymakers who wrestled with specific conflicts over the years—researchers including Nicholas Sambanis at Yale, Michael Doyle and Page Fortna at Columbia, Barbara Walter at the University of California at San Diego, Stephen Stedman at Stanford and a number of others have advanced our knowledge in ways that speak directly to the current situation with Syria. Yes, there are differences in their arguments, but there are also key common threads that can guide policymakers as they seek a way out of the current morass. Among the key insights are the following:

  • Wars with high casualties, ethnic or sectarian components, and multiple actors are particularly hard to stop. Syria, of course, suffers from all three afflictions.
  • Tactical and very often short-term alliances between and among rival warring factions can contribute to failed peace efforts and occasion war's relapse; Syria, again, includes such shape-shifting coalitions....

The remainder of this commentary is available on

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research in the foreign policy studies program at Brookings. Sean M. Zeigler is an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation.