This paper offers recommendations for U.S. policy for a postconflict transition in Syria that prevents state collapse and reduces the potential for the recurrence of war and the reemergence of terrorist groups. These objectives are best achieved by working with Russia and through the United Nations Security Council, especially in the absence of a regional consensus to end the war, and by avoiding any postconflict plans for the division of Syria.
Preventing State Collapse in Syria
- How can U.S. policy create the best conditions possible for a postconflict transition in Syria?
- In what way can these policies also defeat terrorist groups and preserve Syrian state institutions, especially in the absence of a regional consensus to end the war?
This paper offers recommendations for U.S. policy for a postconflict transition in Syria that prevents state collapse, reduces the potential for the recurrence of war, and defeats terrorist groups that have taken hold in the country. These three objectives, we suggest, are best achieved by working with Russia and through the United Nations Security Council, especially in the absence of a regional consensus to end the war. Furthermore, Syria's political culture and modern history reflect a tradition of centralization and nationalism, which should be acknowledged in postconflict planning. In contrast, policies that seek to divide the country or deliberately or inadvertently weaken or destabilize state institutions — such as support for armed groups that carry out attacks against the state or postconflict governance and reconstruction plans that overemphasize local governance at the expense of the state — may ultimately prove counterproductive in preventing a return to conflict and violence.
The analysis and recommendation presented in this paper should be of interest to policymakers, media, and scholars who specialize in U.S. foreign policy, Syria, and the Middle East.
Most Urgent Threat to U.S. Interests in Syria Is Spread of Terrorist Groups
- U.S. objectives in Syria — including a political settlement and defeating the Islamic State and the Syrian Conquest Front (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's Syria affiliate) — are best served by working with Russia and through the UN Security Council, especially in the absence of a regional diplomatic consensus on ending the war.
- Postconflict governance, security, and reconstruction in Syria will benefit from the unity of the UN Security Council.
- Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's transition from power is best achieved in the context of UN-brokered negotiations on a political settlement involving the United States and its Middle East partners with Russia and Iran, rather than via steps which would serve to escalate or prolong the conflict.
Postconflict Stabilization Will Be Unlikely If Syria Is Subject to Division or Partition
- The United States should oppose any and all policies that seek to partition or divide Syria. A collapsed, divided, or fractured Syrian state would likely contribute to further instability and radicalization in Syria and the region.
- Syria's relatively strong national identity and experience of centralized authority reinforce the prospects for a unified state.
- Lessons from recent conflicts, including U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, suggest that postconflict security, governance, and reconstruction in Syria will require viable, centralized state institutions.
- The United States and Russia, especially when working through the UN Security Council, can define the structures and constraints for the regional parties in Syria and provide legitimacy to an eventual postconflict stabilization and reconstruction plan.
- More extensive U.S. military and intelligence coordination with Russia against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra should include holding Russia and its allies accountable for any indiscriminate bombing or mistreatment of civilians by Russian, Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces.
- The United States should address Turkey's concerns about the role of the Syrian Kurdish parties while encouraging renewed political talks between the Turkish government and the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
- The United States should resist postconflict governance plans that would divide Syria by emphasizing "local governance" at the expense of the Syrian state and thereby undermine prospects for long-term stabilization.
- Assad's transition, therefore, could be the price of a regional consensus, and the necessary leverage for the United States to provide the needed leadership and assistance to international postconflict stabilization to prevent Syrian state collapse, which should be in the interest of all parties.