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Research Questions

  1. What is driving both regional (e.g., Iran and Saudi Arabia) and extra-regional (e.g., Russia) players to intervene?
  2. Who are the internal actors, and are they operating as conduits of external influence?
  3. How do the external players fit in, and what are the possible outcomes of their involvement?

Less than two years since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, localized protests have morphed into full-blown civil conflict. Along with internal escalation, the conflict has drawn in external actors, including Syria's neighbors and extra-regional powers. With the regional balance of power hinging on the conflict's outcome, Middle Eastern and extra-regional states have taken sides — some in support of the Assad regime, others in support of the opposition. RAND convened a group of 26 experts who cover Syria and the various external players to participate in an analytic exercise on November 16, 2012, to generate a greater understanding of the parties and issues in play. The report begins by analyzing what is driving both regional (e.g., Iran and Saudi Arabia) and extra-regional (e.g., Russia) players to intervene in the Syrian conflict. It then proceeds to look at the internal actors (e.g., the Free Syrian Army and Alawite community) that may operate as conduits of external influence. The report concludes with an examination of the relationships between external and internal actors and possible effects of these groups' actions.

Key Findings

External Players Might Affect the Conflict's Outcome

  • The financial and military aid flowing into Syria from external state actors has the potential to perpetuate the civil war in Syria and ignite larger regional hostilities between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims.
  • There is an asymmetry of interests among external actors: Those supporting the Assad regime see the conflict's stakes in starker terms than do supporters of the opposition.
  • External influence in the Syrian conflict would be decisive only if the United States significantly increased the scope of its support to the opposition or Iran or Russia significantly ratcheted back their support for Assad.

Internal Players Are Expected to Have Less Effect

  • None of the "fence sitters" inside Syria are likely to tip the balance of the conflict.
  • Increased jihadi participation within the opposition will result in less support from most external actors and from "fence sitters" inside Syria.

This research was conducted within the Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND 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.

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