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Research Questions

  1. What are the most urgent local needs that stabilization efforts should address in Eastern Syria?
  2. Is there a viable strategy for orchestrating near-term stabilization in this region, where forces aligned in different coalitions are holding opposite sides of the Euphrates Valley?

The U.S.-led international coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has achieved substantial progress over the past several years, but the counter-ISIS campaign is not over. The authors assessed humanitarian needs in Eastern Syria's Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV). They also examined how locally focused stabilization efforts might be orchestrated to help preclude the Islamic State's recapture of territory, even as Syria's larger civil conflict continues unabated and is growing more complex.

This report opens with a sociocultural perspective on the MERV's human terrain, explicating long-standing divisions within and among the Valley's Sunni Arab tribes that may pose challenges to restoring broadly accepted local governance. The authors then assess the region's most urgent post-ISIS needs, focusing intensively on the status of its critical infrastructure—e.g., bridges, hospitals, transit facilities—as well as its natural resources, human displacement, and economic activity. In the political sphere, the authors examined how stabilization efforts might be pursued in a region where both the Syrian government and nonstate actors are filling a vacuum left by a common enemy's loss of territorial control. The authors then analyzed the pluses and minuses of attempting to overcome these challenges via either a separated division of labor approach to stabilization (i.e., a "steer clear" approach) or a more collaborative "interactive" approach. The authors recommend that both sides should start with a minimalist steer clear option but incrementally move toward a more interactive approach, as conditions permit.

Key Findings

Critical Needs of the MERV

  • While the level of infrastructure damage endured by the MERV's major cities and towns appears to be less than in other population centers once controlled by ISIS, the region's bridging, industrial sites, water treatment facilities, and oil and gas infrastructure have not been spared.
  • Along with repairs in these domains, early recovery's highest-priority efforts should address shortfalls in water, electricity, and agricultural production.
  • Agricultural investments should focus on providing short-term assistance—e.g., seeds, fertilizers, and affordable fuel—to help revive levels of crop production during the MERV's upcoming growing seasons.

Geopolitical Complexities of the MERV

  • Even if each side chooses to begrudgingly accept the other's presence in Eastern Syria—and there are pressures on each side to do so—the pathway toward stabilization would not be easy to navigate.
  • The five most consequential challenges would be (1) where to draw the deconfliction line; (2) whether and how to organize mutually agreed flows of unarmed civilians, economic goods, and relief supplies across the Valley; (3) managing water scarcity and sharing oil and gas revenues; (4) attending to the needs of displaced communities and their influx back into the Valley following ISIS's departure; and (5) mitigating the risks of retributive violence against communities suspected of having ISIS sympathizers.

Recommendations

  • For the MERV overall, priority actions would include orchestrating a surge of relief aid to liberated communities; managing the influx of returning refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs); ramping up repairs to water pumping stations and the electrical grid, along with the provision of agricultural assistance; developing plans for more extensive recovery of public services; working with Turkey on Euphrates River water management over the longer term; and ensuring transparency of external support for relief aid and local infrastructure repairs.
  • For areas of the MERV held by U.S.-backed coalition partners, priority actions would focus on assisting communities in removing explosive hazards, supporting the formation of locally focused civil councils, ramping up efforts to generate locally accepted Sunni Arab security forces, refining screening procedures to facilitate the returns of refugees and IDPs, repairing damaged oil and gas facilities previously held by ISIS, and countering youth radicalization through curricular reforms in the education sector.
  • For heightening the prospects of the interactive stabilization approach, priority actions would include mapping out the MERV's socioeconomic interdependences to preview likely cross-river flows of people and economic goods, crafting protocols for processing transiting cargo and people through checkpoints, developing a plan for sharing oil and gas revenues as a means for resourcing otherwise underfunded public services, crafting a template of benchmarks for successful stabilization, and anticipating the need to apply constructive pressure to inhibit a flare-up of retributive violence against civilians.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    The MERV in Perspective

  • Chapter Three

    Assessing the Region's Critical Needs

  • Chapter Four

    Navigating the MERV's Geopolitical Complexities

  • Chapter Five

    Conclusions and Recommendations

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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