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April 11, 2016

Towards A Coherent Western Policy On The Syrian War

by
Henry Jackson Society
and
Jonathan Spyer

The five-year, continuing civil war in Syria is the greatest crisis to have hit the Levant since World War II. According to recent figures released by the Damascus-based Syrian Center for Policy Research, up to 470,000 people have died in the war. Fully 11.5 % of the population have been killed or injured, and 45% of the population have left their homes as a result of the conflict. Of these, more than 4 million have left Syria, while 6.36 million people live inside the country as internally displaced persons. Life expectancy has dropped from 70.5 years in 2010 to an estimated 55.4 years in 2015.1

The war, meanwhile, currently shows no sign of conclusion. A ceasefire that began on 27 February has partially held in some areas of the country, but in much of Syria the fighting is continuing, and the underlying causes of the war remain far from resolution.

There is no longer a single civil war taking place in Syria. Rather, the country has fragmented, and the original conflict between the Assad regime and a mainly Sunni Arab rebellion against it has metastasised into a confusing series of conflicts between the various fragments. Thus, in Syria today, in addition to the war between Assad and the rebels there is a separate conflict between the Islamic State and the western-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (the main component of which is the Kurdish YPG). In addition, one may discern clashes between the YPG and the Sunni rebels, the regime and IS, the YPG and the regime, and the Turkish armed forces against the YPG.

Prior to the Russian intervention that commenced on 30 September, the direction of the war appeared to be going badly for the Assad regime. The rebels were on the verge of breaking into the regime heartland in Latakia Province. The Russian intervention was in the first instance intended to prevent this eventuality. It succeeded. As of now, it appears that none of the sides can be defeated by another. Assad, with Russian guarantees, can no longer be destroyed militarily. But the rooted and popular rebellion is also unlikely to be defeated conclusively by the stretched forces of the regime and its allies. IS, meanwhile, is slowly losing ground but does not appear currently to be close to final defeat.

This paper will observe the latest events in the war, trace the direction of western policy towards it and conclude with some suggestions for a more coherent western approach.