Jeremy M. Sharp Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
Christopher M. Blanchard Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
is mired in an armed conflict between forces loyal to President Bashar al Asad
and rebel fighters opposed to his rule. The conflict is creating a
regional humanitarian emergency as well as risks of violent spillover that
appear to be growing as the fighting intensifies. Various reports suggest
that as many as 50,000 Syrians have been killed since major political unrest
began in March 2011, including more than 10,000 security personnel. As of
December 19, more than 533,000 refugees had fled the country, over 300,000
of them since September 2012. According to the Syrian Red Crescent, as
many as 2.5 million Syrians may be internally displaced, and the United
Nations (U.N.) is seeking $1.5 billion to aid Syrians in need of assistance.
U.S. officials and many analysts believe that Asad and his supporters will
ultimately be forced from power, but few offer specific, credible
timetables for a resolution to Syria’s ongoing crisis. Reports of recent
rebel military gains suggest that opposition forces are becoming more formidable,
but government forces continue to resist, using air strikes and artillery in
punishing counterattacks. Extensive damage is being done to major urban
areas and national infrastructure. These factors, and the resulting
polarization of various political, ethnic, and sectarian factions, all but
guarantee that political, security, humanitarian, and economic challenges will
outlast Asad and may keep Syria on the agenda of Congress for years to
President Obama and his Administration have been calling for Asad’s resignation
since August 2011, and have been vocal advocates for United Nations
Security Council action to condemn the Syrian government and end the
bloodshed. U.S. officials have supported efforts to improve international
policy coordination on Syria and to build consensus among Syrian opposition groups.
The Administration has given no indication that it intends to pursue any form
of direct military intervention, unless Syria’s stockpiles of chemical
weapons are used or transferred. U.S. officials and some Members of
Congress continue to debate various proposals for ending the violence and
accelerating Asad’s departure. Nevertheless, the Syria that emerges from the
current conflict is likely to pose its own unique challenges for U.S.
policy in the region and may require significant international support to
rebuild and maintain stability.
After over 18 months of unrest and violence, dilemmas and contradictions
characterize Syria’s crisis. A menu of imperfect choices confronts U.S.
policymakers, amid fears of continued violence, evidence of a widening
humanitarian crisis, and regional instability. The potential spillover
effects of continued fighting raise questions with regard to Turkey, Lebanon,
Jordan, Iraq, and Israel. Signs of sectarian and ethnic conflict are
emerging in Syria, and the unrest also is creating new opportunities for
Al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups to operate there. The security
of Syrian conventional and chemical weapons stockpiles has become a regional
security concern that will grow if a security vacuum emerges. Many
observers worry that a further escalation in fighting or swift regime
change could jeopardize weapons security, generate new pressures on
minority groups, or lead to wider civil or regional conflict. A sudden
departure by Asad and key allies would do little to guarantee security or
stability in Syria. United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria
Lakhdar Brahimi warned in November 2012 of the danger of “Somalisation” of
Syria–“the collapse of the state and the emergence of warlords, militias and fighting
groups.” Determining the threshold for such a collapse may prove difficult.
Members of Congress and Obama Administration officials are weighing these
issues as they debate U.S. policy and the Syrian crisis.
Date of Report: December 20, 2012
Number of Pages: 47 Order Number: RL33487 Price: $29.95
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