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Friday, January 25, 2013

Armed Conflict in Syria: U.S. and International Response

Jeremy M. Sharp
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Christopher M. Blanchard
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Syria 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 come.

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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