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Wednesday, June 26, 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

The popular-uprising-turned-armed-rebellion in Syria is in its third year, and seems poised to continue, with the government and a bewildering array of militias locked in a bloody struggle of attrition. The Obama Administration has signaled a pending expansion of U.S. civilian and military assistance to the opposition in the wake of the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that President Bashar al Asad’s forces used chemical weapons in limited attacks in recent months. U.S. officials and many analysts have asserted that President Asad and his supporters will be forced from power, but few offer specific, credible timetables for a resolution to the crisis. Further escalation in fighting or swift regime change could jeopardize the security of chemical and conventional weapons stockpiles, threaten minority groups, or lead to wider regional conflict.

Opposition forces are formidable, but regime forces, backed by Hezbollah fighters and Iranian and Russian material support, have initiated successful tactical counteroffensives in recent weeks. The Syrian military continues to use air strikes, artillery, and pro-government militias in punishing attacks on areas where rebels operate. Some members of Syria’s Sunni Arab majority and of ethnic and sectarian minority groups view the conflict in communal, zero-sum terms. U.S. officials believe that fighting would likely continue even if Asad were toppled.

Amid extensive damage to major urban areas and reports attributing war crimes to government and opposition forces, the fighting has created a regional humanitarian emergency. Some estimates suggest more than 90,000 Syrians have been killed since unrest began in March 2011. As of June 14, more than 1,638,102 refugees had fled Syria amid United Nations projections the total may reach 3.5 million by years end. According to U.N. estimates, as many as 4.25 million Syrians may be internally displaced. U.N. agencies have launched their largest ever humanitarian assistance appeal– seeking $4.4 billion for the Syria crisis in 2013. The United States has provided more than $513 million in humanitarian assistance to date.

President Obama and his Administration have been calling for Asad’s resignation since August 2011, and have pressed the United Nations Security Council to condemn the Syrian government. The United States has recognized the National Coalition of Revolution and Opposition Forces (SC) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and has provided nonlethal assistance to the Coalition and an affiliated Supreme Military Council (SMC). The Obama Administration believes that a negotiated political settlement is required and has prepared military plans to secure Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, if necessary.

Some observers advocate for more robust civil and military aid to the SC and SMC as a means of forcing the Asad regime to the negotiating table. Opponents of this approach argue that making opposition groups more formidable could intensify the fighting and risks empowering extremists. Some armed opposition factions, including powerful Islamist coalitions, reject negotiation.

After two years of unrest and violence, the central question for policy makers remains how best to bring the conflict in Syria to a close before the crisis consigns the region to one of several destructive and destabilizing scenarios. The human toll of the fighting, and the resulting political, ethnic, and sectarian polarization, all but guarantee that political, security, humanitarian, and economic challenges will outlast Asad and keep Syria on the U.S. agenda for years to come.

Date of Report: June 14, 2013
Number of Pages: 59
Order Number: RL33487
Price: $29.95

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