The popular-uprising-turned-armed-rebellion in Syria is in its third year, and seems poised to continue, with the government and an array of militias locked in a bloody struggle of attrition. Members of Congress and Administration officials are debating options for responding militarily to President Bashar al Asad’s forces’ reported use of chemical weapons in attacks on rebel-held areas and civilians. After the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Asad’s forces used weapons in limited attacks earlier this year, the Obama Administration had signaled a pending expansion of U.S. civilian and military assistance to the opposition. Earlier in the conflict, U.S. officials and many analysts asserted that President Asad and his supporters would be forced from power, but had di
fficulty articulating how that outcome would
take place within the timeframes they set forth. Recent developments suggest that both the opposition and the Asad regime face considerable challenges in their attempts to assert greater control over Syria. Increasingly, analysts have focused on the potential for the regime and its opponents to carve out strongholds and prolong the fighting. Rapid escalation or swift regime change could deal a decisive blow to actors seek
ing to advance goals contrary to U.S. interests,
but it could also further jeopardize the security
of chemical and conventional weapons stockpiles
and/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 some areas. 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—i
ncluding the Alawite minority from which the
Asad family hails—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 both government and opposition forces, the war has created a regional humanitarian emergency. Some estimates suggest more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed since March 2011. As of September 6, more than 2 million refugees had fled Syria, and the United Nations projects that the total may reach 3.5 million by year’s end. As many as 4.25 million Syrians have been internally displaced. U.S. humanitarian assistance to date totals more than $1.01 billion. 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). Although the Administration is seeking congressional authorization for the use of
force in Syria, and preparing military plans for
various contingencies, it continues to maintain that there is “no military solution” and that a negotiated political settlement is essential.
During more than two years of unrest and violence, the central question for policy makers has been how best to bring the conflict in Syria to a close without irretrievably destabilizing the region and/or endangering key U.S. allies or interests. The debate over a potential military response to reported chemical weapons use adds new complications to this question. Given the human cost and the polarizing effects of the fighting, security, humanitarian, and economic challenges will beset Syria and probably implicate U.S. interests for years to come. For the latest on proposed legislation to authorize the use of...
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