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The Best Think Tank Reports on Syria

Since we’ve been elbow deep in reading about Syria since the start of the conflict, we thought it worth sharing some of our favorite long-form reports from some top think tanks. They serve as our guide to some deep knowledge on Syria, its people and its unfolding conflict.

Written by Katarina Montgomery Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

We broke it down into eight key topics worth understanding:

  1. On Syria’s Evolution from Revolution to Civil War:

International Crisis Group, June 2013: Syria’s Metastasising Conflict

Two years, scores of thousands of dead, a mushrooming regional sectarian war and millions of refugees and internally displaced later, the Syrian war is tying the international community in knots largely of its own making. Once confident of swift victory, the opposition’s foreign allies shifted to a paradigm dangerously divorced from reality: that military pressure would force the regime to alter its calculus so that it would either negotiate its demise or experience internal cracks leading to its collapse. That discounted the apparent determination of Iran, Hizbollah and Russia to do what it takes to keep the regime afloat and bring the armed opposition to its knees. It counted without the fecklessness of an opposition in exile fighting for a share of power it has yet to achieve. And it assumed that the Assad regime has a “calculus” susceptible to be changed, not merely a fighting mode designed to last.


2. On Syria’s Fragmented Opposition:

Institute for the Study of War, March 2013: The Free Syrian Army, Elizabeth O’Bagy

The opposition movement in Syria has been fragmented from its inception, a direct reflection of Syria’s social complexity and the decentralized grassroots origin of the uprising. To date, disparate sources of funding have significantly handicapped the rebels’ ability to unite and consolidate authority on a national level.

Carnegie Endowment, April 2013: The Syrian Opposition’s Leadership Problem, Yezid Sayigh

Syria’s opposition still lacks political leadership two years after the start of the country’s uprising. In exile, the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (National Coalition) professes to provide a representative framework for diverse civilian councils and rebel groups operating within Syria’s borders, but it does not lead them. It must empower the grassroots structures to become the opposition’s real political leadership inside Syria and shift its focus to engage key political constituencies and state institutions to split them from the regime if it hopes to bring about lasting, democratic change.

3. On Jihad in Syria

Institute for the Study of War, September 2012: Jihad in Syria, Elizabeth O’Bagy

The Syrian conflict began as a secular revolt against autocracy. Yet as the conflict protracts, a radical Islamist dynamic has emerged within the opposition. There is a small but growing jihadist presence inside Syria, and this presence within the opposition galvanizes Assad’s support base and complicates U.S. involvement in the conflict.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: The Syrian Islamic Front: A New Extremist Force, Aaron Zelin

The second half of 2012 saw increased radicalization of the Syrian armed opposition, particularly in the north and east. What began as a mainly secular force with the creation of the umbrella Free Syrian Army has slowly fragmented into Islamist splinter factions, including Suqur al-Sham, Kataib Ahrar al-Sham (KAS), and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). Designated a terrorist organization by Washington in early December, JN has received the most attention, but little has been said about KAS, another popular Salafi-jihadist group whose strength and support continue to grow in Aleppo, Idlib and elsewhere. On December 21, KAS announced the creation of a new umbrella fighting force called the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF).

4. On Keeping Syria From Falling Apart

Brookings Institute, June 2013: The Challenge of Syrian Unity, Various Authors

A paper published by the Brookings Doha Center explores the interests and concerns of key Syrian constituencies as they struggle to devise a formula for maintaining Syrian unity as part of a political solution to the crisis.

Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2013: Syria: The Search for the Least Bad Option, Anthony H. Cordesman

There are no good options in Syria. No matter what happens, the current civil war has triggered divisions between Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds and Syria’s smaller minorities that will take a decade or more to heal and leave lasting anger and hatred between Sunnis and Alawites. The war has already spread to involve Lebanon and Iraq, unleashing a rebirth of sectarian tensions and conflict in each country. Worse, it has become linked to a religious war within Islam that increasingly pits Sunnis against Shiites, and religious extremists against mainstream Islam, across the entire Islamic world.

5. On Syria’s Sectarian Divide

Middle East Council: Roots of Alawite-Sunni Divide in Syria, Ayse Tekdal Fildis

The emergence of the Alawite Baathist regime in the mid-1960s marked a crucial turning point in Syria’s modern political history. As a result, it engendered distrust among many of the Sunni population of the Alawites and the Baath party. Many Sunnis regarded the Alawite Baathist regime as illegitimate, oppressive and anti-Islamic. According to Sunni Muslims, the Alawite minority had seized power by armed force, imposing harsh measures such as restricting religious education and ulema (Muslim scholars). This severely injured Sunnis’ religious feelings and their socioeconomic interests. In a country where two-thirds of the population are Sunni, these facts severely alienated the Alawite regime from its subjects.

International Crisis Group, Jan 2013: Syrian Kurds: A Struggle Within a Struggle

As Syria’s conflict has expanded, the population in majority-Kurd areas has remained relatively insulated. Keeping a lower profile, it has been spared the brunt of regime attacks; over time, security forces withdrew to concentrate elsewhere. Kurdish groups stepped in to replace them: to stake out zones of influence, protect their respective areas, provide essential services and ensure an improved status for the community in a post-Assad Syria.

6. On Syria’s Key Allies, Russia and Iran

Middle East Council: Russia and the Conflict in Syria: Four Myths, Mark N. Katz

Russia has played little or no active role in the Arab uprisings that began in 2011, with one notable exception: Syria. In this one case, Moscow has provided the regime with important diplomatic and military support ever since the start of the uprising against it.

Institute for the Study of War, May 2013: Iranian Strategy in Syria, Will Fulton, Joseph Holliday and Sam Wyer

The Islamic Republic of Iran has conducted an extensive, expensive and integrated effort to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power as long as possible while setting conditions to retain its ability to use Syrian territory and assets to pursue its regional interests should Assad fall. Iran’s hedging strategy aims to ensure that it can continue to pursue its vital interests if and when the regime collapses, using parts of Syria as a base as long as the Syrian opposition fails to establish full control over all of Syrian territory.

7. On Human Rights and Indiscriminate Violence

Human Rights Watch, April 2013: Death From the Skies, Deliberate and Indiscriminate Air Strikes on Civilians

This 80-page report is based on visits to 50 sites of government air strikes in opposition-controlled areas in Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia governorates, and more than 140 interviews with witnesses and victims. The air strikes Human Rights Watch documented killed at least 152 civilians. According to a network of local Syrian activists, air strikes have killed more than 4,300 civilians across Syria since July 2012.

8. On Syria’s Chemical Weapons

Congressional Research Service: Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues For Congress

Syria has produced, stored and weaponized chemical weapons, but it remains dependent on foreign suppliers for chemical precursors. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad reportedly has stocks of nerve (sarin, VX) and blister (mustard gas) agents, possibly weaponized into bombs, shells and missiles, and associated production facilities.

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