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Dynamic Stalemate: Surveying Syria’s Military Landscape

Charles Lister of Brookings Doha examines Syria’s ongoing stalemate.

Written by Charles Lister Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

The following is an excerpt.


The conflict in Syria has become an intensely complex affair, incorporating overlapping political, religious, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal narratives. The anti-government insurgency currently involves approximately 100,000-120,000 fighters—roughly 7,000-10,000 of whom are non-Syrian nationals—divided among over 1,000 distinct armed units. A majority of these factions are further organized into an assortment of coalitions, fronts, and temporary local alliances known as ‘military operations rooms.’ Meanwhile, government forces—principally the Syrian Arab Army (SAA)—have both encouraged and adapted to the war’s sectarian overtones, primarily deploying Shia and Alawi units in front-line operations alongside increasingly professionalized paramilitaries and Shia militias composed largely of foreign fighters. All the while, both sides receive considerable levels of support from foreign states, organizations, and individuals.

The foregoing refers only to the dynamic of Sunni militias fighting against the Syrian government. The conflict, however, is by no means two-dimensional. Other elements include, but are not limited to, the role of the Kurdish autonomist group, the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD), and its armed wings, the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG) and Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (YPJ); the eruption of fighting against the al-Qaeda-disavowed Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS); the interest-specific role of Lebanon-based Hizballah in backing President Bashar al-Assad; the damaging role of frequently incompatible or mutually conflicting policies of opposition-supporting Gulf states; and increasingly evident divisions within the political and military components of the two main Western-backed opposition structures, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (or Syrian National Coalition; SNC) and the Supreme Joint Military Command Council (SMC).

Two-and-a-half years ago, it might have been possible for Western governments to help bring about an accelerated and successful end to the revolution through the formation of a representative opposition structure that both incorporated and helped to unify the armed opposition. Over time, though, the involvement of ever-more actors and interests has resulted in escalating brutality, spiraling casualty rates, immense population displacement, and the emergence of what may prove to be unparalleled opportunities for jihadi militancy. This initial failure to act, combined with Assad’s proven adaptability and ruthless pursuit of power, now requires Western states to overcome previous miscalculations and current policy stagnation in order to help secure a resolution that best ensures regional stability and international security.

As such, this Policy Briefing aims to provide the reader with a present-day strategic assessment of the conflict in Syria, which itself feeds into a set of specific policy recommendations. This conflict assessment will take the form of several distinct sections outlining the status of the Western-backed opposition, the influence of jihadi militants within the wider opposition dynamic, and the evolving capabilities of pro-government forces. Before delving into this assessment, it is worth outlining and recognizing the wide range of international and local actors involved and their various interests and objectives. Such actors can be loosely divided into two distinct comparative categories: firstly, state and sub-state bodies, and secondly, those either supportive of or opposed to the Assad government.

Read the full text here.

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