On August 26, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry called the recent use of chemical weapons outside of Damascus “undeniable” and a “moral obscenity.”[1] This is the latest chapter in an already complex civil war in Syria, a crisis that Kerry’s predecessor called a “wicked problem” for the U.S. foreign policy establishment.[2] That term was introduced 40 years ago by two professors of urban planning who were trying to identify what differentiated hard but relatively ordinary problems from those that were truly “wicked.”[3] In their interpretation, wicked problems feature innumerable causes, are tough to adequately describe, and by definition have no “right” answers. In fact, solutions to wicked problems are impossible to objectively evaluate; rather, it is better to evaluate solutions to these problems as being shades of good and bad.[4]

By anyone’s account, the Syrian civil war satisfies all of the criteria of a wicked problem. Like most crises, the issues surrounding the Syrian conflict are complex and interrelated, and there are multiple competing foreign policy interests at stake for the United States. As a result, there is no shortage of disagreement about the way forward for the United States in responding to the conflict.

The discourse on U.S. policy options for Syria features two contradictory approaches. One camp argues that an effective solution requires direct American involvement, including military intervention, and the removal of President Bashar al-Assad from power. While the United States called for al-Assad to step down as early as August 2011,[5] supporters of this approach complain that U.S. actions to end the violence and remove al-Assad have not matched its rhetoric.[6] Even this summer’s decision to send limited arms in support of the rebel cause is, in their view, a case of too little, too late.[7] Those wanting more American involvement in Syria argue that an al-Assad victory would increase Iran’s influence, embolden Hizb Allah, and risk the United States’ reputation as a superpower and its credibility among allies (and enemies) in the region.[8] Detractors already point to the U.S. failure to stem humanitarian abuses by the Syrian government, including al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons despite U.S. warnings that such use constituted crossing a “red line.”[9] Others look at the United States’ inability to get other major powers, especially Russia, on board to end the crisis quickly. Although no one argues that a post-Assad Syria will be a panacea for peace in the region, proponents of this camp think that the benefits of intervening outweigh the costs.[10]

The second camp is more skeptical about the rebel opposition and believes that the United States has wisely exercised restraint throughout the crisis, especially given the uncertainty of what a post-Assad Syria may look like. Retired Ambassador Ryan Crocker, former chief diplomat to Syria from 1998-2001 and no stranger to challenging situations after serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan, likened the current crisis in Syria to the massive wildfires raging in the American West: “You can’t put them out. You can’t stop them…That’s kind of like Syria. We can’t stop that war…What we can do, or should do, is everything possible we can to keep it from spreading.”[11]

Many who side with Crocker’s assessment suggest that the urge to “do something” should be tempered by the United States’ first-hand knowledge of the tradeoffs, limitations, and uncertainty associated with military intervention during the last decade of war. In a recent letter to Congressman Eliot Engel, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs commented that “the use of U.S. military force can change the military balance [in Syria]…But it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious, and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.”[12]

The purpose of this article is two-fold. First, it clearly outlines the intent behind publishing a special issue of the CTC Sentinel focused exclusively on the Syrian crisis. Second, it frames the central themes surrounding the conflict, identifies future implications for political violence in the region, and highlights several notable findings from the issue’s contributors.

Intent of this Issue
This special edition of the CTC Sentinel looks at the Syrian conflict from multiple angles, including analyses that closely examine the threats posed by violent non-state actors in the region. The contributors address key issues and debates while raising some important questions that so far have received limited attention. This edition purposefully avoids proposing any policy prescriptions. Rather, it identifies and analyzes the central actors and their strategic interests in an effort to inform the debate surrounding this wicked problem.

Selected authors in this edition were asked to view the Syrian civil war through the strategic lenses of some of the conflict’s most important state actors; others were asked to “deep-dive” into the complicated non-state militant landscape and profile the most important groups fighting in Syria. While this issue does not exhaust all relevant angles of the conflict, grouping these different perspectives in a single issue will hopefully advance the collective understanding of the Syrian crisis and provide insight into the behavior and policies of the relevant actors.[13]

Central Themes and Pressing Concerns
Syria poses several significant security concerns for the United States and its allies. First, there are concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons. Two months prior to the most recent use of chemical weapons in August, a U.S. report in June concluded that the al-Assad regime had used chemical weapons against rebel forces multiple times in the previous year.[14] No U.S. ally is more concerned about this development than Israel. As Arie Perliger explains in his article, controlling Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is a critical concern for Israeli security officials. Israel has already conducted at least one attack inside Syria to prevent these weapons from falling into the wrong hands, and more unilateral attacks can be expected if Israel feels positive control of these weapons is jeopardized in any way.[15]

Second, with possibly hundreds of foreign fighters returning to their home countries following the conflict in Syria, the United States and its allies must now contend with a potentially dangerous foreign fighter problem. Most are familiar with the spate of terrorist groups spawned in the years following the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to include al-Qa`ida. The same dynamics may emerge in the aftermath of the Syrian conflict.[16] Many fear that foreign fighters hailing from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa will return to their home countries hardened by battle and empowered by an extremist ideology. They may conduct attacks in their home countries or use their Syrian experience to export violence to other countries. Closer to home, American and European policymakers are also concerned about the return of hundreds of Western fighters who have also traveled to Syria to conduct jihad.[17]

Another obvious security concern for the United States and its allies is an expansion of the conflict beyond Syria’s borders.[18] Low-level violence has already spilled over into Lebanon and Turkey, and the conditions that could ignite an escalation of the conflict are present in spades. A cursory analysis of the main actors and their strategic motivations, using many of the insights found later in this special issue, reveals the complexity of this crisis and paints a bleak picture for peace prospects in the near future.

State and Non-State Actors in the Syrian Crisis
Iran, according to Karim Sadjadpour’s analysis, views its alliance with Syria as an essential pillar of its grand strategy. He argues that Iran’s strong support of the al-Assad regime is driven less by historical precedent and cultural affinity and more by realpolitik realities. As a result, Iran’s commitment to al-Assad remains steadfast, and it is willing to spend significant blood and treasure to prevent a Sunni replacement government from taking root in Damascus.[19]

Iran could not achieve its goals in Syria without Lebanese Hizb Allah. Nicholas Blanford’s article shows that the group’s performance during the battle of Qusayr was a game-changer in the conflict, stopping the momentum of the rebels and showcasing the group’s ability to execute offensive operations in an urban environment.[20] The addition of Hizb Allah drastically improved the fighting capability of the pro-Assad forces, but it may come at a steep cost for the Lebanese group, according to Matthew Levitt and Aaron Y. Zelin. After Hizb Allah announced its direct support of the al-Assad regime and spilled Sunni blood during the battle of Qusayr, its long-cultivated image of remaining above the sectarian fray is now tarnished.[21] By fighting alongside pro-Assad forces in Syria, Hizb Allah has also ignored the Lebanese government’s policy of non-intervention in the conflict.[22] In fact, the group has had to recently implement “intensive security measures” in response to multiple car bomb attacks in Shi`a areas south of the Lebanese capital “to head off retaliatory attacks spurred by anger over its role in Syria.”[23]

Looking at the rebel side, Aron Lund’s article dissects the diverse and complicated Sunni non-state militant landscape in Syria. His analysis should give pause to those seeking simplistic narratives to describe the composition and motivations of the rebel opposition.[24] The complex mosaic of anti-Assad forces fighting in Syria is one of the chief reasons American policymakers are reluctant to provide more resources to the rebel cause, especially when the “big umbrella” of the opposition includes a group like Jabhat al-Nusra that has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs shared this concern recently to Representative Engel: “Syria is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”[25]

Hugh Pope’s article highlights Turkey’s many challenges with the Syrian crisis. In addition to withstanding both conventional and unconventional attacks along its border from pro-Assad forces, Turkey has struggled to manage a massive influx of refugees from Syria.[26] Additionally, Ankara’s alleged support of Sunni rebel groups, both in and outside its borders, has heightened ethnic tensions at home.[27]

Jordan, like Turkey, is facing similar problems with Syrian refugees and has significant concerns about violence spilling across its border. Although it overtly backs rebel groups fighting against al-Assad’s forces, Jordan is highly concerned about the concentration of Islamist extremist groups with ties to al-Qa`ida fighting along its border in southern Syria.[28] In June, the United States took active measures—deploying Patriot missile batteries and F-16s to Jordan—to reassure its long-standing regional ally.[29]

Iraq’s involvement in the Syrian conflict spans multiple fronts. The United States has repeatedly called on Iraq’s Nuri al-Maliki government to stop facilitating the transfer of weapons from Iran to al-Assad’s forces through its borders.[30] Additionally, the sectarian strife that has plagued Iraq over the last decade is now being exported to the Syrian conflict. Al-Qa`ida in Iraq has reportedly sent significant numbers of fighters to Syria and even attempted a well-documented “merge” with its jihadist counterpart in the Levant, Jabhat al-Nusra.[31] To better understand Iraq’s pro-Assad non-state actors, Phillip Smyth profiles and analyzes the numerous Shi`a proxy organizations from Iraq that have flocked to fight alongside Hizb Allah and other Shi`a militant groups in Syria.[32]

Finally, the conflict in Syria is fueled in part by donor states hoping to influence the war’s outcome in accordance with their own strategic interests. Russia has maintained its steadfast support of Syria, a long-standing ally, by funneling a steady stream of arms to the regime and refusing to join the United States and the West in calling for al-Assad’s removal.[33] Wealthy Sunni Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have played important roles in bankrolling and arming specific rebel groups in their attempt to oust al-Assad and balance against their regional rival, Iran.[34]

Implications on the Future of Political Violence in the Region
The Syrian crisis has important implications for future political violence in the region, regardless of what fate ultimately befalls the al-Assad regime. First, sectarian violence may now be the defining feature of the civil war. Rival storylines have portrayed the conflict differently: as the Syrian people’s fight against an authoritarian dictator; as a Sunni majority taking what is rightfully theirs from an Alawite minority; or even the jihadist movement attacking the “near enemy.” As Levitt and Zelin note in their article, the decision by Iran and Lebanese Hizb Allah to support al-Assad was an “all-in” moment. With Hizb Allah now in the fight, the Sunni-Shi`a dynamic overshadows other storylines and will likely prolong the conflict.

Second, coming on the heels of Usama bin Ladin’s death in May 2011 and what appeared to be several peaceful transitions of power throughout the Middle East following the Arab Spring, the Syrian conflict was a timely lifeline of sorts for the broader jihadist movement. The Syrian conflict has attracted thousands of jihadist fighters from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa who are answering the call to jihad in Syria in numbers that other conflicts in Mali and Yemen have not been able to replicate. Additionally, the conflict in the Levant is unquestionably the most popular topic on jihadist web forums today. Viewed in conjunction with the Egyptian military’s removal of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power, the Syrian civil war also helps reinforce the jihadist narrative that violence is the best way to remove apostate regimes and restore the caliphate.

Syria is indeed a wicked problem, and it will not be resolved in the near future. The conflict is complicated by sectarian issues, fears about chemical weapons, foreign fighters, and a web of non-state proxies that are supported by donor states from afar. We hope the remaining articles help those interested in Syria make better sense of the crisis.

Major Bryan Price, Ph.D., is the Director of the Combating Terrorism Center. The viewpoints expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

[1] John Kerry, “Remarks on Syria,” U.S. Department of State, August 26, 2013; Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad, “Syrian Rebels Accuse Government of Chemical Attack,” New York Times, August 21, 2013.

[2] “The President and the Secretary of State,” 60 Minutes, January 27, 2013.

[3] Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4 (1973).

[4] John C. Camillus, “Strategy as a Wicked Problem,” Harvard Business Review, May 2008.

[5] Barack Obama, “Statement by President Obama on the Situation in Syria,” White House, August 18, 2011.

[6] Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Lawmakers Call for Stronger US Action in Syria,” New York Times, April 28, 2013.

[7] Michele Kelemen, “U.S. Supplies for Syrian Rebels May Be Too Little, Too Late,” National Public Radio, June 14, 2013; Tom A. Peter, “How Syria’s Conflict Became More Complicated as US Debated Arms for Rebels,” Christian Science Monitor, June 14, 2013.

[8] Barry Pavel, “What Was Obama Thinking?” Foreign Policy, May 1, 2013.

[9] Benjamin J. Rhodes, “Statement by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on Syrian Chemical Weapons Use,” White House, June 13, 2013; James Ball, “Obama Issues Syria a ‘Red Line’ Warning on Chemical Weapons,” New York Times, August 20, 2012.

[10] For a spirited argument for intervention in Syria, see Michael Doran and Max Boot, “Five Reasons to Intervene in Syria Now,” New York Times, September 26, 2012.

[11] Stephanie Gaskell, “Interview with Ryan Crocker: Assad Will Prevail ‘Yard by Bloody Yard,’” Defense One, August 5, 2013; Ryan Crocker, “Containing the Fire in Syria,” Yale Global, July 23, 2013.

[12] Bradley Klapper, “Dempsey: Syrian Rebels Won’t Back US Interests,” Associated Press, August 21, 2013.

[13] For example, the issue does not include a separate article on the important role Russia plays in the crisis. For analyses that address Russia’s strategic interests, see Radha Iyengar and Brian Fishman, The Conflict in Syria: An Assessment of US Strategic Interests (Washington, D.C.: New America Foundation, 2013); Anna Borshchevskaya, “Russia’s Many Interests in Syria,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, January 24, 2013; “Russia’s Syrian Stance: Principled Self-Interest,” Strategic Comments 2012:31 (2012).

[14] Rhodes.

[15] Dominic Evans and Oliver Holmes, “Israel Strikes Syria, Says Targeting Hezbollah Arms,” Reuters, May 5, 2013; Arie Perliger, “Israel’s Response to the Crisis in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:8 (2013).

[16] For some interesting work on this issue, see Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice Between Domestic and Foreign Fighting,” American Political Science Review 107:1 (2013). Although he found evidence to suggest foreign fighter violence back home is less than conventional wisdom may suggest, foreign fighters that do conduct violence upon their return home are more effective than non-veterans.

[17] Raffaello Pantucci, “British Fighters Joining the War in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:2 (2013); “Jihadis in Syria: A Salafi Shindig,” Economist, June 18, 2013.

[18] Halvard Buhaug and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, “Contagion or Confusion? Why Conflicts Cluster in Space,” International Studies Quarterly 52:2 (2008).

[19] Karim Sadjadpour, “Iran’s Unwavering Support to Assad’s Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:8 (2013).

[20] Nicholas Blanford, “The Battle for Qusayr: How the Syrian Regime and Hizb Allah Tipped the Balance,” CTC Sentinel 6:8 (2013).

[21] Scott Helfstein, “The Rise of Sectarian Populism,” National Interest, July 18, 2013; Matthew Levitt and Aaron Y. Zelin, “Hizb Allah’s Gambit in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:8 (2013).

[22] Levitt and Zelin.

[23] Nicholas Blanford, “Under Threat of Attack, Hezbollah Turns Beirut Neighborhood into Fortress,” Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 2013.

[24] Aron Lund, “The Non-State Militant Landscape in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:8 (2013).

[25] Klapper. The original letter can be found on Rep. Engel’s website at www.democrats.foreignaffairs.house.gov/113/Letter_for_Rep_Engel_19_Aug_13.pdf.

[26] Hugh Pope, “Turkey’s Tangled Syria Policy,” CTC Sentinel 6:8 (2013).

[27] Sophia Jones, “How the War in Syria Has Helped to Inspire Turkey’s Protests,” Foreign Policy, June 11, 2013.

[28] Suleiman al-Khalidi and Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Rebel Gains in Southern Syria Sharpen Jordan’s Dilemma,” Reuters, May 1, 2013.

[29] Michael R. Gordon and Thom Shanker, “US to Keep Warplanes in Jordan, Pressuring Syria,” New York Times, June 15, 2013.

[30] Arshad Mohammad, “Top US Diplomat Kerry Asks Iraq to Stop Arms to Syria,” Reuters, March 24, 2013.

[31] Ryan Lucas, “Jabhat al-Nusra Pledges Allegiance to al Qaeda, But Has Not Merged, Syrian Leader Says,” Huffington Post, April 10, 2013.

[32] Phillip Smyth, “From Karbala to Sayyida Zaynab: Iraqi Fighters in Syria’s Shi’a Militias,” CTC Sentinel 6:8 (2013).

[33] Borshchevskaya.

[34] C.J. Shivers and Eric Schmitt, “Arms Shipments Seen From Sudan to Syria Rebels,” New York Times, August 12, 2013.

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