Deconstructing Syria

A confederal approach

September 16, 2016

U.S. policy toward Syria since the Arab spring uprisings of 2011 has tragically failed. Despite the ebb and flow of battle, as well as occasional temporary and partial cease-fire arrangements, there is no likely end in sight to the war, even with the recent changes in Aleppo. As a result, the Syrian people will continue to suffer enormously. Refugee flows will likely remain intense, the stability of other key regional states will remain at risk, and the possibility of extremist elements using Syria as a safe haven as well as a rallying cry for their cause will remain (even if ISIS itself continues to lose ground within Syria). A new approach is needed, based on the notions of possibly expanding military means we bring to bear to the problem and making the political vision for a future Syria more realistic as well as more commensurate with battlefield realities, and, to some extent, Russian interests too.

Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters walk on the rubble of damaged shops and buildings in the city of Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 10, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said - RTSMDAF
Editor's note:

The following brief is part of Brookings Big Ideas for America—an institution-wide initiative in which Brookings scholars have identified the biggest issues facing the country and provide ideas for how to address them. (Updated January 24, 2017)

Buy the book- Brookings Big Ideas for AmericaThe Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL or Daesh), a major element of the opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime, may not amount to an imminent threat to American security. But ISIS’s rise does place at much greater risk the security of Iraq, the future of Syria itself, and the stability of Lebanon and Jordan. It could jeopardize the safety of American citizens as well, given the possibility of more attacks by “lone wolves” inspired in their western home by ISIS propaganda, or by westerners returning from the Syrian jihad to carry out attacks at home. Istanbul, Ankara, Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, and Orlando may not be the last of such tragedies in western nations—and the interest of extremists in gaining access to weapons of mass destruction should give pause to anyone inclined to trivialize the strategic implications of attacks against the homeland. The refugee flows into Europe in 2015 highlight the human costs of a war that has killed several hundred thousand and displaced more than 10 million. The potency of the al-Nusra organization, al Qaeda’s loyal affiliate, within the Syrian opposition raises additional concern, even if that organization is now renamed and rebranded as the Front for Conquest with a supposed independence from al Qaeda.

This chapter makes a case for a new approach that I call “deconstructing Syria” that attempts to bring ends and means more realistically into balance. It aims for a Bosnia-like confederal model within the current borders of the Syrian nation, but with devolution of most powers to regions or states. Ultimately, this arrangement would be negotiated and formalized and upheld by international peacekeepers, but in the short term the United States and partners would seek to help local allies expand de facto safe havens and bring governance to them. It would not declare safe havens formally in the beginning, but could offer warnings to Assad not to bomb certain areas and neighborhoods lest his air force face reprisal action later. Over time, ISIS and related groups would have to be defeated. Assad or his close associates could be tolerated within a sector consisting mostly of Alawites and Christians. (Perhaps Assad could even nominally remain president for a time, if truly necessary, as long as he did not deploy security forces in those parts of Sunni-dominant Syria granted autonomy.)

The idea here builds on a paper I wrote in 2015, before the Russian intervention in the war, that made a similar case. The argument has only strengthened since Russia’s intervention. Decisive defeat of President Assad now looms as an even more improbable prospect; decisive victory by Assad also remains improbable, and highly undesirable, even as his regime’s forces consolidate control in Aleppo. ISIS is weaker, but far from defeated, and even if Raqqa were soon to be liberated, the likelihood of an ongoing civil war could provide the raw materials for the rise of a similar group in the future. My approach seeks to end the Hobson’s choice currently confronting American policymakers, whereby they can neither attempt to unseat President Assad in any concerted way (because doing so would clear the path for ISIS and other extremists, and because he is now propped up by Russia), nor tolerate him as a future leader of the whole country (because of the abominations he has committed, and because any such policy would bring the United States into direct disagreement with many of its regional allies).

The new approach would seek to break the problem down in a number of localized components of the country, pursuing regional stopgap solutions while envisioning ultimately a more confederal Syria made up at least in part of autonomous zones or states. It also proposes a path to an intensified train and equip program, married with more assertive use of American airpower, and ultimately the reinforcement of emergent safe zones. When appropriate, the safe zones would also be used to accelerate recruiting and training of additional opposition fighters who could live in, and help protect, their communities while going through basic training. These zones would, in addition, be locations where humanitarian relief could be provided to needy populations and local governance structures developed.


Any willingness by Assad to defect as part of an integrated plan to produce a new power-sharing government is not in the cards…

A realistic comprehensive plan for Syria seems elusive at this stage, without even factoring in self-imposed U.S. political constraints. American allies are, even in aggregate, not the strongest players on the battlefield. Other key players include Assad’s own army, pro-regime paramilitaries, ISIS, al-Nusra/Front for Conquest, Russia, and even Hezbollah. And some of these so-called allies may not be so moderate, or dependable. The ability of the Kurds to liberate any territory further south is unclear, and Turkey’s willingness to go along with any escalation of the Kurdish role also is dubious.

The central peace process attempted in 2015–16 is in tatters. Moderate groups are not currently strong enough to achieve any significant governing role through any plausible negotiation outcome (see table 34.1). Any willingness by Assad to defect as part of an integrated plan to produce a new power-sharing government is not in the cards, after the Russian intervention of late 2015 and the generally favorable battlefield trends for Assad’s forces since that time.

Table 34.1: Estimated personnel strength of key combatants in Syria civil war, as of August 2016

Combatant Estimated personnel strength
Syrian Government Armed Forces 130,000
Syrian Government Paramilitaries 150,000
Hezbollah 4,000 to 8,000
Russia 4,000
Iran/IRGC 2,000
ISIS 10,000 to 30,000
Al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or Front for the Conquest of the Levant) 5,000 to 10,000
Ansar al-Sham, other hardline/Islamist groups 20,000 to 50,000
Moderate groups in Free Syria Army/Syrian Democratic Forces 20,000 to 50,000
YPG (Kurdish Fighters 30,000 to 65,000
U.S. Forces on Ground in Syria 300 to 500
Other Coalition Forces on Ground 500 to 2,000
U.S. Airpower in Region engaged in Syria 2,500 to 10,000
Sources: International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2016 (Oxfordshire, England: Routledge, 2016), pp. 353-355; Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande, “Syrian Armed Opposition Powerbrokers,” Middle East Report No. 29 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of War, March 2016), available at; “Kurdish People’s Protection Unit YPG,”, 2016, available at; Andrew Tilghman, “Size of ISIS Force Declining in Iraq and Syria, According to New Intel,”, February 4, 2016, available at; James R. Clapper, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, February 9, 2016, available at; Jabhat Fatah al-Sham,” Mapping Militant Organizations,” Stanford University, Stanford, CA, August 2016, available at; Lina Sinjab, “Guide to the Syrian Rebels,” BBC News, December 13, 2013, available at

Counterintuitively, the only credible path forward may be a plan that in effect deconstructs Syria, at least in part for some amount of time. A comprehensive, national-level solution is too hard even to specify at this stage, much less achieve. Instead, the international community should work hard, and devote substantial resources, to create pockets of more viable security and governance within Syria over time. With initial footholds in place, the strategy could develop further in a type of “ink-spot” campaign that eventually sought to join the various local initiatives into a broader and more integrated effort. The ink spots would not be formal areas designated as official safe havens by the United States, NATO, or the United Nations. Rather, they would be zones like the current Kurdish regions in the north that the United States helped emerge as sanctuaries of sorts—and also as staging grounds for further development of opposition forces.

This strategy might produce only a partial success, liberating parts of the country and then settling into stalemate. It also might not initially help those pockets of opposition-controlled territory in or near cities like Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo that are largely encircled by pro-government forces. They might have to await a negotiated deal, based on concepts of confederation and protection of minority rights, to gain significant relief. Such a deal cannot be specified in detail now, and would have to be one that Syrians themselves negotiated. It could include mechanisms for helping people relocate to areas where they might feel safer, if desired. Ideally, however, it would also develop legal and security mechanisms to help them feel safe even in their current homes, while also allowing the displaced to return to wherever they wished.

Meanwhile, in the short term, even a partially successful strategy would have major benefits. It would help the United States and other outside powers protect several million Syrians who would no longer have to fear being overrun by Assad or ISIS, allow them to collectively attack and pressure ISIS from other locations than is possible today, reduce refugee flows, and send a clear message of U.S. engagement to regional partners.

Meanwhile, in the short term, even a partially successful strategy would have major benefits. It would help the United States and other outside powers protect several million Syrians who would no longer have to fear being overrun by Assad or ISIS, allow them to collectively attack and pressure ISIS from other locations than is possible today, reduce refugee flows, and send a clear message of U.S. engagement to regional partners.

Turkey could be expected to have serious misgivings about the strategy, given that it would envision greater Kurdish autonomy in a future Syria. The United States would have to address these concerns by underscoring to the Kurds that all American support—military material, airpower assistance, and future economic and development aid—would be contingent on Kurds respecting clear limitations on their future autonomy. Independence would be ruled out. Aid flows would depend on Kurds verifiably reining in any extremists who sought to support the PKK movement within Turkey itself. And Kurdish areas in Syria might need to be broken up into two state-like entities, rather than a single truly autonomous zone as in Iraq, to limit the potential for a self-governing single entity to develop aspirations for greater self-rule down the road.

REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah - Rebel fighters prepare their weapons in an artillery academy of Aleppo, Syria, August 6, 2016.
REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah - Rebel fighters prepare their weapons in an artillery academy of Aleppo, Syria, August 6, 2016.

Ideally, vetting of opposition fighters wishing U.S. training, equipment, and battlefield assistance would be relaxed under this approach. They would no longer be required to be untainted by any and all past tactical associations with extremists, and they would no longer be required to swear to fight only ISIS. To avoid American legal issues, the subject could simply not be raised the way it is now. The United States would not have to bless, or encourage, their aspirations for liberating Sunni-majority areas from Assad. But it could stop trying so proactively, and unrealistically, to squelch those ambitions. However, if President Trump opposes this part of the strategy, others parts could still be attempted.

This strategy would also include a new element of air campaign. Washington and allies would declare that any Syrian aircraft seen attacking helpless civilians (especially in the emergent safe areas) or American and allied troops on the ground would be subject to destruction at a subsequent time and place of U.S. choosing. This approach to a no-fly-zone would be easier and safer to conduct than classic no-fly-zone operations, with less risk of accidentally shooting down Russian aircraft in the process.

The ultimate end-game for these safe zones would not have to be determined in advance. The interim goal might be a confederal Syria, with several highly autonomous zones. One of those zones might be principally for Alawites, in the nation’s northwest. But none could be for ISIS, al-Nusra, or Assad and his inner circle. Minority rights would have to be protected in all zones. Key central cities—Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, perhaps Idlib—might even be divided in some cases between two different autonomous zones. Or, as one variant of the strategy, a new city or two could effectively be created in one of the Sunni zones, using external financial assistance (such financing would presumably not be offered by Washington to any area Assad still controlled, except in very limited amounts). Kurdish areas would probably have to be divided into two noncontinguous areas as well, as noted, to assuage Turkish worries that they could otherwise form the embryo of a future attempt at an independent Kurdish state within Syria. Indeed, Turkey could even deploy forces to the zone between the two Kurdish areas in any future peace enforcement operation.

A peace enforcement force would almost surely be needed to solidify any negotiated accord. It could be authorized by the United Nations and run by NATO, perhaps, but with strong participation by Muslim states from the broader region as well as South Asia and Southeast Asia. The American role could be focused on command and control, intelligence, logistics, airpower, and special forces/rapid-reaction capabilities and might number, at that stage, up to a few thousand personnel. That is roughly the number that could be needed to produce the conditions for peace in the shorter term, as well, under the contours of the strategy proposed here.

The confederal Syria that would emerge from this process would have a weak central government with a limited military force; most governance and most security would occur region by region or state by state, at least in Sunni and Kurdish areas. This approach, while not ideal for many elements of the opposition who surely seek more systematic revenge against Assad and his cronies, could nonetheless provide a workable basis for making common cause. It would, in fact, ultimately aim for an end to Assad’s rule over the nation as a whole (though not necessarily in Alawite or Christian areas). For these reasons, whether they fully endorsed it or not, America’s main regional allies in the effort—Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, other GCC countries—would likely find it welcome since it would move significantly in the direction they have advocated. Moreover, it would be more credible than previous American strategies, stated or implied, because its means would better match ends. And for those Syrians and others reluctant to give up on the notion of a future highly integrated and cohesive state, the weak confederation could be subject to reconsideration and constitutional revision at some date—say 10 to 20 years into the future—when peace had been robustly reestablished. In the short term, however, it is time to realize that Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together anytime soon, and insisting on such an outcome will only prolong the conflict.

The basic logic of this ink-spot and regional strategy is not radical. Nor is it original or unique to Syria. In effect, variants of it have guided western powers in Bosnia, as noted, in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and since 1993 in Somalia. The last case is particularly relevant. Somalia, while a site of tragedy for U.S. forces in 1993 followed by withdrawal and defeat in 1994, has wound up showing some signs of hopefulness. The Puntland and Somaliland in the north are largely self-governing and autonomous. Similar types of zones would be the interim goal for Syria as well.


The tragedy of Syria today does not require an invasion by tens of thousands of Western ground forces. But nor is it a situation that can be allowed somehow to burn out on its own.

The tragedy of Syria today does not require an invasion by tens of thousands of western ground forces. But nor is it a situation that can be allowed somehow to burn out on its own. Hoping for the latter outcome through some variant of a containment policy has been tried for five years. One need not condemn the logic, or the motives, of those who favored containment at an earlier time to recognize that empirically speaking, it has failed.

A confederal political model for the country’s future governance and organization of security forces should provide the vision for Syria and the objective toward which a new strategy seeks to move. That strategy should ideally include expanded military assistance of various types to key resistance elements, a more potent and expansive air campaign, and accelerated help to emergent safe areas in a sort of ink-spot strategy as conditions permit. Over time, the arrangement could be codified by negotiations and backed up by peacekeepers.

Together, these ideas provide the most realistic concepts for making major progress in defeating ISIS and ending the civil war in Syria. It will not be easy or quick to implement such a strategy. But it should bear considerable fruit in the first term of the next president, while limiting U.S. exposure and American risks along the way.

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  • Footnotes
    1. See, for example, Will McCants, “Why ISIS Really Wants to Conquer Baghdad,” Brookings blog, November 12, 2014,
    2. Charles Lister, “A Long Way from Success: Assessing the War on the Islamic State,” Perspectives on Terrorism 9, no. 4 (2015),
    3. Michele Flournoy and Richard Fontaine, “An Intensified Approach to Combatting the Islamic State,” Center for a New American Security, Washington, D.C., August 6, 2015,
    4. Edward P. Joseph and Michael E. O’Hanlon, “The Case for Soft Partition in Iraq,” Brookings Center for Middle East Policy Analysis Papers, June 1, 2007,